Where has our humanity gone?…asks Shira Sebban

April 9, 2014 by Shira Sebban
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As an Australian Jew, I am ashamed by the treatment of asylum seekers in both Australia and Israel.

Shira Sebban

Shira Sebban

I watch bewildered as the two countries I love descend further in a harsh morass of immorality. Where has our humanity gone? Weren’t many of us, or our families, refugees once too?

On a trip to Israel in January, we found ourselves in the middle of a protest march in Tel Aviv, involving thousands of African asylum seekers. Sadly, as an Australian, their treatment is only too familiar to me, being reminiscent of what has been happening to asylum seekers who attempt to arrive by boat here – with one difference: Australia tends to lock up its boat people, who are not free to protest on the streets.

True, the Israeli government is now authorised to detain asylum seekers for up to a year without trial – it used to be three years until the Supreme Court intervened – in the remote Holot “Open” Detention Centre in the Negev. They can then be placed in indefinite detention until the State decides it’s safe to deport them.

Nevertheless, the Australian system is more severe still, with hapless boat people detained seemingly indefinitely in harsh conditions on the now infamous Manus Island or Nauru, with no hope of ever being settled here.

All officialdom seems to agree that such harsh treatment is necessary to deter further boat arrivals. Moreover, since December, boats have been turned or even towed back to Indonesia “when it is safe to do so”.  As a result, our government proudly proclaims that it is well on the way to achieving its popular promise to “stop the boats” all together, with the added advantage, it boasts, of having slashed the number of asylum seekers reaching Indonesia too.

Yet, as pointed out by Indonesian presidential advisor and former long-time foreign minister, Dr Hassan Wirajuda, “who can guarantee that next year they will not try again because the root causes, like conflicts, war, poverty, push people to migrate”?

Isn’t that why our families chose to leave their birthplace too? What about our grandparents or parents, who left Eastern Europe or North Africa, in quest of a better life elsewhere?

While Australia has now seemingly succeeded in blocking the arrival of boatloads of asylum seekers, the Netanyahu Government’s erection of the US$400 million fence on the Egyptian border in 2012 has practically ended the entry of African asylum seekers who, since 2006, had been making the often harrowing trek from war-torn, dictatorial, famine-ridden Eritrea and Sudan.

Everyone knows that Israel was founded by and for refugees and that Australia too has benefited tremendously from their contribution. True, by world standards, numbers of asylum seekers to both countries are now low: Israel is contending with about 55,000 African asylum seekers – less than one percent of Israel’s population – while in 2012-13, just over 24,000 asylum seekers arrived in Australia by boat.

Contrast this with the more than 45 million people worldwide – an 18-year high – forcibly displaced due to persecution, conflict, violence and human rights abuses, including more than 15 million internationally displaced refugees and close to a million asylum seekers.

Overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of it all, it can seem easier to bury our heads in the sand. But haven’t we been taught that to save a single life is as if we had saved the entire world?

The Australian government claims to be acting out of kindness: unseaworthy boats have to be stopped to prevent unscrupulous people smugglers from taking advantage of the desperate, luring them to their deaths. After all, the statistics are stark: more than 1000 people have perished at sea, while the lives of more than 6000 children have been put at risk.

Moreover, what about the 13,750 protection visas – down from 20,000 last year — on offer to those whose places under Australia’s humanitarian programs have been “usurped” by “self-selecting asylum seekers”, those so-called “queue jumpers”, who, or so the argument goes, are really “economic migrants” with enough money to buy a place via people smugglers?

The Australian government’s military “Operation Sovereign Borders” brands such “maritime arrivals” as “illegal”, just as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accuses African asylum seekers of being “illegal infiltrators looking for work” – despite the fact that the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, to which Australia and Israel are both signatories, clearly recognises the right to seek asylum from persecution no matter how you arrive (article 31).

Denied legal status, neither country allows those asylum seekers still able to live in the community, albeit provisionally, basic civil rights, such as the official right to work. Issued with only temporary visas and denied any chance of family reunion, a poverty-stricken underclass is being created under our eyes.

And yet, until now around 90 percent of boat people have ended up being recognised as refugees in Australia. In its latest cruel move, the government has now decided that refugees who arrive by boat will no longer be eligible for a visa. Meanwhile, in Israel, only 0.2 percent of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers have been granted refugee status, despite the fact that many more of their countrymen have been recognised as such elsewhere.

Being cruel to be kind? Or rather, out of sight, out of mind?

Of course we cannot expect every asylum seeker to end up in Israel, Australia, or another first world country. Moreover, one day, circumstances may even improve so they can return home. Meanwhile, however, there must be another option to indefinite prison or ultimate deportation for those requiring protection. Surely the ends never justify the means.

As Jews, we are constantly reminded not to mistreat strangers because we ourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt … and Poland … and Algeria … So why not work towards a humane resolution of this global crisis, which respects the inherent dignity of our fellow human beings and treats others as we would like to be treated ourselves?


Shira Sebban is a Sydney writer and editor with a background in journalism and publishing.


6 Responses to “Where has our humanity gone?…asks Shira Sebban”
  1. Gil Solomon says:

    The way liberals go on, if they had their way Israel will cease to be a Jewish nation but rather a nation with a lot of Jews.

    In relation to the specific influx of 60,000 Africans, these people were aided and abetted by Egypt to enter Israel illegally, knowing that once in, willing dupes and hostile NGOs could be counted on to support them to the detriment of this small nation. The Egyptian plan is working beyond Egypt’s wildest expectations.

    Having allowed these Africans and other illegals to enter the country is a mess Israel has created in its perpetual rush to show compassion to all and sundry. Unfortunately, in the case of the Africans this compassion seems to have taken precedence over the national good.
    As if Israel doesn’t have enough problems already, thanks to this invasion, parts of the country have turned into no go zones, with rampant crime day in day out.

    Apart from any genuine refugees who are seeking political asylum (a number that could be probably counted on one hand), all these people should be deported en masse, no ifs, no buts. In short, told to GET OUT.

    It appears that only in that foolish Jewish country called Israel do illegals seem to have the audacity to strike for extra pay and working conditions and demand to meet with the Prime Minister! The holding facility can only hold a few thousand, where they are clothed, receive a sum to buy food from the canteen, watch TV, have their medical needs attended to and where the front door is a revolving one where “inmates” can choose to leave or not! Talk about insanity.

    No other country in the western world would tolerate this nonsense for a day.

    And then along comes our usual do-gooder dupes criticising Israel of all countries for what it does.

    Jews on the whole seem to have been infected with some suicidal virus as we on the whole, are turning into the most confused pathetic people on the planet who seem to prioritise our survival last on any “to-do” list.

  2. My ancestors hung mezuzahs, and according to our traditional laws, strangers could seek shelter.
    Our laws proclaimed that to save one innocent man, we were obliged to not condemn numerous guilty.
    We held the moral high ground.

    Amongst the many boat people, if there is only one true refugee, are we not obliged to deal with them all in a respectful manner.

    There is more to maintaining our Jewishness than duvaning and keep Kosher. Hillel would not be proud of the way we treat and allow others to treat these people.
    EVEN if some of them are followers of their prophet Mohamed

  3. Otto Waldmann says:

    As an Australian Jew I do NOT agree with the arguments put forward by Ms Sheban.

    I believe that , when arguing issues which have legal connotations, such as attempts at entering Australia illegally, care and consideration must be paid to the impending legal framework overarching the issues.

    Excessively emotional expressions which do NOT reflect objective reality must be addressed as well. The often use expression “harsh conditions” in reference to the treatment and accommodation of illegal boat people is an offence to the manner in which the Australian Government treats those people.
    Norms of treatment are imperative to the way our country treats anyone. Australia is a highly civilised country and this is reflected also in the huge funds our country forks out precisely in the “treatment” of people who elect to break our laws.
    Extreme activism for any cause , such as the tenets of the piece by Ms Sheban, are based on diversion of reality, promotion of intentional misconceptions of “ethical values”, distortions of reality.
    To the same extent, the opinions expressed regarding Israel’s attitude toward illegal entries, detracts intentionally from other, ESSENTIAL considerations in the manner in which Israel sees it necessary to address this important issue.
    To Ms Sheban and her fellow travelers all that matter are the extrapolated aspects of a large picture and the conflation of aspects, most of which are farcical , anyway. This may be conducive to a fair mind considering either that the author of the misleading comments is either unaware of certain salient aspects in the comprehensive picture or we are faced with intentional distortions. Either case, the comments can only be deemed irrelevant and tendentious.

    Both, Australia and Israel, are discharging their obligations admirably !!!

    • Hear Hear Otto, Shira Sebban is in need of a rather large bib for all the dribble she wrote. No matter how many verifiable facts you give these people of the “media, editors” etc, they will always comeback with more deceit. One days it’s going to bite them on the bum and they won’t be able to sit down for years.

  4. I am totally in agreement with you in respect of the xenophobic illogical and callous approach that Australia has in respect of asylum seekers. This country needs population , has the space and needs the infrastructure. The money spent by asylum seekers to get on the boats should be accepted by the government as a deposit on visa applications prior to arrival and should be used to expedite processing of visas, for a fee. When and if visas are approved subject to conditions which suit the Australian requirements the balance should be returned to the asylum seekers to pay for their flights, it will give Australia an opportunity to create the infrastructure and satellite towns in much needed agricultural and rural areas, build dams and roads in preparation for these wretched people, and be as totally prepared as possible for their absorption under Australian conditions and not what they think they should be entitled to get, This was the case with the MIA, the hydro scheme and with most post WW2 immigration. Unfortunately we do not have politicians,on either side ,with a vision to a future Australia, only a vision for their tenure in office and appeasing the xenophobic ignorant voters of whom unfortunately many are either refugees themselves or their descendants.

    In respect of Israel I am unable to comment except to say that the situation is quite different, area wise, population wise and security wise, I am sure the Israeli Government is aware of its humanitarian and moral obligations and the reason for Israel’s existence, at least I hope so.

    • Australia may have the “space” but has no way to support more people as it is. It will not create infrastructure but put more pressure on the country as a whole from water, food, jobs, accommodation, Hospitals, schools the list goes on not to mention that most of these people are Muslim and unfortunately do not integrate with any other faith or lack of faith. It is a fact throughout Europe. Please don’t come back at me that I’m a bigot as I believe we all have the right to choose our religion…. in peace. These people don’t accept this.
      As for rural Australia, people are leaving country areas because of the lack of work available. You may feel that you have a vision for future Australia but reality is something you haven’t considered. As for Israel you were very wise not to make any comments as you would have been given such a large amount of factual information that they are doing more than any country in the world in regards to helping refugees etc.

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