PM in Hot Water for Calling Asylum Seekers ‘Illegal’

Michelle Grattan, The Age (Melbourne), October 22, 2009

TIM Costello has challenged Kevin Rudd over calling the influx of asylum seekers “illegal” immigration and reminded him that some people smugglers in the past have been viewed as heroes.

As debate flared over the Prime Minister’s language, Mr Costello, chief executive of World Vision, said Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the theologian Mr Rudd much admires, spoke up for Jewish refugees and helped smuggle some of them out of Nazi Germany into Switzerland. “This is why he was charged and sent to prison.”

Mr Rudd wrote in 2006, praising Bonhoeffer as the man he admired most from the 20th century, that “the parable of the good Samaritan is but one of many which deal with the matter of how we should respond to a vulnerable stranger in our midst”.

Uniting Church president Alistair Macrae said in a letter written to both political parties that “it is not a matter of national security that people come to Australia seeking protection as refugees”, and he pointed out that “everyone has a right under international law to seek asylum”.

Mr Costello said that “refugees have a right to come and calling them illegals isn’t right. They are irregulars.”

Mr Rudd has referred to “illegal” immigration, and Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull to “illegal arrivals”.

The Prime Minister’s use of the term “illegal” was challenged this week by Victorian Labor backbencher Michael Danby.

Immigration Minister Chris Evans yesterday dismissed the criticism, saying that Mr Rudd was sending a message nationally and internationally “that we’re very committed on border security”.

Mr Costello warned against getting back to the “ugly language” of the Howard years.

Mr Rudd has referred to people smugglers as “vile” and “vermin”.

Mr Costello said: “When we talk about smugglers, many of us think about The Sound of Music [in which the von Trapp family was smuggled out of occupied Austria] and Schindler and a whole heap of people who were smugglers.”

Australians had a “sea phobia”, Mr Costello said; people arriving by plane didn’t stir such feelings.

Mr Costello said that Indonesia, a poor country, had a huge number of refugees. “It causes concern in the region when countries there are asked to solve our domestic political problem in the face of their having to cope with huge numbers of refugees in camps”.

Despite Mr Turnbull’s reference to “illegal” arrivals, the Opposition spokeswoman Sharman Stone said the correct term was “unauthorised arrivals”. The terminology Mr Rudd was using “is deliberately to meet the anxieties of the right wing in his party”, she said. “It is not about illegals . . . other than if you are talking about the smugglers.”

Greens spokeswoman for immigration Sarah Hanson-Young said Mr Rudd and Mr Turnbull were doing a disservice by calling asylum seekers illegal. “As a career diplomat, Mr Rudd knows very well the importance of the words he uses. He also knows there is only one reason to use this sort of language–to deliberately inflame public debate.”

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