Refugees Unwelcome in Australia: Reading the Signs of a Humanitarian Crisis

Migrants arrive by boat from Turkey on the northeastern coast of Lesbos, Greece, Nov. 28, 2015. Australian immigration officials claim refugees are an illiterate drain on public resources, but every refugee brings a story we need to hear. (Photo: Sergey Ponomarev / The New York Times)Migrants arrive by boat from Turkey on the northeastern coast of Lesbos, Greece, November 28, 2015. Australian immigration officials claim refugees are an illiterate drain on public resources, but every refugee brings a story we need to hear. (Photo: Sergey Ponomarev / The New York Times)

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Australia has a problem with the refugees coming to its shores. These migrants, who have journeyed by boat hoping for safe passage through the guarded coastal border, might be fleeing war or persecution, but some officials worry about letting in the “wrong” kind of people. According to Australian immigration minister Peter Dutton, this island republic — founded long ago on occupied Aboriginal land as a penal colony to contain criminal exiles of the British empire — finds these refugees unfit for admission. Many of them, Dutton recently contended, wouldn’t be “numerate or literate in their own language, let alone English,” and meanwhile:

“These people would be taking Australian jobs, there’s no question about that. For many of them that would be unemployed, they would languish in unemployment queues and on Medicare…so there would be huge cost and there’s no sense in sugar-coating that.”

That unvarnished critique has since ricocheted around the global media, provoking disgust and ridicule. But who are these refugees, and does it even make sense to debate the supposed “costs” they would pose?

In fact, refugees tend to be a fairly educated bunch — one needs some smarts to traverse hell and high water to resettle in a new country. Moreover, many refugees might be fleeing situations in which they were targeted precisely for their educational and social status. Perhaps they had applied their critical thinking skills to challenge authoritarianism and champion democracy, or were talented artists who defended free expression against state censorship. In…

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