Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Behind the Iranian Refugee Exodus 2

A media miracle of sorts has happened. The following opinion piece, by Sara Haghdoosti, executive director and founder of Berim* (pronounced in Farsi 'beh-rim', meaning 'let's go'), actually appeared in yesterday's Sydney Morning Herald!

It places a large part of the blame for the current spike in the number of Iranian asylum seekers attempting to reach these unwelcoming shores squarely where it belongs - on the shoulders of the Gillard/Rudd government which has happily joined forces with the US and its other western client regimes to impose economy-busting sanctions on their country over its nuclear program. The only issue I have with Haghdoosti's piece is its failure to spell out the only real beneficiary of these sanctions: Israel. Could this have been a condition of its publication, I wonder? (See also my 20/7/13 post Behind the Iranian Refugee Exodus.):

"What do the Australian Labor Party and Bart Simpson have in common? They use the same tactics when it comes to crisis management. Namely wreaking havoc, then turning around and crying: 'I didn't do it.' It's not the same sort of cry we heard last week from an Iranian refugee when she was captured on camera after hearing that she would be settled in Papua New Guinea and not Australia.

"You have to admit the Australian government gets full marks for chutzpah when it comes to dealing with asylum seekers. It takes some gall for Foreign Minister Bob Carr to be able to say: 'They're leaving their country because of the economic pressures - much of it produced, I guess, by the sanctions.' Really? Because there's no other reason why anyone would want to leave Iran? Because there aren't hundreds of political prisoners in jail? Because a young man didn't just die under interrogation for comments he wrote on a blog? Because Baha'i and the gay community aren't actively persecuted? Because the country doesn't have the second highest rate of incarceration in the world?

"Even if we put the Iranian government's human rights record aside - Bob Carr 'guesses' the reason is the sanctions? As though sanctions miraculously fell from the sky and are wholly unrelated to to him and anyone in government? When people try to escape famine do we call them 'economic refugees'? Of course not. In the case of Iran, our foreign policies are designed to cripple the economy and for the most part they are working. Inflation is sky high, unemployment is growing and the cost of food is rising daily. The Australian government is helping create poverty and then it is turning around and labelling people as politically oportunistic when they try to feed their families.

"Let us be clear: sanctions aren't benign - they're economic cluster bombs. They don't discriminate but often have a disproportionate effect on the most vulnerable. Want to stop Iranians getting on boats? We could start by not taking food off their tables and medicine off their shelves. Australia could use its new seat on the United Nations Security Council to highlight the fact that international sanctions are creating a medicine shortage in Iran. International sanctions don't apply to medicines directly but because they do apply to Iranian banks it has become virtually impossible to perform transactions that are legal because Western companies aren't willing to take the risk of dealing with Iranian banks. In Iran there are patients for whom a medicine is the difference between life and death. If parents put a child on a boat to Australia because they can't find medicine to keep their child alive are they considered economic refugees? Remember, these are ordinary Iranians who have no say in the country's nuclear policies. Their only crime is that they were born in Iran and their lives are at risk because of it. It's time we looked in the mirror. The Iranian government isn't the only one who who is persecuting the Iranian people - our government's sanctions are also doing it.

"In addition to the humanitarian argument, there is a geopolitical one to be made here. Iran is a country where more than half the people are under 30, well-educated, media-savvy and hungry for change. Instead of backing these young people, we are supporting policies that make it harder for them to campaign for change within Iran. Most of us have seen the power of technology - particularly smartphones and the internet in terms of political organising. For all politicians' claims that the sanctions don't impact people's ability to organise for reform, who can afford a smartphone when the price of food and medicine quadruples? Perhaps before abandoning our international obligations under the Refugee Convention, we could examine how we are contributing to the suffering that makes people flee in the first place. We can continue trying to shirk our international responsibilities with a bipartisan smile or we could recognise the power we have internationally and use it proactively. We could use our seat on the Security Council to highlight and help prevent the adverse humanitarian impact sanctions are having on Iran. We could set an example to the world by reassessing those policies ourselves.

"There is a generation that through the green movement has already proved that they have the potential to deliver change in Iran. If we can't help at least let's ensure that we're not doing active harm." (How can trying to feed a family be opportunistic?)

[*One of Berim's principles is that "any state-sponsored violence, be that economic or military, that punishes ordinary Iranians for the actions of their government is ethically and morally unacceptable." About Berim, berim.org)]

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