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Australian Politician Apologizes For Comparing Refugees to ‘Fleas’

The flap reflects a fierce debate in Australia over controversial refugee policies.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
australia-migrant-crop
australia-migrant-crop

An Australian politician apologized for comparing refugees and asylum seekers to fleas during a parliamentary hearing Monday. Liberal Senator David Fawcett made the remark while attending a hearing on the country’s resource-strained immigration and border department.

“I just do question the ethics of nitpicking when your particular group perhaps brought the fleas in the first place,” he said to Labor senators.

The remark was met not with rebuke, but chuckles, a “hear, hear,” and a “nicely put” from fellow Liberal senator Ian MacDonald.

An Australian politician apologized for comparing refugees and asylum seekers to fleas during a parliamentary hearing Monday. Liberal Senator David Fawcett made the remark while attending a hearing on the country’s resource-strained immigration and border department.

“I just do question the ethics of nitpicking when your particular group perhaps brought the fleas in the first place,” he said to Labor senators.

The remark was met not with rebuke, but chuckles, a “hear, hear,” and a “nicely put” from fellow Liberal senator Ian MacDonald.

Fawcett apologized for his remarks, saying they were misconstrued. “The metaphor was that if they were nitpicking they were responsible for the cause of that irritation,” he said. “It is certainly not intended to apply to people who are refugees,” he added.

Despite his apology, the incident sparked outrage across the country. “It is beyond belief that a Turnbull Government senator would ever refer to vulnerable people seeking asylum as fleas, and even worse, to have other Coalition senators laugh, cheer and eagerly agree,” Shadow Immigration Minister Shayne Neumann said, referring to prime minister and Liberal party leader Malcolm Turnbull.

Australia has drawn international condemnation for its controversial refugee policies, which includes turning back refugee on boats from its shores and holding asylum seekers in poorly-maintained processing facilities in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. One legal expert argued in Foreign Policy that Australia’s policies amounted to “a crime against humanity.”

“The government is determined to strip away every last shred of dignity and self-respect from people who have sought Australia’s protection,” Greens party Senator Nick McKim said after Fawcett’s remarks.

The Refugee Council of Australia published a report on Feb. 22 saying Australia’s punitive asylum approach is “harming thousands of people, damaging Australia’s international reputation and wasting billions that could be better spent looking after refugees when they flee.”

This may sound familiar for those following U.S. immigration and refugee policy. In fact, the heated debates in the United States and Australia are interlinked. During his first weeks in office, U.S. President Donald Trump chewed out Turnbull in what he reportedly said was his “worst call by far” over a dispute on refugees. Former U.S. President Barack Obama pledged to accept 1,250 refugees from Australia. Trump later tweeted he would “study this dumb deal.” The U.S. government is still reportedly studying the deal.

Photo credit: PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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