Issue #1564 12 September 2012
New off-shore “Pacific solution” an immediate failure
On August 29 a boat carrying approximately 150 asylum seekers sank in the Sunda Strait en route to Christmas Island. Forty-five people were rescued, but approximately 100 died.
That terrible tragedy sank the Gillard government’s claims that its new policy of mandatory indefinite off-shore detention would discourage asylum seekers from boarding leaky boats and dying at sea.
The policy, under which asylum seekers arriving by boat would be detained in Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island, was barely two weeks old.
The government refuses to admit to failure, even though other voyages were also undertaken by asylum seekers after the policy was initiated. In one case asylum seekers rescued by a passing freighter expressed extreme distress when told they were headed for Singapore. The captain then decided to take them to Christmas Island instead.
The Gillard government subsequently declared that the asylum seekers had forced the captain to change course, despite his statement that they had made no threats against the ship, and that his decision was based on a concern for their well-being.
A callous and cynical policy, doomed to fail
The Gillard government will launch a campaign of advertisements advising asylum seekers in Indonesia that there will be “no advantage” in boarding a boat, because even if they survive the trip they will be detained in Nauru or Manus Island for as long as they would have stayed awaiting resettlement in Indonesia.
However, neither the advertisements nor the policy itself will prevent deaths at sea.
Firstly, it’s a waste of time telling asylum seekers they’ll be no better off in an Australian-run detention centre. Human beings retain hope in the least promising circumstances. There will always be some asylum seekers who will take terrible risks in the search for a peaceful and productive new life.
The advertisements’ warning that family reunions will not be allowed for individuals who take boat voyages will ensure that entire families now take the risk.
Death at sea is not the only risk they face. Those forcibly returned to Indonesia can expect beatings, jail sentences and demands for payment to secure their release. That is a further motivation to undertake boat voyages.
Moreover, despite our appalling treatment of asylum seekers, Australia is widely known as a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, which obliges us to treat asylum seekers humanely, and to consider applications for asylum fairly and with respect.
Australia is also known as a wealthy developed nation which provides education for children and which has already offered hundreds of thousands of former asylum seekers asylum and a new life,.
Secondly, there is a limit to the tolerance of the public for a policy that relies on cruelty in order to deter people from coming here. Last week leaders of the Catholic and Anglican churches issued a joint statement expressing deep concern about the mandatory indefinite detention policy.
Thirdly, aspects of the policy conflict with the interests of the nations on whom its implementation depends. Last week the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea, Peter O’Neill, stated bluntly that he wanted applications for asylum from Manus Island detainees to be processed “as quickly as possible”.
That contradicts the Gillard government’s avowed intention to detain asylum seekers in offshore centres for as long as they would have to wait for resettlement if they had stayed in the transit countries. The current anticipated detention time for asylum seekers in Indonesia is about 75 years! Having thousands of detainees eventually die of old age in captivity is doubtless not what the PNG government had in mind for Manus Island.
A memorandum of understanding between the two countries contains vague reassurances that Manus Island detainees “will have left within as short a time as is reasonably necessary for implementation of this MOU.” Nevertheless, indefinite detention remains as the essence of the new policy.
The memorandum of understanding between Australia and Nauru discusses the processing of asylum applications in terms of “the need to ensure as far as possible that no benefit is gained through circumventing regular migration arrangements.”
The new policy conflicts with aspects of Australia’s foreign policy, regarding not only human rights but also national defence and security.
Australia has already sought the cooperation of the Sri Lankan government to prevent the exodus of the long-persecuted Tamil minority, who almost as a matter of course are treated by that government as former members of the Tamil Tiger separatists.
ASIO appears to have accepted at face value Sri Lankan security reports on many Tamils who have sought asylum here. As a result Tamils form a large component of the group of approximately 50 asylum seekers detained indefinitely because of secret adverse ASIO reports.
Their cases cannot be contested, so they are likely to remain in detention indefinitely. With no trial they have, in effect, been sentenced to life imprisonment, for an alleged crime that has not been disclosed, and for which the government will not release the evidence.
The Australian and Indonesian governments are discussing an agreement to jointly search for and rescue asylum seekers. That is very welcome, but the Australian government’s underlying motive is to gain Indonesian agreement for the infamous “turn back the boats” tactic.
A preliminary tacit agreement appears to have been reached. Indonesia has said it opposes “ship to ship” transfers of asylum seekers in order to return them to Indonesia. However, the asylum seekers rescued on August 29 were forcibly returned to the Indonesian port of Merak.
In order to gain agreement the Australian government has offered Indonesia training and funding for so-called ”anti-terrorism” operations, even though the likely beneficiary is Densus 88, the police paramilitary unit responsible for the brutal suppression of the movement for independence in West Papua.
Australia’s two major parties are united in their determination to enforce offshore detention. Defeat of the government’s cruel, cynical and politically opportunist asylum seeker policy will require enormous effort and money. But it can and must be done, If we don’t, Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers may become a national disgrace equivalent in scale to that of the stolen generation.
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