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Issue #1584      March 6, 2013

Political thuggery – exploiting the plight of refugees

Scott Morrison – the Opposition spokesman on immigration – plumbed new depths of political opportunism last week with a slur on the reputation of all asylum seekers released into the community. Abbott’s shadow minister, who may well be in charge of such matters after the federal election on September 14, demanded that police and neighbouring residents should be notified when an asylum seeker moves into their district and that “terms and conditions” should be made clear to asylum seekers prior to their release from detention. This type of treatment is usually reserved for sex offenders released from prison. The insulting comparison would not be lost on intolerant sections of the electorate.

Scott Morrison, the Opposition spokesman on immigration and Tony Abbott, leader of the Opposition.

Morrison’s statements were made following reports of an alleged indecent assault by a Sri Lankan asylum seeker on a young woman at a university dorm in Sydney. The would-be immigration minister jumped on the news item, hoping to ride a wave of misconception that refugees are abusing the supposed generosity of their Australian hosts and, in general, failing to “fit in”. The cynicism of Mr Morrison’s politicking horrified many commentators. Some of his Coalition colleagues also found it distasteful. “This kind of vilification of asylum seekers is unacceptable in this nation,” Victorian Liberal backbencher Russell Broadbent said.

Columnists and bloggers had a field-day with the ignorance of Mr Morrison’s intervention. Some noted that, according to statistics kept on these matters, members of the general public are 45 times more likely to be charged with a crime than asylum seekers. A suggestion has been put that the addresses of Parliamentarians should be made known to residents living in their vicinity, given the proportionately high number currently under investigation for criminal acts.

Morrison has sought to massage his outrageous attack by saying better records of asylum seekers’ whereabouts ought to be kept so that they can more easily be connected with support services. This has all the sincerity of the claim that mandatory offshore detention is a compassionate response to the high numbers of desperate asylum seekers drowning at sea when the rickety boats they have boarded go down on route to Australia.

Unfortunately, politicians from both major parties are trying to exploit the misconceptions out there in the electorate – lies and distortions fan-forced by shock-jocks and poisonous email campaigns. Over the weekend, Murdoch’s Adelaide Advertiser published results of a survey of issues of concern to people in South Australia. “Assimilation of migrants” was a concern for 17.8 percent of just over 1,500 respondents. That’s significantly below the 72.2 percent worried about the cost of living and the 46.2 percent who believe employment is the most important issue at the federal election but the racist section of the community is loud and active at the moment. Party leaders clearly think they are worthy of a “dog whistle”.

Prime Minister Gillard got on board with a statement that self-harm and hunger strikes by asylum seekers will not improve their chances of being released into the community. “The only thing that happens for people in our asylum seeker facilities is that there is a proper assessment of whether or not they are genuine refugees,” the PM said last week. The Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIC) has released figures that about 90 percent of boat arrivals in the financial year 2011-12 were “genuine refugees”. It is also plain that very high numbers of these people are finding the conditions of their offshore detention intolerable.

The Department took three months to release incident reports about the first quarter of operation of the Nauru detention centre. Two men attempted suicide in detention on October 13. An estimated 260 out of the 377 people held on the remote island joined a hunger strike in November in protest at their conditions.

Gillard is playing to the xenophobic attitude that Australians are being played for suckers by asylum seekers. To her minor credit, she and her caucus colleagues have held back from labelling the asylum seekers “illegal immigrants” in the way the Opposition has. Differences in policy have closed dramatically in recent times but they still exist. An Abbott government holds the prospect of further hardening of official attitudes and even more serious violation of Australia’s undertakings to refugees under international conventions.   

Next article – Future Fund goes tobacco-free

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