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Issue #1591      May 1, 2013

Two biggest parties stick to cruel asylum seeker policies

Twenty-seven asylum seekers in Melbourne’s Broadmeadows detention centre have ended a ten day hunger strike after finally having been given official reasons for their indefinite detention.

The men belong to a group of 55 men, women and children, who have been held captive in detention centres for up to four years. They include people from Iran and Myanmar (formerly Burma), but most are Sri Lankan Tamils.

The reasons given for their detention are that they allegedly took part in terrorist actions, forged documents or engaged in people smuggling. These allegations, which have not been publicly substantiated, were made against them by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), and were almost certainly based on information from the Sri Lankan government, which classifies former Tamil Tiger members and supporters as terrorists.

ASIO has now classified the indefinitely detained Sri Lankan asylum seekers as “a threat to national security”, yet they have not been proven to be former Tamil Tigers, nor has any Australian government ever classified the Tamil Tigers as terrorists. The asylum seekers are denied access to the confidential ASIO documents which prompted the allegations. No criminal charges have ever been laid against them in Australia, and their continued detention has never been tried in a court of law.

Australia is a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, under which the government cannot forcibly return them to Sri Lanka because they would be at risk of persecution. However, no other country will accept them now, because of the adverse security assessments. As a result, they are trapped in a “legal black hole”, under an undeclared sentence of life imprisonment.

They are entitled to request a review of their cases by former Federal Court judge Margaret Stone, who has now provided them with summaries of ASIO’s allegations. However, her findings are not binding on the government, nor will ASIO be obliged to modify its conclusions.

Human rights advocate Jane Dixon asked: “If [ASIO has] reliable evidence of connection to a terrorist organisation why wouldn’t they be charging them and putting them up before a court?”

Meanwhile the Australian government has forcibly returned more than 100 asylum seekers to Sri Lanka, on the pretext that they arrived for economic reasons, rather than seeking safety.

To justify this stance, the government has bypassed the normal refugee status determination procedure and resorted to a “screening” process during which applicants are simply interviewed regarding their motives. If they say they expect to benefit economically from living in Australia (a reasonable assumption) they are likely to be classified as “economic” refugees, i.e. not in danger of persecution.

New developments

The Canadian government is now considering boycotting the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Colombo unless the Sri Lankan government launches an investigation into alleged war crimes carried out by its military forces.

There is now widespread evidence that the Sri Lankan government is subjecting the Tamil community to a brutal terror campaign, using the pretext that some had been members of the Tamil Tigers, or had assisted them.

Last week ABC TV showed horrifying footage of several huge scars on an asylum seeker’s back, resulting from his torture with red-hot iron rods by unidentified government agents, who stalk Tamils in Sri Lankan streets in unmarked white vans.

Former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser has declared that the Australian government should withdraw from the Colombo meeting in protest at the persecution of Tamils.

Last week in another astonishing new development, mining magnate Clive Palmer announced he was forming a new party, with a policy that asylum seekers in other countries who wish to apply for asylum in Australia should be given the opportunity to do so, after which they would then be flown here for on-shore processing of their applications.

Similar policies were previously advocated in The Guardian (#1552, 20.6.2012, and #1556, 18.7.2012).

Palmer may want the asylum seekers as a source of labour for his mines. On the other hand, if they could work there by their own choice, under union leadership, and with full rights, wages and conditions, why not?

Palmer has justified his recommendation on economic grounds. He’s right. Mandatory detention maximises the number of asylum seekers detained, and off-shore processing vastly increases the average cost of detaining them.

The Fairfax media has revealed that some of the costs incurred for running Australia’s detention centres, by private prison company Serco, implementing the off-shore processing policy, including passenger flights, construction costs, staff accommodation, facilities rental and landing charges, came to more than $2 billion. The policies might be a disaster for the asylum seekers, but they’re certainly good for business.

However, the primary justification for releasing asylum seekers is humanitarian. Indefinite incarceration is a horrible torment, especially for people who have taken terrible risks to escape persecution and live in peace in a new land.

Taking the right track

Despite previous rejections, the Gillard government is still trying to persuade other nations to accept regional processing centres within their boundaries. At the same time, it has refused to release the indefinite detainees, even under strict control orders.

However, if the government’s policy is bad, the position taken by the Liberal/National coalition is positively evil. They are still raving about stopping the boats. Tony Abbott still claims he will “turn the boats around” despite warnings that this would constitute an act of piracy. The Liberals recently had a billboard declaring “Stop the illegals” erected in Perth. Almost immediately it was covered with graffiti replying “It’s not illegal to seek asylum”.

The opposition shadow Attorney-General snarled that the indefinitely detained group of asylum seekers “had no one to blame but themselves”, and that under their policies ASIO decisions would not be reviewed. In effect, the asylum seekers would be held captive until their death.

These terrible policies will be taken to the September elections by the two biggest parties. However, University of Sydney specialist in international law Ben Saul is taking a case against indefinite detention to the United Nations. A victory in that case, combined with great public pressure, offers the best hope for finally implementing a rational and humane asylum seeker policy.   

Next article – NSW ports sale – other assets at risk

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