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Issue #1596      June 5, 2013

The competition to punish asylum seekers

The behaviour of the federal government and opposition towards asylum seekers is beginning to verify the sardonic Broadway musical song “There’s always one step further down you can go”.

Last August the Gillard government claimed its new “no advantage” policy would ensure that asylum seekers who arrived by boat would not have their applications for asylum processed more quickly than if they had remained in a transit country awaiting a humanitarian visa.

This is in effect a recipe for discrimination against those who arrive by boat, because there’s no way of accurately predicting how long it would take to receive a visa in those conditions. The government’s current “estimate” is up to five years, but the period is actually indefinite. Moreover, the government seems to be making good on its “no advantage” threat, because not one of the 19,760 people who have arrived since the policy was introduced has had their application examined yet.

Under the policy, those arriving by boat were to be detained on off-shore centres on Nauru and Manus Island, but this has proved impossible because of the numbers involved and the logistical difficulties of preparing the necessary facilities. As a result, the majority of the no-advantage detainees are being moved to mainland detention centres.

The government has released 16,477 detainees on bridging visas since October, for reasons of economy. However, in a particularly cruel and stupid twist the government has decreed that no-advantage detainees released on bridging visas (7,256 since October) are prohibited from working.

Instead, they are to receive an astonishingly miserly allowance of 89 percent of the Newstart payment, or approximately $220 per week, and as a result are now having to rely on charities for basic food and accommodation. As examples, social workers have reported a seven-month pregnant asylum seeker found sleeping on a concrete floor, and a couple living in a garage with no toilet.

However, the charities are unable to meet the demands already placed on them, not least because of the government policy of transferring single mothers from the Parenting Allowance onto the Newstart pittance.

Moreover, the number of arrivals has vastly exceeded the number predicted by the government. The anticipated number of arrivals for the 2012/2013 financial year was 5,400, but the number that arrived between July last year and May this year actually reached 22,500. The policy has made no difference whatsoever to the number boarding the boats.

ASIO in retreat

The Gillard government’s policies have forced one group of asylum seekers to remain in indefinite detention, i.e. in effect under a sentence of life imprisonment, as a result of secret security assessments by the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO). After widespread criticism the government has now allowed asylum seekers to appeal against ASIO’s assessments, under a review process headed by Justice Margaret Stone.

But before the review process has even started, ASIO has reversed a previous finding that an asylum seeker and her six-year old son were terrorists. Ian Rintoul, spokesperson for the Refugee Action Coalition, commented:

“ASIO has systematically refused repeated requests to make reassessments of any of its adverse findings against refugees … [unless] … requested by the Immigration Department.

“… It is now beholden on ASIO to reveal what has changed that Manokalo is no longer a risk, or was their assessment wrong 18 months ago. … Manokalo and her son have been detained for 18 months for nothing. It has been heart-breaking for her; it has been heart-breaking watching her struggling to cope with the injustice inflicted on her and her son.

“ASIO’s reversal has thrown more doubt on the validity of assessments of all the ASIO negative assessments. This is exactly what happened when things got too hot for ASIO in 2006. That year ASIO suddenly reversed its assessment of Mohammed Faisal who had been detained on Nauru for five years.

“There now needs to be an independent assessment of ASIO and its procedures to make these reviews in the first place. The government needs to move urgently to establish equal rights for refugees to review ASIO assessments.”

Crushing the vulnerable

A BBC journalist recently asked a Syrian woman who has been forced to flee with her children how she felt about having been forced to work as a prostitute in Jordan. She replied: “How would you feel about your child having no food or water? When you answer my question I will answer yours.”

Many asylum seekers have found themselves in situations more appalling than most Australians are ever likely to face. Nevertheless, both the government and the opposition continue to treat them as criminals, and to frame immigration policies as instruments of punishment for asylum seekers who arrive without notice and without immigration documents.

The Liberal/National coalition has now confirmed its position of “turning the boats back”, a policy whose effect has been described as equivalent to piracy, and has also said that if the coalition was elected to government in September, ASIO’s findings would no longer be subject to review.

The government’s policy of forbidding “no advantage” detainees from working is a violation of the UN Human Rights Convention, framed by former Labor Party leader Herbert “Doc” Evatt. However, the coalition has now indicated it would introduce an even more vindictive policy under which “no advantage” detainees would have to work in order to gain the pitifully small government allowance.

The effect of the government’s no-advantage policy is to create a social class, currently numbering about 100 people, who are forced to live in extreme poverty. However, the effect of the coalition’s policy would be to impose a system of slavery on those people.

That terrible prospect is a logical outcome of the Liberals’ ideological commitment to minimise workers’ wages in order to maximise the profits of their employers. On past performance the Labor government is also likely to adopt this policy, as it has with regard to other conservative policies so often in the recent past.

People are seeking asylum here and elsewhere because of terrible overseas wars or oppressions, in many of which Australia is either directly involved or at least has a vested interest. Yet the attitude of both parties is to punish the asylum seekers for having dared to seek asylum here, in order to discourage others from doing so.

Where is the end to this mad competition between the major parties? Hopefully, the September poll will result in the election of left and progressive candidates, and their influence combined with public pressure will at last result in the introduction of more humane asylum seeker policies.

They’d better, because the current policies are beginning to carry the unmistakable whiff of neo-fascism.   

Next article – Stop the income management trials!

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