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Issue #1598      June 19, 2013

Cruel and dangerous “solutions”

Two recent events have highlighted the continuing trend by the two major Australian political parties to treat asylum seekers as undeserving of human rights. Last week a former Immigration Department employee claimed on national TV that while he was stationed on Christmas Island official instructions were received that after “screening” procedures had taken place, a minimum of 200 asylum seekers were to be involuntarily repatriated to Sri Lanka – by implication, regardless of whether they had genuine grounds to claim refugee status.

A World Refugee Day action was held in Perth on June 16, outside the Wesley Church. It was attended by about 200 people who later marched through the CBD with colourful banners and spirited chants calling for the humane processing of asylum seekers and the closure of the detention centres especially those offshore. There were speakers from the Asara community of Afghanistan, Tamil community and Palestinian community as well as Victoria Martin-Iverson and Senator Scott Ludlam.

The notoriously superficial screening interviews are said to be very short. If interviewees say they’re looking forward to a better standard of living in Australia they’re likely to be classified as an “economic refugee” and immediately repatriated by force.

It’s a callous and cynical exercise intended to collect extra votes from people who are frightened by the arrival of asylum seekers. It’s also a sell out of our obligations to humanity as a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention. Most Sri Lankan asylum seekers are Tamils, an ethnic group that has been subjected to persecution since the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka. Tamils who are repatriated will face imprisonment and possibly torture on their return.

A second significant event was the official reaction to the arrival and sinking of a boat near Christmas Island, which resulted in the death of at least 55 people. Border protection authorities have been severely criticised because of a delay in the commencement of search procedures, and because rescue vessels did not retrieve the bodies of the dead passengers.

When first sighted by an aircraft on Wednesday June 5 the vessel was 50 kilometres west of Christmas Island. No distress signal had been received, but the boat was stationary, a sure sign it was likely to be in difficulty.

A navy vessel arrived in the area early on the morning of Thursday June 6, but failed to locate the boat. Its submerged hull was only spotted the following afternoon by a plane. The Navy vessel sighted 13 bodies floating in the water, but the Border Protection Command issued orders for it to leave the area without retrieving the bodies, and to search for survivors elsewhere. By the time it returned only life jackets and pieces of timber were visible.

Tony Kevin, a former Australian ambassador and expert on issues concerning safety at sea, says the Border Protection Control Command had taken an excessive amount of time to send a rescue vessel. He commented:

“If they’d taken prompt interception or assistance action by a surface vessel on Wednesday afternoon, those 55 people would still be alive.”

Mr Kevin also noted that the Australian Maritime Safety Authority had not sent out a “Potential Assistance Needed” call until 10am on Friday morning.

The Liberal/National coalition has used the tragedy of the June 5th sinking to promote their policy of “turning the boats back”. When questioned about the diplomatic implications of this policy, Liberal leader Tony Abbott replied patronisingly that everything would be fine because a new coalition government would cultivate an excellent relationship with Indonesia, just as John Howard had done.

However, when the Indonesian ambassador indicated that returning the boats was not acceptable to his country, Michael Keenan, the coalition’s border protection spokesman abandoned diplomatic niceties, declaring arrogantly that Australia didn’t need a formal agreement with Indonesia to implement the policy.

For its part the government is still clinging to its “Malaysian solution”, and to the off-shore processing and mandatory detention policies, both of which have failed to deter asylum seekers from boarding frail boats in search of a better life. Another asylum seeker boat was intercepted on Sunday June 9 and it certainly won’t be the last.

Towards a humane policy

Faced with the prospect of persecution, imprisonment, torture or death in their home countries, people will inevitably seek refuge elsewhere. The risk of drowning at sea will never be an effective deterrent. Nor will the policies of repatriating asylum seekers against their will to Sri Lanka, sending others to offshore destinations and imposing mandatory detention.

As the chief of the Border Protection Command publicly advised the coalition last week, the policy of forcibly returning boats is fraught with the risk that in an act of desperation one or more of the occupants may try to sabotage the boat rather than return to Indonesia.

The other risk – the one that no one seems willing to discuss – is that such an action might result in hostilities between Australian and Indonesian armed forces.

Paris Aristotle, one of the government’s immigration advisers, has recommended that all the parliamentary parties should accept the transfer of asylum seekers to detention in Malaysia and Indonesia, after high level discussions with both those countries, and subject to reassurances about respecting the human rights of detainees.

That’s no solution. Neither country is a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention and both have a history of violating the human rights of detainees.

However, Mr Aristotle also recommended that the government should commit to “more places further up the line in Pakistan and Iran, before people have to depart and begin their journey.”

That’s recommendation is certainly a good one. There are also some indications that senior Liberals, including former opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull, are unhappy with the policy of turning back the boats. However, the fact remains that both the major parties are sticking to policies that are morally indefensible.

One commentator observed that if the 13 bodies seen in the water on June 6 had been Anglo-Saxon, no effort would have been spared to retrieve them. In defence, the government has said that Border Defence Command took a “tough decision” on the day, on the basis that locating survivors was more important.

The Navy’s work in searching for and rescuing survivors is certainly crucial, and is very difficult. However, the chances of finding survivors after the initial delay were virtually nil. The nagging suspicion remains that the delay in searching for the stricken boat, and the subsequent decision to abandon the bodies, reflects the government and coalition’s depiction of asylum seekers as criminal invaders, and almost as an inferior species.

And their combined propaganda has convinced many Australians that they’re right. That highly dangerous state of affairs should be borne in mind by every citizen that’s interested in making Australia a better place after the September elections.   

Next article – Public servant staff reductions announced in WA

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