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Issue #1608      August 28, 2013

Asylum seekers: A national moral crisis

The Liberal Party’s $185 million regional deterrence framework includes a bizarre scheme to buy fishing boats that might be used to transport asylum seekers to Australia. The Liberals have not indicated how the boats would be identified from among the 750,000 Indonesia fishing boats.

(Photo: Richard Titelius)

Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison has admitted he has not yet discussed the regional deterrence arrangement with the governments of Indonesia, Malaysia or Sri Lanka.

The Rudd government sent seven asylum seeker families to Manus Island last week, including 12 children aged between 5 and 15 years of age. Unaccompanied children will also be sent there soon, and to Nauru.

Immigration Minister Tony Burke recently declared: “People will be sent to Manus Island when I am confident they will be safe and there is appropriate accommodation and services in place.”

However, the island has endemic rates of malaria, and eight months ago the government was warned that pregnant women and children under five years of age should not be sent there.

Asylum seekers are offered anti-malaria medication, but pregnant women are at risk of dying, suffering miscarriage or stillbirth, or bearing low birth-weight babies with an increased risk of neonatal death, if they take anti-malaria drugs. Children who take the drugs are at risk of kidney failure, allergy and psychiatric conditions.

Six women asylum seekers were recently moved from Manus Island after it became evident that they were pregnant, but three miscarried. The government moved women and children to the mainland in June and July, but the Department of Immigration has now confirmed that women and children are to be sent to Manus Island in the future.

Last week Sophie Peer, campaign director for refugee advocate group ChilOut, said: “We are appalled that this government is sending families and children to conditions that pose a health risk, are likely to cause mental harm and where there is not even a functioning hospital”.

Exhibiting disturbing evidence of invasion phobia, Burke replied defensively: “If I carved out children of a particular age it would take about a fortnight … before we saw boatloads of children being pushed across the Indian Ocean …”.

Trouble in the region

The prime minister of Papua New Guinea has admitted that he agreed to the PNG “solution” on the assumption that the flow of asylum seeker boats would soon cease.

However, the agreement is already under challenge in a PNG court, and is likely to collapse because the flow is continuing, and Manus Island will not be able to accommodate them.

The Australian government has agreed to provide assistance to PNG to resettle refugees, and $495 million for major works projects. However, civil disturbance is likely if asylum seeker detainees receive health and education services at the standard required under the UN Refugee Convention, which is better than local citizens receive.

Ten Iranian men are also on hunger strike on Christmas Island. They’re part of 69 people who left Indonesia by boat before the PNG scheme was announced, but reached Christmas Island afterwards. They now face the prospect of being detained in PNG and denied Australian citizenship.

On Nauru 30 asylum seekers who rioted against their indefinite detention face sentences of life imprisonment with hard labour and possibly solitary confinement under Nauruan law. Claims for refugee status are now being processed on the island, but in future no verified refugee will be entitled to Nauruan citizenship.

The Rudd government has agreed to pay $17 million for upgrading the local prison to the Nauru government, which recently prevented the local TV company from broadcasting concerns about a new asylum seeker arrangement with Australia.

Polarised positions

The conservative coalition led by Tony Abbott wants to deny permanent residency in Australia to 31,986 asylum seekers who have been waiting since last August to have their claims processed.

In the March quarter, court appeals raised the number of asylum seekers granted refugee status from 65.3 percent to more than 90 percent.

However, if elected the coalition wants to deny asylum seekers the right to appeal under the legal system, which has existed since Magna Carta.

The coalition would have all applications for asylum dealt with by a single case worker, and would penalise all asylum seekers who arrived without passports or identity papers. Those with verified refugee status would be denied permanent visas, and would receive only temporary visas.

Finally, the coalition wants all asylum seekers who are found to be genuine refugees to be forced to work for the dole indefinitely. The denial of normal paid employment would in effect create a new economic category of dole slavery.

A moral crisis

Australia is heading towards a federal election with both major parties adopting a morally bankrupt stand over the rights and treatment of asylum seekers. And they are leading many of the nation’s citizens along the same path.

Tony Burke said that the government can deal with asylum seekers who test the government’s resolve by continuing to arrive. But the vast majority of asylum seekers come to Australia to escape danger or persecution, not to test the government’s resolve.

Former Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull said last week: “All of the policies to deal with asylum seekers and people smugglers are harsh, cruel in fact. But the problem is the status quo is cruel. … You have to work out the least cruel, most effective, most efficient means of depriving the people smuggler of a product to sell”.

He’s right that the policies are cruel, but they’re not intended to be cruel in order to be kind. They’re just intended to win anti-asylum seeker votes; they won’t lead to a beneficial outcome for asylum seekers or the Australian public.

The solution lies in offering the asylum seekers a helping hand, and Malcolm Fraser’s recommendation for processing applications in transit countries is the right way to do it – simple, quick, humanitarian and economical.

Henry Gallagher, a student from a wealthy Sydney private high school has written an open letter to former students who are now federal MPs, including Tony Abbot, Barnaby Joyce and Bill Shorten, asking them to return to humanitarian values with regard to asylum seekers.

His letter reads: “… we see only allegiances to parties that trade human lives for political expediency, that choose the lowest common denominator to woo the populace, and that speak of economic problems rather than the dignity of the human person, especially the most vulnerable. … (The policies of the parties) lack moral courage and, in the light of our international obligations, may be illegal”.

Two weeks after Henry sent his letter, no replies had been received. But it is a hopeful sign that the Australian people will refuse to be led into a moral abyss by the two major parties.

But that’s not the end of the matter. Lawyers representing one asylum seeker sent to Manus Island have challenged the government’s decision in the Federal Court, and there is a strong possibility that the court will reject the government’s case.

And the movement of the Greens, the CPA, the asylum seeker advocacy groups will continue to fight for a just resolution to this crucial human rights struggle.

Next article – Oil and gas industry misinformation has sinister aim

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