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Issue #1623      January 22, 2014

Asylum seeker struggle enters dangerous phase

Over the last six weeks a number of highly disturbing developments have taken place, which threaten the lives and hopes of asylum seekers, have severely damaged Australia’s relations with its nearest neighbour, Indonesia, and now carry the risk of military confrontation with that country.

On December 13 an asylum seeker boat was intercepted near Ashmore Reef by the Australian Navy and forced out of Australian territorial waters, after the passengers had been given communications equipment and supplies. Out of fuel, on December 19 it ran aground on the coast of an Indonesian island. The crew and passengers were rescued by local villagers.

Reports immediately surfaced that the Navy had actually escorted the boat into Indonesian waters, in violation of that nation’s sovereignty. On Boxing Day another boat was forced back, once again into Indonesian waters according to unofficial reports.

On December 28 Immigration Minister Scott Morrison failed to appear for his weekly media briefing, which was expected to deal with the “turn-back” incident of December 13. These events had provided a very thin trickle of official information on the asylum seeker issue. However, Morrison then ceased the briefings altogether, and just produced a weekly printed news bulletin.

On January 1 another asylum seeker boat was intercepted by the Navy near Darwin and forced back to Indonesia. The passengers claimed they were mistreated by Navy personnel during the process.

On January 8 Morrison declared: “It is not the policy or practice of the Australian government to violate Indonesian territorial sovereignty. Any suggestion to the contrary is false.”

However, the very next day he was forced to admit that the Navy had actually entered Indonesian waters on several occasions. He then stated this was contrary to the government’s intentions and those responsible would be dealt with. In short, he blamed the Navy for carrying out his own policy.

On January 10 the government indicated that the Australian Army’s General Hurley had reached an understanding with his Indonesian counterpart General Moeldoko, under which Indonesia would accept the “turn-back’ policy.

However, General Moeldoko and the Indonesian government hotly denied this immediately. They pointed out, quite reasonably, that equipping and refuelling an asylum seeker boat and then forcing it into another nation’s territorial waters is, in effect, people smuggling.

On January 12 the news broke that the government had used a lifeboat to force 56 asylum seekers back to Indonesia, after the Navy intercepted their wooden fishing vessel near Christmas Island. Aware of the turn-back policy, some of the passengers caused the leaking boat to flounder. The Navy rescued them and transferred them to a customs vessel, which took them to a point within sight of Christmas Island.

They were then told they had to board the lifeboat in order to be ferried to the island. However, when they had done so they were taken close to the Indonesian coast and advised they had to return to Indonesia, because they only had enough fuel to get there, and not enough to reach Australia.

A customs officer then threw them a four-language booklet which told them that anyone who captained the boat and tried to reach Australia would be prosecuted and imprisoned.

The price of opportunism

Reports have now surfaced that the Australian Navy fired shots into the air in order to force at least one asylum seeker boat to return to Indonesia. On January 19 it was also revealed that Navy personnel had been stripped of normal workplace safety protection and obligations. That is normally only done when the country is on a war footing.

That initiative removes the obligation of Navy personnel to defend themselves publicly against accusations of abusing asylum seekers. As General Hurley stated, Navy personnel would “not face individual criminal sanctions under the Act for giving effect to government policy.” It would also help minimise public scrutiny of the policy.

Secondly, although we’re obviously not at war, the Australian Navy may well find itself in military action as a result of border incursions. Last week the Indonesian government demanded an end to the turn-back policy and warned it intended to use a frigate to patrol its coastal waters.

Their anger is well justified. The “turn-back” initiatives actions followed hard on the heels of revelations that Australia spied on the Indonesian government, and even tapped the private phone calls of President Yudhoyono and his wife.

On receiving news of the lifeboat escapade Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa commented icily: “It’s one thing to turn back the actual boats on which they have been travelling, but another issue when they are transferred onto another boat and facilitated and told to go in that direction”.

The Abbott government’s implementation of its asylum seeker policies has been characterised by deception, lies, bullying, cowardice and recklessness. The worst aspects of the Howard government’s failed policies have now been replicated under the Abbott regime, together with a horribly augmented “Pacific solution”, cruel temporary visa arrangements, and a failure to process applications for asylum.

Asylum seeker detention centres in Manus Island and Nauru are now grossly overcrowded and lack adequate sanitation or equipment. As a result mental breakdowns, suicide attempts, lips sewn together in protest, and riots are becoming commonplace. Yet mainland detention centres are being closed down.

The UN has warned that Australia may be declared in breach of the International Refugee Convention, to which it is a signatory, because of the “turn-back” policy, The Abbott government seems to expect Indonesia to accept the policy meekly. It certainly won’t. However, it might adopt the policy itself, which offers the horrifying prospect of asylum seekers being “batted” back and forth across Torres Strait, or else just abandoned to die at sea.

Those appalling possibilities, and the growing chance of military conflict with our nearest neighbour, are two very good reasons why we should oppose the Abbott government’s appalling asylum seeker policies. And there are lots of others.

Next article – Perth rally to save Medicare

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