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Issue #1625      February 5, 2014

Toxic regime provokes asylum seeker protests

Up to 500 asylum seekers are taking part in afternoon protests in the Oscar Compound of the immigration detention centre on Manus Island. The protests are expected to spread to other compounds as deprivation and what has been described as a “toxic regime” push detainees past the limits of their endurance.

Asylum seekers arrive in Nauru.

The federal government is doing its best to stop the public from hearing about the abuses, the self-harm, the indefinite detention of children and the separation of families. But enormous pressure is building within the system of asylum seeker interception and offshore processing, which has become even more oppressive following the launching of Operation Sovereign Borders last September.

Protesters want an end to their indefinite detention. The asylum seekers have been held for months with no guarantees regarding their long-term resettlement. When the UN released their damning report on conditions at the Nauru and Manus Island detention centres last November, investigators found that only one refugee protection claim had been processed in the previous 14 months on Nauru. None had been processed on Manus.

Not surprisingly, the report found extremely low morale among the asylum seekers. The hot, humid and cramped conditions were noted, as was the lack of privacy. Children do not go to school and some have been returned to Sri Lanka unaccompanied amid harrowing emotional scenes and despite protests from the security officer directed to put the children onto the plane.

Separation of parents from children is being used to force asylum seekers to return to their countries of origin. An Iranian man held on Christmas Island was told he would be separated from his pregnant wife who was due to give birth in two months time. “I have requested from the Immigration officers to discuss my situation, however, they keep telling me to go back home if you want to be next to your wife during the delivering of the baby,” he wrote.

In November, Pamela Curr of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre commented that “the hard-liners in the Immigration Department can do what they like. And family separation is a tool of choice … Under the old government it occurred but it was usually incompetence. Now it’s deliberate. They are separating families on the wharf at Christmas Island.”

A whistle-blower within Immigration says that there is now an official policy of pressurising asylum seekers to be repatriated. “So the message we are told to give them is to leave,” the source said. “We are deliberately intimidating them, we are told to tell them Nauru and Manus are full up and so their only and best option is to go home.”

People working in the system are worried about their complicity in a system that stands in defiance of international human rights conventions. “I wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, worried that one day we may have to face a royal commission and to answer for the conditions under which these people were treated and which we didn’t have the guts to challenge the government on,” a senior executive from one of the charities involved told The Sydney Morning Herald.

Former Liberal leader John Hewson has protested the callousness of the detention regime and former NSW treasurer, the ALP’s Michael Egan, has compared the humanitarian standards of Immigration Minister Scott Morrison unfavourably with those of Lord Sydney at the time of transportation of women convicts aboard the First Fleet.

Australia’s Human Rights Commission has protested the lack of cooperation from the government as it prepares for an inquiry into the issue of children in detention.

“I think I’d have to say over the last few months, we’ve had minimal cooperation in relation to the kinds of details that I need to know, particularly mental health, self-harm and the processes for those that are transferred,” Commission president Gillian Triggs told the ABC’s AM program. “In particular, we’d like to understand more about the mental health of these children. The instances of self-harm, how they’re being treated when they’re manifesting conditions of extreme anxiety.”

And then there’s the legal challenges facing the escalation of the war on the refugee rights. It turns out there is no agreement between the Australian and PNG governments to permanently resettle refugees in PNG. Leader of the PNG Opposition, Beldan Nemah, is proceeding with a constitutional challenge to the agreement that underpins the location of the camp on Manus Island. The current agreement is due to expire in July.

In the meantime, the rights of over 3,000 people to seek asylum are being systematically abused and Australia’s reputation as a bully boy is cemented with our neighbours in the region. The advantage gained by the Libs through political opportunism on the issue of boat arrivals is being preserved with a wall of secrecy. Dismantling this shameful and illegal apparatus is a burning question of solidarity for the labour movement and all people of good will.

Next article – Defending people’s milk in India

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