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Issue #1636      April 30, 2014

UN says Australia breaching Refugee Convention

In the wake of the recent attacks on asylum seekers held on Manus Island, United Nations representatives have expressed opposition to the Abbott government’s policy of resettling asylum seekers in Papua New Guinea. They have also stated that forcing boats back to Indonesia is in breach of the UN Refugee Convention, and that all asylum seekers who reach Australian waters should be processed in mainland centres.

More than 1,000 children are being held indefinitely in Australian detention centres, and the children of asylum seekers described by ASIO as a security risk are in effect detained for life under present conditions.

Their criticism is well justified. Last November one security guard at Manus Island emailed his colleagues that the detention centre was “a tinderbox ready to ignite”.

Subsequent actions inflamed the situation. Detainees were forbidden to meet the local people, which fostered mistrust and suspicion on both sides. They were also forbidden to grow their own vegetables, and were banned from using brooms, which authorities thought might be used as weapons. Their view of the ocean was curtained off to prevent the media from taking pictures.

On February 16 detainees were advised they would only be accepted for resettlement by Papua New Guinea, and never by Australia. In near hysteria some rushed the camp gates, but were confronted by armed PNG guards who pursued them back into the compound and began a violent physical attack, which only ceased after an Australian guard intervened.

On February 17 local police and vigilantes broke into the compound and commenced a brutal armed attack that left one asylum seeker dead and 62 injured. There was virtually no radio communication, and the lighting was cut off. The lack of official control engendered panic among the detainees and frenzy among the guards and vigilantes.

Last week new video evidence showed that firearms were discharged at waist height, (not into the air as the government claimed), the site of the murder of 23 year old Iranian detainee Reza Barati was not cordoned off afterwards, and the murder weapon was immediately removed.

Making your own rules

Despite the UN representatives’ position, the government now wants to resettle asylum seekers in Cambodia, one of the world’s poorest countries. The Minister for Immigration, Scott Morrison, said the critical issue is about “providing temporary safe haven” for asylum seekers.

However, he has now admitted that this “may be difficult”. Moreover, Volker Turk, UNHCR director of international protection, reminded him that the Convention is not just concerned with safety, but also with fundamental human rights, and that it requires signatory states to ensure freedom of movement, education, access to health care and labour rights for refugees.

Morrison has argued that signatories to the Refugee Convention should have more say in defining their obligations under it – in short, that the Abbott government should be entitled to do whatever it sees fit.

Mr Turk replied that the Convention requires implementation of “fundamental principles of a standard of treatment that is adequate and dignified to the human being”, and that “this makes more sense because you need an organ that is the voice of reason above the fray of domestic politics.”

Hovering on the edge

Stung by the criticism, Morrison asserted belligerently that “We are a sovereign body and we will protect our borders.” No one has suggested otherwise, but if the Australian government can do what it wants, so can the United Nations. And it would be entirely possible for the UN to formally declare Australia in breach of the Convention and remove it from the list of signatories.

That would place Australia among the ranks of the pariah nations that systematically abuse human rights, and would turn public opinion against the current immigration policies.

The government is determined to hang on to power in order to protect the interests of the dominant sectors of big business. Accordingly, it has victimised asylum seekers in order to gain the support of redneck voters, and has simultaneously sought to appease widespread public concern about the plight of the asylum seekers, by claiming it has a deep concern for their safety.

The hypocrisy of this position has been highlighted by the government’s attitude to a proposed addition to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Australia is a signatory to that Convention. The proposed additional clause, known as the Third Optional, would allow anyone under 18 years of age to bring a complaint of violation of their human rights to the United Nations. So far, the Third Optional has been endorsed by ten nations, and another 45 have promised their support.

But the Abbott government refuses to do so, because more than 1,000 children are being held indefinitely in Australian detention centres, and the children of asylum seekers described by ASIO as a security risk are in effect detained for life under present conditions. That would provide ample grounds for a case to be brought against the government. However, that could only happen if the Abbott government signed the additional clause, and there’s no way it’s going to.

The government might also be vulnerable if charges of abuse of human rights were brought against it in the International Criminal Court.

Human rights advocate Ben Pynt says UN officials who recently interviewed him “were aghast that Australia has institutionalised mental torture on a massive scale, and facilitates the abuse of asylum seekers by sending them to places with inadequate medical facilities and an unacceptable risk of contracting malaria, dengue fever, cholera or infectious diarrhoea. They can’t believe we do this to pregnant women and newborn babies. But we do.”

There is growing opposition to current immigration policies within the Labor and coalition ranks. Last week Ian MacPhee, former coalition Minister for Immigration, stated: “I feel ashamed, really ashamed, at the way in which the major Australian political parties have behaved on the refugee issue. It denies all the principles that underlie Australia’s sense of a fair go.”

Former Labor minister Chris Evans commented: “The thing that most frightened me … was the way people sought to demonise or vilify those seeking refuge in our country.”

It’s unlikely that the current immigration policies are about to be dumped by the two major parties. But what’s absolutely certain is that it can’t happen too soon.

Next article – Which side are they on?

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