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Issue #1638      May 14, 2014

Asylum seeker policy:

A tangled web of deceit

Two weeks ago Prime Minister Tony Abbott cancelled a visit to Indonesia, immediately after the Australian Navy intercepted a fishing boat carrying 18 asylum seekers. Immigration Minister Scott Morrison refused to confirm or deny Indonesian reports that two extra asylum seekers were forcibly transferred into the boat, which was then forced back into Indonesian waters.

The government will probably try to blame border protection and defence personnel if the story is confirmed. The government did that previously, blaming and punishing Navy officers for straying into Indonesian waters while towing asylum seeker craft back, even though they were implementing government policy.

Abbott claimed at the time that he cancelled the trip because he was too busywith Budget preperations, but its clear that he was not willing to face the President and his ministers immediately after the incident.

In public the President has accepted at face value Abbott’s excuse that he had to deal with budget preparations, and has invited him for another meeting in June. However, in Indonesia deep antagonism is building towards the Abbott government’s “border protection” policy.

The Indonesian Defence Minister, Marty Natalegawa, described the latest incident as a “very serious development”. He warned that the current tow-back policy “coerces asylum seekers, threatens them and violates their human rights” and that “Australia is acting as if it can simply move the problem to its neighbour”.

Big trouble in PNG …

Abbott had claimed that under its agreement, Papua New Guinea would accept for resettlement all Manus Island detainees found to be genuine refugees. However, the PNG government now says it will only accept those with skills useful for national development, and that the final decision rests with the PNG Prime Minister.

The PNG government has announced it found some to be refugees. However, the numbers haven’t been disclosed, and there’s no way the Australian public can know whether the processing of applications for asylum have been dealt with fairly, i.e. whether it is based on objective criteria, or just on someone’s preference.

Meanwhile, the Immigration Department has declared that reported incidents of abuse of Manus Island detainees “did not happen”. However, in the wake of the recent attacks that left one detainee dead and 62 injured, former members of the Manus Island staff have publicly expressed their concerns.

One former Salvation Army worker was told by other Australian staff that the Cronulla (anti-Muslim) riots were the best thing that ever happened. She also said detainees were given an anti-malaria drug that staff had been forbidden to take because of its dangerous side effects.

The government’s cruel policies have created an appallingly demoralised prison at Manus Island. Former staff members have reported incidents of rape, torture and assaults, but such incidents are ignored. When the Salvation Army officer reported an assault she was told she was stupid, and male staff members began referring to her by a numbering system in which they “rate” women staff.

The governor of Port Moresby expressed deep concern about the treatment of the detainees, which he said was “repugnant to our traditional and contemporary culture and to our Christian values”.

… and more coming up in Cambodia

The Nauruan government will only grant settlement to those with a proven refugee status, and only for five years. Subject to agreement from the Cambodian government, the Abbott government wants refugees rejected by the PNG government, as well as 1,000 refugees from Nauru, to be transferred to Cambodia.

Cambodia is still trying to recover from the horrific genocide inflicted by the Khmer Rouge 40 years ago. Phil Robertson from Human Rights Watch has pointed out that “Cambodia has neither the financial nor technical resources to provide the necessary services” for asylum seekers that are required under the Refugee Convention.

Transferred asylum seekers would almost certainly find themselves living in excruciating poverty, like the thousands of Muslim refugees who fled to Cambodia from Myanmar within the last decade.

And the Cambodian government might take the same approach to the asylum seekers as the PNG government, cherry-picking for resettlement only those with skills most needed by the state. If so, what will happen to the others? Will the Australian government condemn them to be transferred in a never-ending odyssey from one poverty-stricken nation to another?

And finally, what will happen to those deemed not to be genuine refugees? The Edmund Rice Centre recently carried out a survey into the experiences of 40 asylum seekers forcibly returned to their countries of origin. Thirty five (88 percent of the total) found themselves in danger as soon as they arrived. Many were beaten or tortured and several were killed.

The road ahead

There are currently about 30,000 asylum seekers held on the mainland and offshore detention centres, including almost 1,200 children. Under the UN Refugee Convention, to which Australia is a signatory, the Australian government bears direct responsibility for their safety and well-being.

It’s certainly not meeting those responsibilities, but there are hopeful new developments. There are 26 babies who were born in Australia in the Christmas Island Detention Centre. Lawyers have asked Morrison not to transfer and their their asylum seeker parents to Nauru and Manus Island.

Lawyers acting for Manus Island detainees who witnessed the murder of detainee Reza Barati, and who say they later received death threats, have launched a High Court action to gain protective custody in Australia.

A writ issued on May 1 accuses the Australian and PNG governments of crimes against humanity for the arbitrary and indefinite detention of asylum seekers in “tortuous, inhuman and degrading conditions”. It claims that detainees have been exposed to murder, attempted murder, threats of cannibalism and extreme bodily harm.

At stake is the question of whether asylum seekers should be returned to Australia for processing, and whether any more should be sent to Manus Island. If the court finds that they shouldn’t, by implication the Nauru centre should also be shut down – in short, the entire offshore processing policy might come to a grinding halt.

And it couldn’t come a moment too soon.

Next article – We must fight for our future! – Statement, Young Communist League

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