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Issue #1647      July 16, 2014

Prison ships and lawless cruelty

The chilling consequences of the Abbott government’s racist “stop the boats” rallying cry continue to mount. Despite a wall of official secrecy, disturbing details of “Operation Sovereign Borders” are filtering out. Only the issuing of a High Court injunction preventing the handing over of 153 asylum seekers to the Sri Lankan navy managed to drag the truth out of Immigration Minister Scott Morrison about recent events. The people aboard a leaking boat had been intercepted by the Australian navy recently and transferred to the customs vessel Ocean Protector, a virtual prison ship. The intention was to deny them the right to proper assessment of their request for asylum.

Some of the Abbott government’s cheer squad in the corporate media are uncomfortable with the latest scandal. They remained loyal despite the fallout from the riots at the Manus Island detention centre. The sight of navy ships dragging specially designed orange capsules containing terrified asylum seekers back to Indonesian waters didn’t bother them. Neither did news that there have been several risky mid-ocean transfers of asylum seekers to Indonesian naval vessels.

But the prison ship development is a hard sell for even the most committed supporter of “fortress Australia”. The United Nations has spoken out. It views “with profound concern recent reports in the media and from the community in relation to the interception at sea of individuals who may be seeking Australia’s protection,” a statement said. “Requests for international protection should be considered within the territory of the intercepting state, consistent with fundamental refugee protection principles.”

Morrison and his department are remaining tight-lipped but the minister has said he believes the government’s position is sound and that Australian law doesn’t apply in the case of intercepts made outside the country’s territorial waters. He’s hoping that this sort of military assault on refugee rights can continue and the government’s boast of no boat arrivals since last December can be preserved regardless of the human or financial cost.

The experience of 41 asylum seekers already handed over to the Sri Lankan navy is telling. A letter from 14-year-old Jasmine Saparamandu is full of praise for the efforts of Australian navy personnel in saving passengers aboard a crippled fishing vessel bound for New Zealand. She wrote that the treatment once they were transferred to a Customs and Border Protection vessel changed dramatically. Another passenger also reported a lot of shouting directed at the asylum seekers. One passenger had an allergic reaction to a meal which unknowingly contained beef. “How do I know you can’t eat beef? How can I read your f---ing mind, man? We are not on land, we are now in the f---ing boat so shut your mouth,” a Customs and Border Protection officer is reported as saying.

Morrison claims the allegations unbelievable and offensive. One thing he can’t deny is that asylum seekers are being given less and less opportunity to put their case. The young Sri Lankan letter writer claimed people were being hurried through questions put to them via a video link to immigration officials. “We said [to Immigration] we have lots of things to say, but not enough time to tell you. They are not talking nicely to us. They are shouting at us.” It turns out the number of questions put to asylum seekers during this type of screening has been reduced from 19 to just 4.

The minister is also refusing to comment on reports of increased numbers of attempted suicides and self-harm at the Christmas Island detention centre. “It is long-standing government practice not to confirm or comment on individual acts of self-harm,” a spokesman said. This was the line in face of reports that 12 mothers had tried to take their own lives in the belief that their children might have a better chance of obtaining asylum as orphans. Rushing to the government’s defence, The Australian newspaper has been carrying unsubstantiated allegations that asylum-seeker advocates have coached detainees on methods for self-harm.

The moral depths to which the government and its supporters are prepared to go are breathtaking. And as Israel continues to smash civilian populations in Gaza and across the Middle East generating new waves of refugees, they show no signs of backing off. They will not face up to the problems causing the global refugee crisis. It is up to the people of Australia to act; to force change.

Next article – Editorial – The long battle for Indigenous equality

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