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Issue #1649      July 30, 2014

Prison ship disgrace

Latest asylum seeker debacle

The Abbott government has gone to scandalous lengths to defend its sound bite claim to have “stopped the boats”. The 157 asylum seekers held in inadequate conditions aboard an Australian Customs vessel since early June have finally been transported via the Cocoas Island to the Curtin Detention Centre in Western Australia. Federal ministers, headed by Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, have blustered that the hapless detainees will never settle in Australia. Journalists friendly to the government are insisting the rate of boat arrivals will probably settle at around the three to four per year that were intercepted during the Howard era.

The humanity and histories of the people seeking asylum are not considered. Prior to the weekend’s back down, Morrison had flown to Dehli in an effort to convince the Indian government to accept the return of the Tamils believed to be originally from Sri Lanka. The request was refused. A former Indian diplomat and visiting professor at the Delhi Centre for Policy Research G Parthasarathy told the media the plea must have appeared odd. “Australia is a country of 22 million, we are 1.2 billion, yet you’ve got a continent that is double the size of ours,” he said.

In another very irregular development, Indian Consular officials will now interview the detainees in Australia to determine if there are any Indian nationals among them. The fate of the asylum seekers and the concept of assessment on the high seas is now in legal limbo. The cabinet’s “national security committee” was hoping to sidestep international and Australian law by intercepting asylum seekers in international waters and repatriating them after the most peremptory “processing” imaginable.

A directions hearing will be held in the High Court next week. A document has been lodged seeking to prevent the government sending the asylum seekers to PNG, Nauru or Sri Lanka against their will. The Director of International Protection, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Mr Volker Turk, says the Abbott government’s policy of “enhanced screening” is increasing the risk of refoulement – returning asylum seekers to the danger they were fleeing. “You can only ensure respect for the principle of non-refoulement if you have in place proper and fair procedures that identify, with due process, who is in need of international refugee protection and who is not,” he said.

A trail of victims

“Respect” is not in the Abbott government’s vocabulary when it comes to asylum seekers. Claims by Salvation Army support worker Nicole Judge of a “rape dungeon” and widespread sexual harassment at the detention facility on Manus Island have stunned an inquiry into the violence that claimed the life or 23-year-old Iranian asylum seeker Reza Barati in February. It has also come to light that the PNG police have not interviewed a single person in connection with the death in the five months that have past since the riots at the camp.

Ms Judge told the inquiry she had received no training prior to commencing her work among suicidal detainees on Nauru. On Manus Island the experience was much worse. “I spent lengthy amounts of time trying to convince people that their lives were still worth living and there would be hope at the end of all of this … In my head at times I didn’t believe what I was saying,” she said.

When she complained to Salvation Army supervisors of the rampant sexual harassment from local and ex-pat guards at the centre, she recalls being told “this kind of stuff happens behind bars all the time, so I just had to go with it.”

Christmas Island has also been in the news for tragic reasons. Fairfax Media obtained a document detailing injuries sustained by at least 11 women on July 7. They had tried various methods for suicide and self-harm after being told by immigration officials that they would not be resettled in Australia. Professor Gillian Triggs of the Australian Human Rights Commission visited the island recently and noted 13 women on suicide watch.

Their conditions were said to be deteriorating rapidly. Even the plight of asylum seekers like these has become subject to government spin. “The government has redefined acts that many of us would describe as suicide attempts to self-harm and this is less than honest in terms of the public’s right to understand what these conditions are doing to the people on Christmas Island for longer than a year,” Professor Triggs said.

The government would prefer the public believed the asylum seekers were playing on the sympathies of supposedly soft Australian authorities to grant asylum. Authorities have not been persuaded to transfer the women on suicide watch to the Australian mainland where they could get suitable care. The Immigration Minister wouldn’t be drawn on any questions regarding suicide or self-harm in off-shore camps. “It is long-standing government practice not to confirm or comment on reports of individual acts of self-harm,” a spokeswoman said.

The world is watching the shameful behaviour of the Abbott government towards the small proportion of the planet’s displaced people arriving in Australian waters seeking protection. The moralising and hurling of threats to others about crimes against humanity and lack of decency would have been well and truly noted. So would the hypocrisy and opportunism of it all.

Next article – Kiev junta disbands CP of Ukraine: prelude to general suppression, ethnic cleansing

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