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Issue #1680      April 15, 2015

Asylum seekers

Labor, Liberals legacy

A few weeks ago when federal Labor MP Janet King appeared on the ABC’s Q&A program she acknowledged that governments of both Australia’s major political parties have mistreated asylum seekers who arrive unannounced by boat.

An Australian government advertisement that is targeting asylum seekers.

That’s the first admission of any fault with regard to asylum seeker policy by a representative of either party since a small group of coalition MPs courageously voiced their objection to the policies of the former Howard government.

The policies of both parties constitute a vindictive assault on the human rights of the asylum seekers, and have brought Australia’s international reputation into disrepute.

Labor’s performance has not been more praiseworthy than that of the Liberals. Labor PM Paul Keating introduced the draconian mandatory detention policy, and former Labor PM Kevin Rudd proposed incarcerating asylum seekers in Papua New Guinea and banning them from ever gaining Australian citizenship.

Rudd’s idea was accepted and amplified by the Abbott government, which now wants to exile them in one of the world’s poorest nations, Cambodia. Moreover, the current Minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop, is currently attempting to persuade the government of Iran to accept the enforced repatriation of Iranian asylum seekers whom the Australian government considers are not genuine refugees.

Their refugee status will probably be determined under the recently-introduced policy in which assessments are made following interviews as short as 20 minutes. If the subject says he or she is looking forward to an improvement in their standard of living they will probably be deemed an “economic refugee”, and therefore unacceptable in the government’s criteria.

As a result of this grossly biased process hundreds of asylum seekers may be sent back to Iran, a country from which they had fled because of serious danger of persecution, injury or death.

Reversing cruel policies

The competition between Labor and the Liberals to appear more “tough” on unauthorized arrivals has resulted in both parties adopting almost neo-fascist policies in which asylum seekers are, in effect, treated not only as criminals but as an inferior human species.

This approach directly contradicts the views of two of the most notable former leaders of the Liberal and Labor parties. The government of Labor leader Gough Whitlam took deliberate steps to break down barriers between immigrants and other members of the community.

With Whitlam’s support, Liberal leader Malcolm Fraser increased the immigrant quota and introduced measures to facilitate resettlement of refugees from Vietnam. Fraser’s subsequent disgust with the asylum seeker policies of the Howard government was one reason why he left the Liberal party.

As far as asylum seeker policy is concerned, the Liberals are now inheriting a whirlwind of condemnation. The UN has stated that the government’s conduct not only violates our obligations under the Refugee Convention but also contravenes the UN convention against torture.

In response Prime Minister Tony Abbott arrogantly declared he was sick of complaints from the UN and that they should praise the government for having “stopped the boats”, as the government falsely claims.

However, the Human Rights Commission’s subsequent report revealed appalling conditions and a pattern of abuse and rape of detainees in the Nauru and Manus Island centres.

The government then launched an attack on the credibility of the report’s author, Commissioner Professor Gillian Triggs, having tried unsuccessfully to bribe her to quit the Commission and take up a lucrative government overseas posting.

The government claims it will send the first consignment of refugees to Cambodia very soon, but detainees held on Manus Island and Nauru have failed to volunteer, which is hardly surprising.

Meanwhile, protests against the seemingly never-ending detention of asylum seekers in appalling conditions on Nauru and Manus Island are continuing, despite a ban and the threat of two-year prison sentences and $3,000 fines.

Last week Nauru detainee Saeed Hansonloo hovered near death in a Perth hospital after having been on a hunger strike for many days. His condition is said to be improving, but the precedent has been set for similar action, which may lead to detainees dying in protest against the government’s policies.

Barrister and human rights activist Julian Burnside has previously suggested that in order to reduce the numbers of asylum seekers risking their lives at sea, the government should establish an office in Indonesia and give applicants for asylum a written undertaking to assess their applications as soon as possible.

He has also suggested that asylum seekers who reach Australian territory by boat should not be forced back to their port of departure or subjected to imprisonment in exile, but rather:

  • Boat arrivals would be detained initially for one month, for preliminary health and security checks, subject to extension if a court was persuaded that a particular individual should be detained longer;
  • After initial detention, they would be released into the community, with the right to work, Centrelink and Medicare benefits;
  • They would be released into the community on terms calculated to make sure they remained available for the balance of their visa processing;
  • During the time their visa applications were being processed they would be required to live in specified regional cities. Any government benefits they received would thus work for the benefit of the regional economy. There are plenty of towns around the country that would welcome an increase in their population.
  • Provided that applicants were preferably located in towns where labour is needed, and that they were offered pay and conditions at current award rates, the proposal offers an entirely practical solution to the current impasse. It would rescue our sullied international reputation, and according to Burnside save the nation at least $4.5 billion per annum.

But it is impossible to envisage the coalition government adopting such an approach, and Labor has painted itself into an ideological corner by competing with the Liberals for the most vindictive asylum seeker policy. As Burnside says, both parties have incited and then harnessed public xenophobia.

This incredibly cruel treatment of asylum seekers must change, lest it will rank with the odious white Australia policy and the vast tragedy of the stolen generations as vile, indelible stains on the nation’s history.

Next article – Simon Trinidad, imprisoned, connects with Colombian peace process

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