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Issue #1755      November 2, 2016

UN blasts Australia’s immigration policy

Australia’s bid for a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Commission may be rejected because of a range of human rights issues within Australia, and in particular because of the government’s treatment of asylum seekers detained indefinitely offshore on Nauru and Manus Island under Australian immigration policies.

In January Fairfax media revealed that some asylum seekers on Nauru were committing self-harm every two days on average, including by swallowing insect repellent, striking their heads against walls and scalding their bodies with boiling water.

Last month the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child published a scathing report on the plight of children detained on Nauru. It highlighted the failure of the Nauru government to investigate complaints of sexual assault of children, and to appoint a human rights commissioner and a dedicated paediatrician.

The report condemned the appalling conditions within the detention centre, including the lack of clean drinking water and poor sanitation. It expressed deep concern at reports of corporal punishment being used against the children (illegal under Nauruan law) and noted that many had arrived there after having experienced deep trauma as a result of warfare, and now suffered “feelings of hopeless and often suicidal ideation”.

The report noted with alarm the wall of secrecy that now surrounds Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers. On 19 October Michael Forst, UN special rapporteur, went further, describing the relationship of “fear, censorship and retaliation” between the government and its critics, including asylum seeker advocates, as well as the “enormous pressure” being applied by the government to whistleblowers and public servants in order to stifle criticism of current immigration policies.

Forst called for an inquiry into the treatment of Australian Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs, who was castigated by the former Abbott government for alleged bias in her report on the treatment of detainee children on Nauru. She has now been accused of misleading the Senate by government members who are moving to have her sacked.

Painted into an ideological corner

After sensational revelations about the detention of Australian citizens in immigration centres the Howard government renounced the offshore processing policy. However, the Rudd Labor government reintroduced it, adding the proviso that any asylum seeker who attempted to arrive in Australia by boat would henceforth be banned from settling in the country. The Abbott government subsequently endorsed these policies.

Both parties have now painted themselves into an ideological corner. Given their experience on Nauru, the asylum seekers have understandably refused offers to resettle them in poverty-stricken developing countries, and the government has refused an offer by New Zealand to accept some of them, because if it did so the asylum seekers could then get to Australia as New Zealand citizens!

Carrying this idea to its logical conclusion, the government now wants to introduce legislation to ban asylum seekers who’ve tried to come here by boat from ever entering Australia, even as a tourist or business person who has since become a citizen of another country.

Labor leader Bill Shorten has rejected the idea of a new lifetime ban on entry, but he is vacillating. Moreover, neither the coalition nor Labor can renounce the current ban on settlement without being accused by the other party of being weak, or being seen by the public as catastrophically incompetent, callous, cynical or opportunist – or, for that matter, without being sued for damages by all those who have in effect been imprisoned by successive Australian governments, sometimes for years.

Australia’s bid for a UN seat

In August 306 men, 55 women and 49 children were listed as remaining in detention in Nauru. On 17 October the ABC screened a moving Four Corners report which contained interviews with bright, intelligent children whose spirits are now being ruthlessly crushed by their detention on Nauru.

In reaction to the wave of criticism that followed the broadcast the Turnbull government’s launched a counter-attack, condemning the ABC for not having consulted with the Nauruan government, even though that government has consistently refused permission for journalists to visit the island or interview members of the government with regard to the detainees.

A spokesperson for Attorney-General George Brandis also sneered that Forst himself had “not presented a balanced view of the situation of human rights defenders in Australia.”

That’s not a very bright move. Attacking the UN or its representatives is a very different matter from attempting to intimidate domestic critics.

The government has also washed its hands of much of the responsibility for the situation, using the pathetic excuse that the conditions on the island and the education of the detainee children are Nauru’s responsibility, even though they are detained there at the Australian government’s request, and funding of the astronomical costs is provided by Australian taxpayers.

For its part the Nauruan government has rejected all criticism, accusing the ABC of having insulted the island’s people and indulged in political activism and racism. It claims that no asylum seeker children are in detention because they can go anywhere on the island. The grim reality is they’re too frightened to leave the detention centres for fear of being physically assaulted.

Forst has refused to comment on the possibility of Australia gaining a seat on the UN Human Rights Council. However, rejection is a distinct possibility in view of the proposed lifetime entry ban and previous UN statements that Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers breaches the Refugee Convention.

The UN is also certain to be influenced by the shocking revelations contained in the Four Corners report, the Moss Inquiry report (whose recommendations are still unfulfilled), the reports of Commissioner Triggs, and the critical statements of medical personnel, teachers, social workers and other professionals who have worked on Nauru.

Nevertheless, the government is determined to introduce the proposed lifetime entry ban. If they do, the government’s bid for a seat on the Human Rights Council will almost certainly fail, and the government will be directly responsible for that degrading humiliation.

Rejection of the bid would certainly be a fitting outcome, in view of the adoption by both the major parties of immigration policies that are a national disgrace, rivalling in odium the white Australia policy and the tragedy of the stolen generation.

Next article – Remote media in Yirrkala

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