Refugees and human rights:
Government's policies callous, two-faced
by Peter Mac Australia was recently deemed to be in breach of international human rights conventions over its treatment of illegal immigrants. Former UN High Commissioner for Refugees, George Lombard, has claimed that some detainees have been held at Woomera, in South Australia, without contact with relatives for five months. The Howard Government has reacted resentfully to this. The Government is still smarting from recent UN criticism over the issue of mandatory sentencing. Foreign Minister Alexander Downer last week trivialised the criticism, claiming that the Government's proposal to review cooperation with UN human rights committees was "not a front-of-the-mind issue for the UN". He noted, "I don't think anyone is condemning Australia for egregious breaches of human rights". However, the Government's actions with regard to asylum seekers are far from humane. The Government clearly manipulated the arrival of the Kosovo refugees, for which they set up a special "Kosovar media centre" and carefully controlled the media coverage. Throughout the Kosovo conflict, Australian communications facilities played a crucial role in prosecuting NATO's war against the Milosevic Government. With the termination of hostilities, Phillip Ruddock, Minister for Immigration, showed he was as anxious to get rid of the refugees as he was to celebrate their arrival. One refugee commented ironically that: "Ruddock was very determined to get rid of us. He was very persistent." The majority of the Kosovo refugees have now been forcibly returned, despite their obvious distress at the continuing danger. Some of the families, whose members are likely to be the target of reprisals, have been dumped as close to their former homes as possible and left to seek support from aid agencies and local farmers. Their situation is extremely precarious. Thousands are dead and more than 60,000 houses have been destroyed. The community is racked with ongoing violence, arson attacks and disease, and with extortion by members of the KLA forces. And the situation of the former "guests of Australia" is expected to become even worse. European nations have also decided to forcibly repatriate 150,000 former refugees from the conflict, and the population of Kosovo could swell by as much as 10 per cent over the next six months, placing an impossible burden on aid organisations and the government. The Australian Government's refugee policy has now been exposed as opportunist, callous, and hypocritical. The protection visas of those fortunate enough to be granted asylum are now limited to three years. The Government is now considering charging illegal entrants, many of whom are genuine asylum seekers, for the costs of detention. Aid workers have described the proposal as outrageous and have stated that it would be preferable for all concerned to defray the costs of detention by limiting its duration. In contrast to the treatment of the Kosovo refugees, the Government was quick to indicate its willingness to deal sympathetically with applications for migration from dispossessed white Zimbabwean farmers. There are other inconsistencies in immigration policies in general. For conventional immigration the Government has imposed crippling charges for bringing family members to Australia, e.g. $16,000 for Aged Parent Visa and other fees. The number of persons who may seek entry by this means is currently capped at 500 persons per annum. And what about those who come seeking asylum from justice rather than persecution? The Government is still dodging the issue of prosecution of war criminals in Australia, many of whom appear to have settled here with far less difficulty than the hapless refugees from Yugoslavia. This was highlighted by the recent identification of a former Chilean citizen as having committed torture for the Pinochet Government prior to settling here. The Government also appears to be thoroughly complacent about the presence of those who have engaged in acts of genocide. Although the Government claims that existing law is sufficient to deal with genocide, the Federal Court last year found that genocide was neither a statutory nor common law crime. Under Australian law there are penalties for those found guilty of lying about their participation in acts of genocide in order to gain admission to the country, but there is no legislation dealing with genocide as such. The War Crimes Act was enacted to deal exclusively with the events of the Second World War, and other legislation is limited to dealing with events in Rwanda and Yugoslavia. The United Nations Convention on Genocide has been ratified by Australia, but some years ago it was found by court decision to have no effect in Australian law. The US, Canada and the UK have incorporated significant parts of the Convention into their law, but successive Australian Governments have consistently refused to do so, despite recommendations from a number of special parliamentary committees. A draft Australian anti-genocide Bill submitted by Senator Brian Greig has been accepted in principle by the Democrats but only on condition that it is not retrospective. The Bill is in any case likely to be opposed by the Coalition, and possibly by the Australian Labor Party. Why should this be so? Why should the current Federal Government in particular, which proclaims at every opportunity its brilliant track record in the field of human rights, reject the legislation? The answer concerns those who have lived here all their lives, as well as those who have sought refuge here. You see, the UN Convention on Genocide includes within its definition of the crime of genocide the enforced separation of children from their families. The adoption of the Convention in Australian legislation would therefore open the door to the possibility of legal action against the Federal Government by thousands of members of the stolen generations, victims of a gross violation of human rights, an act of genocide carried out entirely within our shores.