The Guardian May 10, 2000


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.

Back to index page