25 October 2009
The Australian government is getting desperate and showing its true colours. Not long after Prime Minister Kevin Rudd personally intervened to turn away a boat of 260 Tamil refugees in international waters, a second boat — also carrying refugees from Sri Lanka — sent out a distress signal off the coast of Sumatra.
An Australian customs ship rescued the 78 asylum seekers from their stricken vessel on October 18. But the order from the Australian government was to keep them away from the mainland.
On October 19, foreign affairs minister Stephen Smith told ABC Radio’s AM the boat was in the Indonesian search and rescue area and should be taken to Indonesia.
Under a false guise of concern for the “safety” of the people on board, including five children and five women, the Australian government put heavy diplomatic pressure on Indonesia to take them.
Rudd and Smith travelled to Jakarta while the ship was still at sea. By October 20, Indonesia had agreed to house the asylum seekers “temporarily”.
The refugees on board showed their desperation by staging a hunger strike. On October 24, ABC Online said the men on the boat were refusing food.
But they won no sympathy from the Rudd government.
Once again, the government prevented a new group of arrivals from reaching Christmas Island, home to a prison-like detention centre for asylum seekers. Once again, the ALP government could praise Australia’s “maritime security” and the strength of “fortress Australia”.
Yet it was a hollow success for the government. The boats are not going to stop coming. Wars, conflict, poverty and the effects of climate change are causing a rise in refugees worldwide.
Shortly after Australia strong-armed Indonesian authorities to accept the 78 desperate asylum seekers, more boats were collected close to Ashmore Reef in the Indian Ocean — including 22 refugees on October 21, 32 on October 22 and 29 on October 23.
In response, the federal government’s relentless “border protection” mantra is intensifying. The racism ever-present in mainstream Australian politics quickly bubbled to the surface. The agenda was to undermine the public sympathy for the refugees generated in previous weeks.
The corporate media was quick to play up fear and mistrust and gave voice to every racist and paranoid slur Liberal politicians could come up with.
On October 21, in the absence of any evidence, the Australian suggested the 78 refugees deliberately sabotaged the boat off the Sumatran coast.
Within no time, Liberal MP Wilson Tuckey told media the asylum boats were “a terrorist threat”.
In its first few months in office, the Rudd government submitted to several demands of the refugee rights movement and tried to appear humane and reasonable on refugee policy.
Yet it is now clear it has no compassion when tiny numbers of desperate people seek refuge in Australia by boat. The insidious parallels with the former Howard government have come to light much faster than the boats manage to arrive.
Rudd, the opposition and the media have casually used the false term “illegal immigrants” to describe the refugees. However, refugee rights groups, church groups, some trade unions and the Greens have all denounced the use of this blatantly incorrect label.
The Rudd government has taken advantage of the anti-refugee tactics and policies of the previous Howard government. In 2001, then-immigration minister Phillip Ruddock excised areas of Australia’s migration zone, including Christmas Island.
As a result, the government says it has no legal obligation to hear the claims of refugees taken there.
It was Howard who first sent the navy to intervene and prevent asylum seeker vessels from reaching Australian waters — most notoriously in the 2001 incident with Norwegian freighter the Tampa, which had rescued drowning refugees but was then prevented from landing in Australia.
From that point on, the royal Australian navy was ordered to repel refugee boats from the mainland.
As the refugee rights movement grew and mobilised to free the refugees from Australia’s mainland detention centres, the Howard government invented its infamous “Pacific Solution”.
Under the policy, refugees who reached Australian waters were imprisoned on Pacific Islands such as Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island.
Now, the Rudd government has invented its “Indonesia Solution” — an anti-refugee policy Howard would be proud of.
The refugee policy of the two big parties is essentially the same. The “tough line” of the government, the extreme racism of the opposition and the shameless spin of the corporate media fuel hatred, mistrust and suspicion of asylum seekers.
Refugees are treated like criminals and punished on the basis of their method of arrival. Australia’s navy is used against them; they are imprisoned, investigated and mistrusted.
However, refugees pose no threat and they are not “illegal”. They are simply people trying to find safety and freedom for themselves and their families. The 1951 UN refugee convention states that no asylum seeker should be discriminated against, whether they have the wrong papers, no papers, or on the basis of their method of arrival. That is international law.
Australia’s refugee intake is meagre compared with the number of refugees and internally displaced people globally — more than 35 million according to the UN. Fewer than 1600 asylum seekers have come to Australia by boat this year. Labelling this a “surge” is a sham. Australia is in a position to take many more refugees than it now does.
But portraying refugees as “illegal entrants” and stirring up racism toward migrants in general creates a convenient scapegoat for the government’s failures.
The government habitually appeals to racist and nationalist attitudes to draw support for, or distract from, unpopular actions.
The cruel reaction to the plight of the small number of refugee boat arrivals has also wiped from the news headlines the horrific aftermath of the recent swathe of tsunamis, earthquakes and floods that have ripped through the Asia-Pacific region, including in Indonesia, affecting millions already vulnerable to extreme weather and climate change.
Absent from the mainstream debate about refugees is the Australian government’s pathetic legislation on climate change, which keeps Australia reliant on fossil fuels and will do nothing to prevent a climate change disaster.
Australia’s climate vandalism will help make more people climate refugees.
The government has poured millions of dollars into “border control operations”, including for the military. It has said it will give millions more to governments such as Indonesia’s and Malaysia’s to crack down on asylum seekers while they are in transit.
A humane policy, that welcomed refugees and helped them settle here and build a better life, would also be far less costly.
Refugees are cast as a dark spectre threatening Australia. But a two-party political system that willfully breaks international law; abuses people fleeing war and persecution; imposes punitive measures on workers and the unemployed; and is suicidally inactive on climate change is the real danger.
In a just world, these cynical politicians, not desperate asylum seekers, would be the ones locked up.