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Issue # 1408      29 April 2009

Compassion overboard:

Howard’s asylum seeker policies reappear

The Liberal Party has returned to its shockingly cynical and opportunist line about invasion by boatloads of asylum seekers, and has called for the reintroduction of temporary protection visas.

The Liberal leader, Malcolm Turnbull, has described the government’s policy as “the softening of Australia’s immigration regime”, and as sending people smugglers an invitation to “come on down”.

Turnbull’s outburst came after the recent unexplained explosion and fire on board an asylum seeker vessel being escorted to Christmas Island by Australian Navy craft a fortnight ago. Three of the passengers were killed and two are missing, presumed drowned.

The boat could not be intercepted until it had entered Australian territorial waters. Nevertheless, in what appears to be a request for violation of international law, opposition spokesperson for immigration, Dr Sharman Stone has demanded to know why the boat was not intercepted after its detection long before the explosion.

Despite his denials, it now looks as though Prime Minister Kevin Rudd will continue much the same policy as his predecessor. The government has revealed that the 29 uninjured passengers will be kept in off-shore detention centres, and will not be given the same rights as the injured, who are being treated in mainland hospitals.

This directly contradicts the government’s stated policy that asylum seekers would be allowed to live in the community until their status was determined, and that detention would only be used as a last resort.

Cynical manipulation, legal discrimination

Public fears about invasion from the north date back to the first days of European settlement, and have been used by various parties to manipulate public sentiment to their political advantage. In 2001 the Howard government used the unannounced arrival of asylum seekers to stir up racism and fears of invasion, with a totally callous disregard for human rights, during the so-called “children overboard” incident and the Tampa crisis.

The tactic helped the Howard government return to power, but it was also responsible for the conservatives’ catastrophic fall from power in 2007, after disclosures about its cynical manipulation of the public mood.

The latest increase in arrivals by boat is due to repression and military conflicts, particular in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. The trip is extremely risky, and many boats simply disappear. The passengers must surely number among the most desperate and destitute people on earth, and the most deserving of our sympathy and help.

Since the Rudd government came to power, only 428 people have attempted to enter Australia by boat. Compared to those arriving by other means, this is a trickle. As columnist David Marr noted recently: “Taken all together they wouldn’t fill a decent picture theatre”.

If their financial resources were sufficient to allow them to arrive by more orthodox means, the “boat people” would be treated with the same courtesy and civil rights as other new arrivals. And there’s the rub. The aftermath of the explosion has revealed the injustice of the Howard government’s immigration legislation, which has been retained by the Rudd government.

In a bizarre irony, the uninjured asylum seekers have been detained offshore, and under this legislation are not entitled to judicial review of their appeals for asylum, whereas the injured were flown for treatment on the mainland and are therefore arguably entitled to it.

And for a second twist to the tale, evidence is now emerging that the Howard government’s temporary visa system (a legal innovation originally conceived by the fascist minded Pauline Hanson) actually had the effect of enforcing people to undertake people-smuggling voyages.

Men often arrived in Australia separated from their families, but under the stipulations of their temporary protection visas their families were not entitled to join them. The women and children left in Indonesia and elsewhere had no alternative but to undertake the terribly risky voyages in attempts to be reunited. This was the case with many of the 353 passengers who drowned tragically when the unnamed vessel SIEVX sank, at the height of the Howard “boat people” scare campaign.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has recommended that all people arriving by boats should be allowed to enter the mainland and to have their claims for refugee status assessed there. However, the Rudd government has retained its predecessor’s mandatory detention policy, and is detaining new arrivals on Christmas Island, including children, despite promises that they would no longer be detained in offshore facilities.

The government has abandoned the infamous “Pacific Solution” under which asylum seekers were detained, often for years on end, in Nauru or Papua-New Guinea, but the devastating psychological effects will be much the same for those detained on Christmas Island.

It would appear that, despite its repudiation of the Howard government’s cruel and punitive treatment of asylum seekers, the Rudd government is sliding into the same mindset, and is beginning to endorse the same policies.

Greens spokesperson for immigration, Sarah Henson-Young, commented recently that from the moment asylum seekers were contacted by Australian security forces they should be taken as quickly as possible to the Australian mainland, where they can be removed from danger and given medical attention.

She declared: “Sadly, we have allowed hysteria and prejudice on the part of some politicians and commentators to drive more than a decade of immigration policy down the wrong track. It’s time government policy reflected Australia’s fundamental humanitarianism and support for human rights.”

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