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Issue # 1418      8 July 2009


Christmas Island casts a long shadow

Last week a leaking timber fishing boat, loaded with desperate asylum seekers, was intercepted by the Australian Navy off Christmas Island. This year 867 asylum seekers have arrived, and reports indicate that between 7,000 to 10,000 more are waiting in Malaysia to travel to Australia via Indonesia.

Those who have reached Australian waters so far this year represent a tiny fraction of the 42 million people who have been forced by war and conflict to leave their homelands, an increase of 28 percent compared with last year’s figures according to the UN Commissioner for Human Rights.

People who have reached our shores in this manner have endured enormously difficult voyages, ending with a hazardous boat crossing of the Timor Sea or the extremely dangerous Torres Strait. Many have died en route during these terrible odysseys.

So what awaits them when they arrive in our territorial waters? The Howard government adopted the callous and discriminatory “Pacific solution” practices of excising coastal islands from our immigration zone, and detaining asylum seekers who were intercepted at sea before they reached the mainland at those excised places. This ensured that they did not have the same legal rights in making applications for refugee status as those who made it to the mainland.

Prior to its election, the Rudd government declared it would abolish these policies. It’s certainly true that the use of Pacific detention centres have been largely abandoned, and that the processing of applications for refugee status is proceeding more rapidly than before. However, the Howard government’s policies have been retained in essence by the Rudd government.

As the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Senator Chris Evans, recently declared proudly: “The Rudd government has … made clear its commitment to maintain a system of mandatory detention and excision.”

The Rudd government continues to detain intercepted asylum seekers on Christmas Island. The injustice of this policy was highlighted in the recent case of a boat that exploded after being intercepted. Those who were injured had to be transferred to mainland hospitals, where they had legal rights, which included the judicial review of adverse findings in their applications for refugee status. However, those rights were denied to the uninjured passengers, who were transferred to Christmas Island.

The island is still excised, and the number of asylum seekers detained there is growing. Rather than expressing regret at this development, the government has hailed it as evidence of a victory in the battle against people smuggling, and a demonstration that the government’s policy is no “softer” than that of the Howard regime.

Moreover, despite the government’s pre-election promise that children would not be detained in detention centres, eighty-six children (including fifty-one unaccompanied minors) are currently being held on Christmas Island.

Many of them are incarcerated in the island’s barbed wire-encased detention centre, but recent new arrivals have necessitated the use of other facilities. A temporary accommodation centre has been established within the Island’s construction camp. Amnesty International has described it as a place of “metal, concrete and gravel, with small claustrophobic bedrooms and no ways to communicate with the outside world”, and as “inappropriate for children, even for the briefest period”. They stated unequivocally that “no child should be detained on Christmas Island” and that “Australia must not continue to violate its international obligations under the (UN) Convention on the Rights of the Child”.

These statements could legitimately be extended to current official policies regarding asylum seekers. Despite the Rudd government’s focus on the battle against people smuggling, the primary issue in these matters is the health and security of asylum seekers, and their rights as applicants for refugees status and eventually for Australian citizenship.

Asylum seekers should not be incarcerated in places that have been specifically chosen to deny them the legal rights that other people enjoy as a matter of natural justice. Nor should they be subjected to the appalling policies of mandatory detention and off-shore processing that conservative parties have inflicted on these desperate and destitute people.

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