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Issue #1431      14 October 2009

Asylum seekers face redneck revival

Some federal parliamentarians are reviving the public antipathy towards asylum seekers that reached its height under the former Howard government during the infamous Tampa incident.

Senate leader of the National Party, Barnaby Joyce, is reported to have claimed that many Christmas Island detainees are “economic migrants” rather than refugees, because they are “very happy here”, and “health conscious”. Apparently, the implication is that because they were not emaciated they had not really suffered from persecution, and because they are now “happy” they intend to take the Australian people for a ride – or possibly even to take over the country!

Ms Zhi Yan, acting national coordinator of migrant support group A Just Australia, commented:

“I am appalled that Senator Joyce judges a person’s need for protection on that person’s apparent mood and health status. People become refugees not because of how sad or sick they are but because they have real protection needs. … Wouldn’t you be happy if you escaped a situation of death and violence, and managed to make it to the relative (albeit precarious) safety of Christmas Island?”

The government line

Last week the Rudd government abolished the outrageous legislation under which immigration detainees were charged for the time they spent imprisoned in detention centres.

This development was very welcome. However, it took two years to happen, and now, for the first time since the Howard regime lost office, the government has taken a decision to forcibly deport asylum seekers, i.e. nine Sri Lankans, who arrived with three others by boat at Shark Bay on the mainland last November.

Because they arrived on the mainland, they were entitled to full access to legal services, unlike those who are intercepted at sea. Nevertheless, their appeals were rejected, and the Minister for Immigration, Senator Chris Evans, declared that: “all irregular maritime arrivals found not to be owed protection and with no other basis to remain in Australia will be removed.” The policy regarding “maritime arrivals” will presumably not be applied to others, particularly Anglo-Saxons, who arrive unexpectedly by other means.

The fate of the nine deportees is now precarious. The Sri Lankan government has expressed the view that many of its nationals who seek asylum in Australia are former members of the separatist Tamil Tiger organisation.

The Rudd government has listed the Tamil Tigers as a terrorist organisation. Even though membership of the organisation is not proscribed under Australian law, the government is said to be treating all young asylum seekers who have wounds consistent with combat, and who do early morning group exercises, with suspicion.

However, the war against the Tamil Tigers, is said to have claimed the lives of 7,000 civilians in the first four months of this year alone, and injuries from gunfire and other weapons were widespread among the Sri Lankan community. As for early morning exercises, they’re a common practice in every country on Earth. (And how ironic that such suspicions should be raised in Australia, where the previous PM exercised at the break of day!)

What of the future?

Ms Yan pointed out: “Asylum seeker numbers have shot up in the last two years because of grave situations like Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, so it’s hardly surprising that asylum seeker numbers are increasing in Australia as well. We’re part of the world. Aren’t we?”

In fact, despite a sharp increase in regional conflict, the 1,500 asylum seekers who reached our shores in 2008 represented only 0.3 percent of the total number of people who sought asylum throughout the world that year.

As Ms Yan concluded: “In the last two years we’ve seen some significant reforms to Australia’s asylum policies, bringing them back into line with our international human rights obligations. Don’t let fear tactics and political point-scoring drag us back to a time where we can’t be proud to be Australian because of the way Australia treats people in need.”

That suggestion is likely to be of even greater significance in future. At the moment the only grounds under which “boat people” can claim refugee status in Australia is fear of persecution in their country of origin. But what of other perils? The number of asylum seekers is certain to escalate because of climate change, particularly rising sea levels, which will result in the flooding of many Pacific Islands and low-lying countries like Bangladesh. Over the next half-century millions of people will be forced to seek refuge in other countries.

The Howard government rejected pleas for asylum from many threatened people, and that rejection still stands. If we don’t develop new, more humane policies for helping these refugees, many will be condemned to a terrible fate by our callous indifference.

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