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Issue #1477      20 October 2010


War and refugees – facing reality

The Gillard government has announced that children and vulnerable family groups will be moved out of detention centres and into accommodation in the community. That is undoubtedly a good development. There is not much point speculating whether this is the result of an attack of conscience, a response to pressure from the parliamentary Greens, or a cynical public relations move worthy of the ABC TV series, The Hollow Men.

Whatever the case, it appears a portion of the desperate population of asylum seekers being punished with mandatory detention will move out from behind the razor wire of Australia’s privately run detention centres. It is not yet certain exactly where this accommodation will be found or what the role of charities and community organisations in the process will be. What is clear, as reported recently by human rights group Amnesty International, which visited the detention centre on Christmas Island, is that the mental health of detainees is deteriorating rapidly. As the mental state of detainees deteriorates, the possibility of self-harm or suicide increases.

In the name of humanity and decency, the government will have to move to release all asylum seekers into the community after the completion of identity, security and health checks.

Another shameful fact is that Australia is again host to a sprawling network of detention camps and centres. The federal government has announced two new camps will be opened in Western Australia and South Australia. Two sites in Darwin and another in Melbourne are being prepared as part of a “contingency plan”. And, of course, there are still negotiations going on to open a “regional processing centre” to capture the flow of refugees on East Timor. While Abbott’s Liberals love to score points on the detail, the nature and scale of these plans would be welcomed by the Opposition and would warm John Howard’s heart.

The East Timor “solution” is far from a done deal. East Timorese authorities were reluctant from the start. There has been no groundswell of support from the people seeking jobs, Australian dollars and infrastructure that might flow from such a deal. The Indonesian government is concerned that its country would become an involuntary transit point for asylum seekers on their way to the regional centre.

East Timorese President Ramos Horta has been a friend of successive Australian governments and has supported their bullying role in the region. He is sounding more sympathetic to the regional centre proposition as time goes by but his influence on decision-making may be limited.

The “contingency” being considered by the government is a likely increase in the number of refugees fleeing the world’s trouble spots, particularly Afghanistan. As The Guardian goes to press, the federal parliament is due to begin a debate on Australia’s involvement in the US-led war and occupation. The debate is not being entered into willingly by the government or the opposition; it was forced on the Gillard leadership as part of the horse-trading that allowed Labor to form government three weeks after the August 21 poll.

For nine years the war in Afghanistan has, according to the government, been going well. Earlier this year it was going so well that a moratorium was placed on the processing of claims for asylum from people fleeing that country or the wretched camps in neighbouring Pakistan. There is still no official acknowledgement that the security situation in Afghanistan is worsening or that Pakistan is part of an expanding war zone.

Sooner or later realities must be faced. The detention of children and families in camps was not going to be tolerated forever by the Australian community. Eventually the whole repressive system of mandatory detention will have to be wound up. The vote arising from the debate on the war in Afghanistan may not favour the withdrawal of Australian at this stage. But ultimately, and sooner than US military strategists would hope, the will of the Australian people for an end to our involvement in that war will have to be respected. The same reality will impose itself on the governments of the US and other NATO countries. When the war stops, so will the tragic but inevitable trickle of boat arrivals. 

Next article – Taser terror – adding to the repressive arsenal

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