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Issue #1506      22 June 2011

New developments in asylum seeker struggle

Last week the Gillard government suffered a series of major setbacks over its policy of off-shore processing for asylum seekers and its notorious proposal to send 800 asylum seekers to be detained in Malaysia.

Firstly, Greens parliamentarian Adam Bandt moved a motion in the Lower House condemning the Malaysian proposal. Both houses of federal parliament approved the motion.

Secondly, the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre launched a High Court challenge over the government’s proposed transfer to Malaysia of a Kurdish woman and her four-year-old son. The woman’s husband, an approved refugee, is now living in Melbourne.

Thirdly, the Malaysian government is refusing to give the Gillard government a guarantee that transferred asylum seekers would be granted special identity papers, and that none of them would be forcibly returned to the country from which they had fled.

Fourthly, news has been released that boys under the age of eighteen who have served as crew on asylum seeker boats have been placed in Brisbane’s maximum security jail, in violation of Australia’s obligations under domestic and international laws for the protection of children.

And lastly, the government of Nauru has announced it will sign the UN Refugee Convention. Its failure to previously do so was cited by the Rudd and Gillard governments as the major reason why Nauru was unacceptable as a site for an asylum seeker detention centre.

Government policies slammed

Since the ALP won government in 2007 it has boasted that its asylum seeker policies are more humane than those of the former Howard government or the conservative opposition. Nevertheless, the Howard government’s overriding policies of mandatory detention and off-shore processing have survived intact, and the Gillard government’s implementation of those policies has been as heartless as any initiative of the Howard regime.

Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in the Malaysian proposal. Malaysia has argued that all the transported asylum seekers should be dealt with under the country’s normal rules and regulations. For detainees already there, normal practice means arbitrary arrest and abuse by police, incarceration and/or caning for those who lack identity papers or are charged with misdemeanours, or enforced deportation.

Sending the Kurdish mother and child to Malaysia would almost certainly result in separation of the family for years, because the government’s intention is for all transferred asylum seekers to go to “the end of the queue”, i.e. to have their refugee status applications examined only after applications from detainees already in Malaysia have been processed.

This week the High Court will determine whether sending the mother and child to Malaysia would violate the UN Refugee Convention, which Australia has signed and which forbids separation of families.

Last week, Prime Minister Gillard suffered the worst opinion polling as prime minister since John Howard introduced the GST. Her personal disapproval rate was 59 percent and Tony Abbott is now equal-pegging with her as preferred prime minister. Primary vote support for the government plunged to 27 percent, the lowest rating for a major party since the Nielsen polls commenced 39 years ago, while the coalition’s primary vote reached 49 percent.

Significantly, 76 percent of respondents disapproved of the government’s treatment of asylum-seekers, while only 20 percent expressed approval. The poll examined six major areas of government activity, and the government’s performance with regard to asylum seekers scored the worst rating for any of them.

The government’s relentless commitment to the cruel Malaysian proposal has outraged Australian citizens. The same public reaction was evident during the final phase of the Howard government, after revelations about the tragic sinking of asylum seeker boat SIEV-X, and the illegal detention of two Australian citizens, one of whom had been deported to the Philippines.

Gillard and co are now probably even less popular than prior to the poll, which was taken before the release of shocking news about boys imprisoned in the Brisbane jail, and before the appeal for the Kurdish mother and child was launched.

Too little, too late

The government has taken a particularly callous approach towards crew members, by arresting them as “people smugglers”’ while the real people smugglers carry on business as usual back in Indonesia. Many of the boats’ crew members are boys, who have either been kidnapped or persuaded to participate in the hope of saving their families from destitution or starvation.

Last week, after news of the jailing of the boys was released, the government hastily ordered the release of three boys from the Brisbane jail. It was too little, too late. The boys, who wept on their release, had been there for 15 months. Their parents, who had no idea where they had gone, had never been informed of their whereabouts.

If the High Court rules against the government in the case of the Kurdish mother and child the Malaysian proposal will almost certainly collapse. The government may pursue the possibility of reinstating the Manus Island detention centre, but, it may decide to favour Nauru, arguing that the game has changed with Nauru’s decision to sign the Refugee Convention.

Abandoning off-shore processing would be the honourable course of action, but is now the least likely outcome. If the government retains off-shore processing, but loses a parliamentary vote over a bill to abandon the Malaysian proposal, it might be forced to hold an early election, in which case the Liberals would almost certainly win the most votes.

However, the public has expressed its disgust with the government’s performance, and both major parties are tainted with the off-shore processing stain, so the public may say: “A plague on both your houses!”

The Greens gained two percentage points in the poll, and the progressive independents have not suffered a discernible loss in popularity, so it’s possible the Liberals would be kept from office by the ALP forming a new coalition with the Greens and independents, but with the government weakened and the other coalition members holding much greater power than at present.

Let it be so! The treatment of asylum seekers by both major parties is a crime against humanity and a national disgrace.  

Next article – Where is Cuba heading?

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