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Issue #1565      19 September 2012


Asylum seekers pay for political cynicism

Last week was Suicide Prevention Week. Also last week, the Coalition joined Labor to restore the major plank of Howard’s “Pacific Solution” with legislation to “delegate” the Pacific island nation of Nauru to hold asylum seekers trying to reach Australia by boat. Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island will be next. The policies of those shameful years, with their toll of isolation, despair, self-harm and suicide, are back. The first batch of detainees has already been flown to Nauru under heavy guard from private contractor Serco.

“Deterrence” is the word being bandied about on both sides of Parliament. This means that the reception for asylum seekers has to be so harsh that it will prevent people in dangerous camps in Pakistan and Indonesia from considering the journey to Australia. Backers of the policy are too genteel to say it in public but the intention is to punish some to deter the many.

The shift in government policy from the commitments of the early days of the Rudd government – to abolish offshore processing and to end forever the horrific practice of detaining women and children behind razor wire – is almost total. The federal government’s back-flip has been spectacular. It begs the question – how has this been achieved? How has the political climate for such reactionary legislation been created?

In the early days of mandatory detention, the excuse given for the inhumane measures was to sift out terrorists who might slip into the country as “sleepers”. The ridiculousness of this piece of disinformation was plain when more and more people came into contact with refugees fleeing danger and persecution in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and elsewhere. To nobody’s surprise they found the new arrivals to be normal, hard-working folk who simply want to live in a peaceful and secure environment.

The asylum seekers arriving by boat were portrayed as “queue jumpers”, as if an orderly, well-administered process for these desperate people exists amid the hellish circumstances they are fleeing. Asylum seekers, we were told, were taking us for mugs by disposing of their papers, throwing their children overboard, and so on and so forth.

A master stroke in the “stop the boats” campaign was the recent manufacture of “concern” on the part of conservative forces for the asylum seekers themselves. Their main motivation was how to discourage the asylum seekers from risking their lives on leaky boats travelling from Indonesia and to destroy the people smugglers’ “business model”. Opponents of the restored “Pacific Solution” suddenly became the heartless, reckless ones willing to put innocent lives at risk out of some sort of ideological extremism.

The hypocrisy of this latest tactic is no surprise. Consider how Abbott & Co blasted the Gillard government for seeking an arrangement with Malaysia for the processing of asylum seekers. The conservatives said they couldn’t possibly agree to that because Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, after all! At the same time, they would be delighted for the Navy to tow boats containing asylum seekers back to Indonesia. Indonesia is not a signatory to the UN Convention, either.

Deliberately lost in all of this are the “push factors” influencing boat arrivals. Everybody knows the war in Afghanistan is not going well for the US – if the gauge of success was meant to be the establishment of a stable, pro-US administration in the country. Australians never wanted the country’s troops sent to Iraq or Afghanistan and, despite the massive campaign to blame the victims of these conflicts, the sentiment is growing. Something had to be done.

In 2010, WikiLeaks published a CIA report on how support for the Afghanistan war could be shored up in France and Germany. In France it was judged that sympathy for women, should the Taliban get back into power, was the pressure point. In Germany it was fear that there would be a flood of drugs, terrorism and refugees. Documentaries and press reports to support these propositions popped up like mushrooms.

While Australia is not immune, its people have shown strong resistance to this type of manipulation. Ultimately, they will stand up again as they did in the later Howard years to stop the scapegoating of refugees.

Next article – Note From Editor – Explanation of OECD education figures

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