Government creates Fortress Australia
by Marcus Browning More than 200 asylum seekers on board the Australian troop ship HMAS Manoora were refusing to disembark onto Nauru as The Guardian went to press. Their defiant stand came in the face of the Federal Court's decision to overturn Justice Tony North's order that the 433 refugees be returned to Australia. The decision sanctifies the Government's flaunting of international law and of its human rights obligations under UN conventions. It is also a reflection of the difficulties for those fighting for refugee rights as they come up against the Government's unlimited resources. The Government now intends, with ALP support, to steamroll a revised version of its fortress Australia legislation, the Border Protection Bill, through Parliament. At the same time it is cynically connecting Afghan refugees aboard the "Manoora" to the terrorist bombing in the US, with Defence Minister Peter Reith and Treasurer Peter Costello taking the running. "It can be a pipeline for terrorists to come in and use your country as a staging post for terrorist activities", said Reith, fanning the flames of racial hatred. "If you've got people moving in willy-nilly, then this can be a conduit for extremist terror groups." There is only one group doing things "willy-nilly" and that is the Government as it scrambles to avoid its obligations and brings shame on Australia in the process. In fact, as with most of the Government's claims, the opposite is true. The experience of the Afghans in their homeland complies with the definition of a refugee ("a person with a credible fear of persecution"), laid down in the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees. The Government also intends to push ahead with its plan to remove Ashmore Reef, Christmas Island and Cocos Island from Australia's migration zone at the same time as it turns Nauru into a Pacific island prison. The ALP is now likely to bow to this populist vote grab and back the migration zone proposals and a slightly revamped version of the Border Protection Bill. This latest version gives the Australian Navy the right to forcibly board vessels and turn them away from Australian waters. It also increases restriction of access to permanent residency for asylum seekers with a new visa which bars the holder from permanent residency. In a two-to-one decision, the full bench of the Federal Court found that the Government has the power to stop the asylum seekers landing in Australia and that no detention, either legal or illegal, had occurred aboard the Norwegian freighter the "Tampa". Refugee rights lawyer Eric Vadarlis and the Victorian Council for Civil Liberties, who together brought the original Federal Court action, said they were unlikely to appeal. "The decision means that according to Australian law, it is open game on refugees", said Mr Vadarlis. "If they come near our shores, the Government is allowed to push them out, tow them out, drag them out. I can't believe this is happening in this country." Meanwhile, the Australian Workers Union has revealed that Australian Correctional Management (ACM) replaced striking employees at its Port Headland refugee detention centre with detainees, paying them around $10 per day. The centre's catering and maintenance employees are employed on common law contracts as casual workers but effectively have been working full-time for the past two years with no access to sick leave or annual leave. When they took protected action over negotiations for a collective agreement, ACM used detainees to perform the work of the striking employees. "Is this how the Immigration Department intends to set about recouping the money spent on detainees, by utilising them as strike breakers?", asked the union, which has demanded that the Immigration Minister investigate the practices of the private prison company which it has contracted to run all refugee centres in Australia.