The Guardian September 19, 2001


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.

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