Shameful chapter closes, another set to open
by Bob Briton Last week it was reported that the last of the asylum seekers was removed from the HMAS Manoora, ending this stage in their struggle for the proper consideration of their cases in Australia as was required under international law. The circumstances surrounding recent events are so shameful that it appears only Howard, his Government hopeful of re-election, One Nation and other red-necked elements in the community are claiming satisfaction with the "Pacific Solution" of imprisoning the asylum-seekers on the tiny island of Nauru. The Coalition is trusting that sufficient illwill towards the displaced people can be generated in the electorate to carry it into a third term at the forthcoming Federal elections. Their cause is, no doubt, aided by the general atmosphere of fear, intolerance and revenge being whipped up in response to the terrorist attacks in the US. It would seem that Labor is worried that the Coalition's judgement might be right. A fortnight ago they voted with the Government to rush through legislation to exclude Christmas Island, Ashmore and Cartier Islands, the Cocos Islands and any island forming part of a state or territory from the migration zones of Australia. It abolishes any asylum seeker's right to appeal through the courts and provides for mandatory sentencing for people smugglers. Clearly Labor's stated objection in principle to mandatory sentencing only applies if there's a Northern Territory election to be won. SA Labor Senator Chris Schacht did his best to disown the capitulation and suppress his discomfit. Completely denying any function for an opposition on such a crucial issue, he said to the Government, "if this is what you want to do, you can have your package of Bills". Senator Schacht wasn't the only one left shamefaced at the turn of events. The Nauru Government itself appeared concerned that its international reputation would suffer alongside Australia's when the implications of its undertakings became real. President Rene Harris of Nauru initially agreed to a "beads and blankets" deal which exchanged fuel for electricity generation, the cancelling of medical bills, the doubling of the number of Australian scholarships and a new sporting facility in return for the warehousing of the asylum seekers. The impact of the pathetic scene in which fully kitted soldiers wrestled clearly unwilling asylum seekers from the HMAS Manoora was too much, however. President Harris had a health crisis and was flown to Australia for emergency treatment. A spokesman for the Nauru Government, Mr Hamish McLean said that the forced evictions would stop and that observers from the Government would be sent to ensure that any future departures would be on a voluntary basis. At long last the media was able to receive some communication from the asylum seekers. The first thing we learn at first hand was that some of them feel they had been tricked into leaving the ship with promises of being transferred to Australia. Defence sources were quoted in the press as being unhappy at their new role. They had understood that the Federal Police would be responsible for the removal of all those aboard the Manoora. Mr Lom of the International Organisation of Migration, which had sent representatives to the island to observe proceedings, summoned all his self-restraint and said of the Australian authorities "obviously their negotiating tactics aren't the same as ours". The UN High Commission for Refugees Australian representative Ellen Hansen made it clear that her organisation would not be involved in the processing of another 262 asylum seekers currently being sent to Nauru aboard the HMAS Tobruk. "As the guardians of the Refugee Convention we have a legitimate interest in what happens to these people. But we do not believe that the current arrangements meet the edifice of asylum that has been built up over the years", she said. Meanwhile, Justice Marcus Einfeld and the UN's High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva, Ruud Lubbers, both went public with warnings to the Federal Government against using the plight of refugees for political purposes. From the Government we continued to get claims like that of Defence Minister Peter Reith that some of the evicted asylum seekers were "playing up" for the media. Elsewhere, Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock said that the Refugee Action Collective was responsible for the disturbances at the Woomera Detention Facility. Queensland Liberal backbencher Warren Entsch proposed starving the apprehensive asylum seekers off the Manoora. "One way, I guess, would be to stop feeding them. If they want the food, It's on the beach. It's as simple as that." Ultimately, with more asylum seekers being ferried to Nauru at this very minute, the Afghan and Iraqi victims of various US, ANZUS and NATO military adventures have been left to adapt to the conditions at the unfinished detention centre on the site of the island's former sports oval. The Federal Government will persist in promoting intolerance for its own perverse political ends. The asylum seekers and progressive political voices will keep calling for the Australian Government to apply Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution." That is the sad, sick story so far.