The Guardian October 10, 2001


"Pacific Solution":
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.

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