The Guardian October 31, 2001


Blood on their hands

by Marcus Browning

In the past 12 months or so taxpayers have footed the bill for the 
Government's inhumane treatment of asylum seekers to the tune of more than 
$100 million. Refugees have been paying with their liberty, dignity, 
families and lives. The drowning last week of 353 mainly Iraqi refugees 
bound for Australia has been used as a political football by both Liberal 
and Labor Parties.

Their campaign trail is littered with the most contemptible policies 
towards refugees with lies, hypocrisy and the savage treatment of those 
attempting to sail to Australia on boats and those already incarcerated in 
various prison islands and refugee camps.

For months now, the Howard Government has been pursuing a policy that can 
only be described as racist as it is directed to refusing entry to those 
from Middle Eastern.countries and from Afghanistan. The US bombing has 
already created a huge wave of refugees but the Howard Government refuses 
to respond with any sympathy or even a minimal acceptance of Afghan 
refugees created by his and Bush's war.

The Howard Government's inhumane decisions are being used shamlessly to win 
the Coalition Government a third term in office.

Most of the men, women and children who drowned were coming to Australia to 
be reunited with their families. The Howard Government, with the support of 
the ALP, introduced laws in 1999 preventing family reunion. This forced 
people who want to be with their husbands, wives children and parents to 
resort to desperate measures, including dangerous attempts by boat.

"Refugee advocates at the time [1999] said the effect would be to drive the 
immediate families of refugees, into the hands of people smugglers, putting 
them at risk", said William Maley, Chairman of the Refugee Council of 
Australia.

Australia's chief Muslim cleric, Mufti of Australia Sheik Taj el Din Al 
Hilaly, also said it was Australia's immigration policy that caused the 
deaths. "Mr Howard closed all legal and safe means for these people to find 
freedom and safety."

Saying Howard had blood on his hands, the Mufti berated the Government for 
using refugees to garner votes. "He opened the gates of death for these 
people. It is unfortunate to see that innocent lives are now being used as 
a way to win a few votes.

"Winning votes should never be justification for the death of innocent 
women and children", he said.

Adding to Australia's growing international reputation as an inhumane 
country willing to flout international law, the Government announced last 
week that it is willing to take only 40 of the 500 asylum seekers in 
Indonesia approved for refugee status by the UN High Commissioner for 
Refugees.

The Commissioner's Australian representative, Ellen Hansen, said in 
response to the Government's decision that desperation forced refugees into 
the clutches of people smugglers.

"These are people who've stood in the queue, gone through the queue and 
can't make the last step", said Ms Hansen. "This is what is propelling them 
into the hands of the people smugglers."

The extent of the Government's ruthlessness in the lead up to the November 
10 election can be found in Ruddock's attempt to blame the victims, those 
drowned at sea and their families, for the whole terrible and tragic 
incident. "People have some personal responsibility in relation to the 
circumstances in which they put themselves", he said.

He accused them of committing what he and his Government have made a 
criminal offence  of seeking family reunion. "The great bulk of those on 
the vessel were ... I suspect, people looking for family reunion outcomes."

Now, on Australia's prison islands, in addition to 215 new arrivals near 
Ashmore Reef, there are about 800 asylum seekers on Nauru, 225 on PNG's 
Manus Island, 220 off the coast of Christmas Island and 71 on Cocos Island.

"It is hard to imagine a more inhumane and contemptible policy than that 
pursued by the Howard Government", said Peter Symon, CPA General Secretary 
in a comment to The Guardian. "By pressurising and bribing the 
governments of Nauru, PNG and other countries, the Australian Government is 
obliging these small countries to do what Australia is not prepared to do 
itself.

"The Government's harsh measures do nothing to solve the huge refugee 
crisis which is of worldwide dimensions. Nor is it likely to deter 
desperate people who have been deprived of all hope from taking extreme 
risks to escape their situation when all doors are slammed in their faces.

"The Australian Government's policies are all the more reprehensible when 
it is known that even the small quota set aside for refugees has not been 
filled for several years.

"What has happened will not do anything for Australia's reputation as a 
friendly, welcoming country and although assembled Liberals may applaud the 
Government's 'hard line', it will sooner or later be responded to by other 
countries which will not forget Australia's inhumanity and selfishness.

"Why can't the Government take in many more refugees even if on temporary 
visas. Many will want to return to their homelands when the situations from 
which they are fleeing are improved", concluded Mr Symon.

(Footnote: It is par for the course that taxpayers are to foot the bill for 
an out-of-court settlement in a legal action against Immigration Minister, 
Ruddock and Australasian Correctional Management (ACM) brought by eight 
Chinese refugees who were bashed by guards at the Villawood detention 
centre in Sydney. ACM is the company that operates Australia's refugee 
detention centres under contract to the Government. The amount involved in 
the settlement will not be made public.)

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