The Guardian November 21, 2001


New refugee policies more cruel, more absurd

by Peter Mac

The Howard Government's new rules on refugees are having a savage effect on 
those seeking refuge in Australia. The rules will automatically disqualify 
from future citizenship any temporary protection visa holders, including 
boat people, who prior to their arrival happen to have spent seven days or 
more in either Indonesia, Pakistan or Malaysia. They are also barred from 
migrant English language classes and family reunion programs.

Director of the Australian Refugees Association, Kevin Liston, noted that 
those who previously took government advice to wait till the end of what 
was then the 30-month qualification period before applying for permanent 
refugee status now find themselves unable to qualify because of the new 
laws.

Despite widespread criticism, including from Australian business leaders, 
the government's policies are now being carried through to a logical 
conclusion that is both absurd and cruel.

Although Australia is one of the vastest and least-densely-populated 
nations on earth, many small Pacific Island nations now dependent on 
Australian aid are being pressured to accept processing of more of those 
who desperately try to reach our shores for assistance.

However, the island governments have recently received a valuable lesson in 
reading the fine print. The Australian Government has let it be known that 
Pacific Island countries that accept the processing of applications for 
refugees on Australia's behalf will now be expected to accept those whom 
Australia rejects, or else to repatriate them to their country of origin.

The governments of Fiji and Papua New Guinea, who were considering the 
latest Australian Government request for processing of asylum seekers, have 
reacted with shock to this latest clarification of the deal the Australian 
Government is offering its Pacific neighbours.

It's different in Nauru. After the Tampa affair the Nauruan President, Remy 
Namaduk, accepted with enthusiasm an Australian government offer to meet 
the island's fuel bills in return for processing of refugees.

Last week Namaduk stated with relish, "I used to have a huge worry about my 
fuel bill, and now that is being taken care of by Australia ... only today 
I have my education people talking with AusAid about scholarship programs, 
so we Nauruans are very happy to help Australia."

Recently, however, the President suffered international embarrassment when 
a container ship carrying food supplies for the island was told by its 
operators not to unload their cargo until the government had paid some 
$600,000 in outstanding debts for previous supplies. President Namaduk is 
rumoured to be a man of considerable wealth.

But perhaps the most appalling story in the Pacific refugee processing saga 
concerns the tiny island state of Tuvalu. The US, backed by its craven ally 
the Australian Government, has refused to agree to measures designed to 
seriously tackle global warming, which is now causing the world's sea 
levels to rise.

The land mass of Tuvalu is now shrinking as a result, and in desperation 
its government recently wrote to the Australian Government seeking to 
relocate some of its citizens to Australia.

The Howard Government has not agreed to this request, but the Tuvalu 
Government was astonished to learn recently that the Howard Government 
wanted them to accept a number of refugees for processing from Australia.

And what's the ALP stand on these new developments? Although the leadership 
is under trenchant criticism from many Labor figures (including Gough 
Whitlam) the new Crean regime does not appear to have changed its tune. As 
the New York Times commented, "the difference (between the ALP and 
the Coalition) is the difference between Omo and Rinso. Both are running on 
the promise that they will keep Australia whiter."

A POSTCRIPT

Seeking to meet a shortage of local labour, a councillor at the Victorian 
town of Warnambool sought help from the Victorian Migrant Resource Centre. 
They sent a group of men to work in the town, some of whom are on temporary 
protection visas.

Their hopes of obtaining a new life in Australia have been cruelly 
shattered, as there is no way they can gain full citizenship, and their 
hopes of bringing their families are virtually non-existent.

Life is full of irony. The coast at Warnambool is thought to have been the 
arrival site of one of Australia's earliest groups of "boat people". In 
1525 one of the ships under the command of Portuguese navigator De Quiros, 
en route to fight the Spanish explorer Magellan, is believed to have been 
wrecked at Warnambool, and its crew drowned while trying to reach the 
shore.

At least they died quickly. With regard to the new asylum-seeker laws, one 
of the Warnambool asylum seekers commented bitterly last week, "here 
they're killing us slowly".

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