Voices grow against refugee policy
by Marcus Browning Angry protests by asylum seekers at the Woomera refugee detention centre have intensified over the past week and a half amid calls from Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Refugee Council of Australia and the UN for the Government to change its anti-refugee program. At the same time the Government has continued to implement its scheme of diverting asylum seekers from Australian shores and into camps in various Pacific nations. Nearly 900 prisoners at the Woomera centre have been involved in the protests against their inhumane treatment, some sewing their lips together in hunger strikes. One person swallowed a toxic substance (disinfectant). Three separate groups are on hunger strikes says a statement by Afghan asylum seekers in the centre. "We have no hope, we see no future. We are ready to die. "We only request the Australian people help us, otherwise we have no choice but to continue the hunger strike until the end of our life." The Woomera Lawyers Group, whose representatives have seen the hunger strikers, said their action was a cry for help because the processing of visas for Afghanis ground to a halt more than three months ago. Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock's response has been predictable, and detestable. "Every time people gain an impression that inappropriate behaviour produces advantageous outcomes, that leads to more inappropriate behaviour", said Ruddock. He should know. If anything could be deemed inappropriate it is the Government's policy of criminalising refugees. This was noted by the international human rights organisation, Human Rights Watch, in its annual report released last week. On the Government's refusal to accept the refugees rescued by Norwegian freighter the "Tampa" last year, which set the whole refugee-bashing process in motion, the report said: "[Prime Minister] Howard refused to let them land and reversed his political fortunes, winning a third term in mid-November on the basis of hard-line policies and new legislation that violated Australia's obligations under international refugee law." The former Australian colony Papua New Guinea has "agreed" to take up to 1000 asylum seekers a year as part of the Howard Government's Pacific non- solution. PNG's involvement in this trafficking in people began last October when it took 216 mainly Iraqi asylum seekers after pressure from Australia and a bribe of $1 million. Australia's Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer said the Manus Island army base, where the 1000 will be incarcerated, would become "an asset" for PNG — the country's very first immigration prison camp. Meanwhile, the refugees locked up on the tiny island nation of Nauru — whose government was also bribed by Australia — are to be processed by the UN High Commission for Refugees which will approach countries such as Canada and Sweden to resettle them. The Refugee Council of Australia added to the growing voices of criticism, saying New Zealand had demonstrated how it was possible to treat refugees humanely and that Australia was primarily responsible for those on Nauru and so should allow them to come to Australia. "We are paying for their detention and processing", said the Council, "therefore we have a responsibility to find a durable solution for them."