The Guardian April 24, 2002


Asylum seeker policies appropriate in an asylum

by Peter Mac

The Howard Government's asylum seeker policies continue to be expressed 
in human tragedy. As revealed last week in ABC TV's Four Corners 
program, Australian Navy authorities at certain times have offered 
little or no medical assistance to critically ill refugees in their 
custody, and three asylum seekers appear to have drowned as a result of the 
implementation of the Government's "deter and deny" refugee policies last 
year.

As Four Corners revealed, after the Tampa incident last year the 
Australian Navy intercepted a boat full of asylum seekers within Australian 
territorial limits. Some 130 refugees were forced into the hold of the 
boat, in a space designed to accommodate 50, and were told that they were 
to be taken to Australia. However, they were actually towed across 
international waters and abandoned close to an Indonesian island.

The distress of the refugees when they realised they had been betrayed was 
terrible, and the soldiers supervising them used double-strength water 
hoses, capsicum spray and batons, (which the refugees claimed were 
electrically charged), to subdue them.

After the Australian Navy and soldiers abandoned the vessel, which was in 
appalling condition, it ran aground and began to sink. The refugees were 
forced to struggle in the dark three miles across a partly submerged reef, 
in order to get to the island. Three of them disappeared, and are presumed 
to have drowned.

Publicity concerning the refugees has continually dogged the Government, 
which has taken a number of steps to muzzle or deflect criticism.

The Senate inquiry into the "children overboard" claims has now heard that 
the Government late last year issued instructions to the Defence Department 
that no photos were to be taken of the refugees that would tend to portray 
them in a sympathetic or "human" light.

The Navy's media section was also told to direct all media inquiries about 
the Government's border protection policy to Defence Minister Peter Reith's 
personal secretary. This confirms the abandoned refugees' claims to have 
heard that requests by Navy personnel for instructions were being directed 
to "the highest authority".

Top navy personnel also testified to the inquiry that they had advised the 
Government before the last elections that photographs of refugees in the 
water were taken after their boat sank. The Government had previously 
claimed the photos were evidence of children having been thrown into the 
water.

Moreover, various senior public servants have testified that they took 
steps to advise the Government at this time that there was no evidence to 
support the "children overboard" claims.

All of this testimony very effectively scuttles the Government's claims 
that they genuinely believed that the children had been thrown into the 
water, and that they did not intentionally deceive the Australian 
electorate before the last elections.

The Government has now resorted to blocking Reith's media secretary from 
testifying before the inquiry. They have also accepted advised from the 
Clerk of the House of Representatives to the effect that Reith himself is 
not obliged to appear before the inquiry (which the Government describes as 
a "witch hunt"), despite having received contrary advice from the Clerk of 
the Senate.

The Government's self-inflicted headache over the asylum seeker issue has 
been compounded by the news that the cost of implementing its "Pacific 
solution" policy is likely to balloon out to $140 million this financial 
year.

A recently-released report has indicated that the cost of processing 
refugees on Christmas and Cocos Islands alone is almost double that of 
doing so on the mainland.

And there's more trouble with regard to the detention centre on the remote 
Papua-New Guinea territory of Manus Island. A specialist in international 
law has stated that its government may be in breach of the PNG constitution 
in providing accommodation there for asylum seekers on behalf of the 
Australian Government.

Meanwhile, our intrepid Minister for Immigration, Senator Phillip Ruddock, 
who is currently travelling the world trying to find other nations to 
shoulder Australia's responsibilities for asylum seekers, has suffered a 
stinging rebuke from the Norwegian Minister for Immigration, Ms Erna 
Solberg.

The fact that the freighter the Tampa, which rescued a large number of 
refugees last October, was Norwegian, appears to have convinced Mr Ruddock 
and the Howard Government that Norway, on the other side of the world, is 
now morally obliged to offer asylum to most if not all of the refugees.

Ms Solberg was not impressed by this curious reasoning, and has bluntly 
stated that while she would not rule out Norway's accepting some of the 
Tampa refugees on humanitarian grounds, she nevertheless believed that 
Australia was not meeting its own international obligations regarding 
asylum seekers.

In proportion to its population, Norway takes almost three times as many 
refugees as Australia does. Ms Solberg commented acidly: "I see a lot of 
irony in ... a country that takes fewer refugees than we do asking (us) to 
accept more."

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