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."