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Australia in Crisis Group firing line


Curtin detention centreWhy do we find the Government's and the Opposition's immigration policies despicable? Let us count the ways.

The Government's decision in April to suspend the processing of claims for asylum in Australia made by people from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka is a reaffirmation of the resoundingly condemned policy of mandatory detention. The decision to reopen the Curtin 'hell hole' (pictured) and to resurrect disused miners' accommodation in Leonora, a dusty 832 km drive east of Perth, is a cynical response to political, not logistical requirements.

Meanwhile, spinners for the right suggest boatloads of 'huddled masses' are arriving in unmanageable numbers. But the numbers don't add up. Australia is a minor contributor to refugee protection. The UNHCR's most up-to-date figures indicate that Australia is host to just 0.6 per cent of all asylum seekers with cases pending. And Australia's resettlement program meets the protection needs of just 0.07 per cent of the world's refugees.

The Government policy perpetuates a deliberately constructed illusion that Australia is 'full' when our most remote detention centres are overcrowded. The perpetuation of this myth shows that the Government's failure to repeal the excision of parts of Australia from our so-called migration zone is cynical, not just cowardly.

But the most despicable aspect of the policies is the suggestion that conditions in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka have somehow changed for the better. This is crass dishonesty. The Edmund Rice Centre has documented human rights violations perpetrated against rejected asylum seekers who have been returned to both countries from Australia, most recently in respect of returnees to Sri Lanka. This should shock us all, for this represents the most fundamental breach of Australia's international protection obligations.

Credible independent reports suggest that the security situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated over the last year. In Sri Lanka, the fate of Tamils (and anyone who dissents) in 'post-war' Sri Lanka is clear. A recent report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) documents how events in that country have been marked by widespread unlawful detentions, disappearances, attacks on journalists, threats to politicians, extrajudicial executions including of those who were trying to surrender, attacks on NGOs and intimidation of the UN.

The ICG has called on countries, including Australia, who turned a blind eye to the violations when they were happening during the height of the conflict, to take positive steps to ensure proper international investigation of war crimes by Sri Lankan government forces during the closing months of the civil war. This includes granting asylum or other protected status to witnesses and acting to preserve evidence of war crimes, particularly by allowing officials to cooperate with credible investigations.

Instead, perfecting the art of parochial self-serving navel-gazing, the Australian Government takes steps to ensure that possible victims and witnesses are locked up indefinitely to discourage other victims and witnesses from 'sullying' our shores.

Although the Immigration Minister has since urged caution in returning asylum seekers connected to the LTTE, this does not embrace all those at risk; and the recently announced Opposition policy spares not even a moment's reflection on conditions in Sri Lanka or Afghanistan.

The Rudd Government has demonstrated the utmost in non-leadership. In turn, this has enabled the cruellest excesses of the Howard era to inveigle their way seamlessly back into the debate through Tony Abbott's new 'border protection policy'.

The Government and the Opposition alike must know that their policies are wrong and immoral. Too scared to acknowledge this, they instead vacate the field of argument to the worst of the populist tabloids and shock jocks. Labor renews the legitimacy bestowed on them by Kim Beazley's famous backdown in 2001 and the Coalition triumphantly re-embraces Hansonism.

Sadly, the shame that flows from Australia's mainstream parties' latest turn to the dark side in their attitudes to asylum seekers seems likely to endure.

Eve LesterEve Lester is treasurer of Australian Lawyers for Human Rights.

Topic tags: eve lester, Stephen Keim, Australian Lawyers for Human Rights, immigration, asylum seekers, refugees



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Existing comments

First (or fiftieth) yesterday and now again today. Thus, might I repeat yesterday's comment.

"Do you think we could have a moratorium on bleeding-heart articles about asylum seekers and how dreadful, even immoral, are the policies and practices of both our major political parties - until someone (where are you Eureka Street when we need you?) comes up with an alternative real, practical, workable, and moral, alternative?"

All of this moralistic wailing and gnashing of teeth will get us absolutely nowhere until one or more of the "experts", real or imagined, provides us with a concrete, workable policy and plan to solve the problem.
Personally I have had enough of this negativity. I don't know the answer, but I do know that nothing useful will happen until and unless someone has something positive to offer.

John R. Sabine | 01 June 2010  

John R Sabine, I agree with you 100%. Is Eureka Street Catholic? or a branch of the Greens Party?

Ron Cini | 01 June 2010  

John, we writers do propose solutions, to process the applications in a lawful manner which respects human rights and dignity of the asylum seekers. The alternatives are those of the opposition or the freeze by the government.

Kerry Murphy | 01 June 2010  

The solutions, John Sabine and Ron Cini, are obvious.

Step 1: consider yourself a human being, just like those seeking refuge in time of fear and distress

Step 2: consider yourself to be a citizen of the world, not just Australia.

Step 3: accept that Australia has signed a convention - that means we are committed to it and need to abide by it!

Step 4: recognise that the demands being made on Australia are pitiful in comparison to many other countries. The majority of countries under refugee stress are third world countries, not first world countries, but even compared to first world countries, Australia is not being asked to do much at all.

Step 5: Stop using terms like "bleeding heart" as a pejorative in a Catholic context - "bleeding heart" is exactly the point here.

Step 6: get acquainted with facts, not the moronic comments of the shock jocks.

All that is required of the Australian Government is some moral courage: treat these people with dignity and respect and process their claims quickly. What's so hard about that?

Erik H | 01 June 2010  

A splendidly argued and hard hitting article. As Rudd closes his eyes, terrified at the electoral dangers of Abbott's dishonest and morally bankrupt popularism, the lines of Dylan Thoms call us to:"Rage, rage, against the dying of the light."

Joe Castley | 01 June 2010  

Eve, Erik and Kerry , thank you! John and Ron, the problem you want to define is: xenophobia, and despicable populist political manipulation of the truth.The answer is to stop it and behave better. We are not talking about illegal immigrants but legal asylum seekers.

The Christian response is surely one of welcome, sympathy and loving care.I believe that that is what my Lord Jesus Christ would want me/us to do.

eugene | 01 June 2010  

"The Government and the Opposition alike must know that their policies are wrong and immoral. Too scared to acknowledge this, they instead vacate the field of argument to the worst of the populist tabloids and shock jocks."

This perfectly sums up your cultural elitist fear of the masses, Eve. It is the same fear the aristocracy had for the mob a few hundred years ago.

Nathan Socci | 01 June 2010  

John Sabine- Negativity will continue unless the masses DO SOMETHING! Subsicribe to Getup - lobby your local member - lobby the minister and the Prime Minister - talk to those who agree with the current position - write letters to the newspapers etc. etc. It's okay to criticise but do something YOURSELF! I am not a catholic!

Jan Taylor | 01 June 2010  

May I return briefly to the fray - particularly in answer to Erik H, but the same point applies to several others.
Eric, I could hardly disagree with any of your points 1 through 6. But, as I often said to my students, "I am delighted that you want to change the world; but what precisely are you going to do when you come to work on Monday morning?".
If the Government adopted, as POLICY, all of what you suggested, then what would it actually do, in PRACTICE, not just in theory?
Remembering that there are ten, twenty, a hundred times the number of equally-deserving refugees waiting patiently in line than are coming by boat, where would it meet these boat people, where would they stay while they were being processed, should they be processed ahead of the others, and so on?
You want action. What real action do you want? Other than for more and more people just to be talking about "moral courage"?

John R. Sabine | 01 June 2010  

Erik H, I do not consider myself a global citizen, I am a citizen of Australia. To me Australia comes first. For your information Australia has welcomed refugees since the end of World War 2, before Australia signed the 1951 Refugee Convention. All the displaced persons that came to Australia since then, settled very well, worked hard and built a new life. People who travel through many countries and pay thousands of dollars to people smuglers are not asylum seekers, they choose to come to the lucky country. They force law abiding asylum seekers maybe somewhere in Africa or Asia to wait longer to come to a safe place.It is easy for you to ridicule people who do not share your view, because you have been brainwashed by the leftwing-greens propaganda.

Ron Cini | 02 June 2010  

John Sabine, what has being somewhere else got to do with anything? If people are refugees in other countries they have no right to be refugees in this country.

Marilyn | 03 June 2010  

At Last.. the 'ugly' Sri Lankan situation and our Australian Government handling of it is rightly reported, and ditto for your comments and indictment of Government and Opposition alike, who could have their logistics problem solved if they would permit those of us who would gladly put up our hands to help by sponsoring with housing nurturing and work/training some of the refugees - and particularly the assylum seekers - e.g. from Tamil Sri Lanka, a place & people & culture that we're familiar with .. And NO.. we're of English/Irish/German ancestry - not Sri Lankans - old enough to remember the Colombo Plan.. What has happened? And Please.. find that practical and caring moral way for those of us who can afford to, and who want to, to be permitted to help the helpless and offer something positive.. Every little helps.. 2 or 3 families per annum, to share our home, garden and resources.

mary j ebert | 21 June 2010  

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