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Foundering justice

  • 05 July 2006

Why should two young African men, seeking protection from persecution and stowed away on a foreign ship berthed in an Australian port, be allowed to disembark and make claims for refugee status?

To those with some knowledge of Australia’s obligations and responsibilities under various human rights instruments, the issue may seem too elementary to warrant inquiry. For those with a less legal bent, but with a sense of justice and common humanity, the answer may seem equally straightforward.

However, events which unfolded in January this year, at ports in Launceston, Corio Bay and then Fremantle, point to a radical shift in Australia’s response to asylum seekers arriving on our shores.

More on this later.) These events mark a further—and alarming—twist in Australia’s retreat from its commitment to compliance with the solemn protection obligations enshrined in international instruments, such as the 1951 Refugee Convention, to which we remain a signatory.

These days, talk of ships and asylum seekers is likely to stir memories of the dramatic events involving the MV Tampa in September 2001. You will recall that in a sudden, radical pre-election reversal of policy, 433 people seeking sanctuary were interdicted from Australian waters. They were then diverted to be detained and ‘processed’ in poor Pacific nations.

Construction of the new so-called Border Protection strategy saw the urgent erection and mplementation of the policy of ‘excision’. Put simply, parts of Australian territory that are commonly the first destination of asylum seekers arriving by boat were erased (‘excised’) from the ‘migration zone’—the area in which the Migration Act applies. The intent and effect was that no person arriving in such places could make a valid application for refugee status (or any other visa) at all. To date, this new dehumanised zone—a place where international human rights are only respected in part, or not at all—applies to only a small amount of Australian territory situated off the far north-west coast of the mainland (Christmas and Cocos islands are cases in point). The government’s application for ‘planning permits’ to extend the ‘excision’ and Border Protection program to allow the erasure of the entire expanse of northern Australia has been rejected by parliament. Most of Australia, at least on the statute books, remains unexcised.

This makes the following events even more disturbing and controversial.

On 12 January 2003, the MV Dorine, a Polish bulk carrier flying the flag of Cyprus, berthed in Bell Bay, Launceston. It had sailed from Port