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Groundhog Day for refugees

  • 26 September 2012

It is said that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. The asylum seeker debate and its 'solutions' illustrate our Government's failure to remember the inhumanity and damge caused by the original — now resurrected — Pacific Solution. But many Australians, particularly previous detainees, have not forgotten.

In March 2002 I was about to do my rounds of the dusty, heat soaked camp that is the Woomera Detention and Reception Centre — where I was employed as a psychologist — when the men in black suits arrived. I recall the image of those men standing in that environment of razor wire, dust and heat, so conspicuous that I exclaimed to the guard beside me: 'Who are those guys?' They were also attracting the uneasy attention of the detainees.

The men had come on a mission from Canberra to 'encourage' Afghan refugees to go home 'voluntarily'. Their brief was to present them with a choice of unending detention or repatriation and $2000. It had the ring of an offer that they could not refuse.

Ten years later $2000 has become a $3000 package and 18 refugees from SriLanka are reported to have chosen to go home rather than accept processing in Nauru. Some commentators are now asking whether they gave fully informed consent. For my part, I confess to feeling skeptical about the use of the word 'chosen', and outrage at Minister Chris Bowen's declaration that this is a signal that 'Nauru is working'.

The asylum seeker dilemma just won't die away, being a political windfall for the Opposition, and a poison ball that the current Government wants to surreptitiously dump. We are finding ways to circumvent our obligations under the Geneva Convention and our own Immigration Act.

The National Post recently recalled a case from May 1939 in which a ship, the MS St Louis, carrying 907 German Jews 'seeking a place to escape persecution' was 'shunned first by Cuba and then by America'.

Canada, too, rejected the refugees: 'none is too many', an unidentified immigration agent said of the Jews aboard the ship  . The St Louis was within two days of Halifax Harbour. Despite the pleas of the captain and the suicidal distress of passengers the ship eventually returned to Germany, and to death for many of the refugees.

Apparently the relatively small numbers of people fleeing to our shores are also too many.

Yet I am flooded with memories of the