Remember when Gillard announced plans to get asylum seeker children out of detention centres and into the equivalent of community halfway houses? To provide them with mental health care? Speed up processing asylum seekers’ claims? At the time, I wrote:
‘It’s a start. But that’s all it is. And the government shouldn’t think it can now rest on its compassionate laurels.’
Remember when the High Court ruled that boat-borne asylum seekers were entitled to appeal denied claims in Australian courts? My comment then:
‘Unless the government moves to introduce some particularly dodgy legislation, the implications of this High Court decision are far-reaching.’
Well, the government neither rested on its laurels nor tried to bring in dodgy laws. Instead, they pulled a dirty trick – one that is as callous as it is sneaky.
Ashmore Reef is a tiny speck of Australian land in the Indian Ocean, only fully exposed at low tide. Before 2001, it was a favourite destination for boat-borne asylum seekers, even though there is no infrastructure to speak of, and its wells are subject to viral and bacterial contamination. Once landed, those from the boat could claim asylum from Australia, invoking the provisions of the Migration Act, including access to the Australian legal system. Former Prime Minister John Howard’s government removed that option in 2001, excising Ashmore Reef, Christmas Island, Cartier Island and the Cocos Islands from Australia’s migration zone. This made it possible to treat anyone arriving there by boat to be treated as an ‘offshore’ asylum seeker; Australia is under no obligation to issue a visa, and there is no access to the courts.
After the recent unrest at the overcrowded Christmas Island detention centre, the Labor government announced that the facility was closed to new arrivals – put ‘on bypass’, as it were. Future asylum seekers would be processed in mainland centres. Of course, that immediately raised the question of the refugee claimants’ legal status – as onshore arrivals, they would have full access to the courts and be able to apply for visas. The Opposition was particularly quick to seize the opportunity to make political capital out of this possibility, trotting out the well-worn ‘failed border protection policies’ and ‘lost control of our borders’ slogans.
Last night it announced that an intercepted boat bound for the mainland was briefly forced to detour to Ashmore Reef. The passengers were offloaded, and transferred to two Border Protection Command vessels, before continuing towards Broome. According to a Customs spokesperson, this happened purely for ‘operational’ reasons: ‘The use of two vessels ensured the passengers had more comfort and provided them with additional facilities’.
On the face of it, that’s a remarkably thoughtful act. The boats that carry asylum seekers are usually crowded, often unseaworthy, providing little or no sanitary facilities. A quick stop-off to transfer people so that they can undertake the last 2000 km or so in comfort seems like a good idea.
It all sounds very compassionate and concerned – right up until you realise that in doing this, Customs stripped those people of their legal rights. The moment their feet touched Ashmore Reef, they lost the right to apply for a visa. They may also have lost their right to full access to the courts.
It’s a callous move designed to take advantage of the Howard government’s original despicable actions, and the naiveté of the asylum seekers. What makes it even more disgusting is the transparent whitewash attempt.
The High Court decision may well put a spoke in this sneaky little plan. It ruled that all asylum seekers are to be treated equally in terms of the Migration Act, regardless of their mode of travel. A little while ago, however, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen, however, declared he had advice to the contrary – that this boatload would be treated as ‘offshore’ asylum seekers.
So much for ‘operational’ concerns. So much for the refugees’ ‘comfort’. Bowen’s words give the lie to Customs’ explanation for the detour and show it up for the pathetic excuse it was.
The government appears to be gambling that it can interpret the High Court decision to suit itself. If it can get away with classifying this latest boatload of asylum seekers as ‘offshore’, it succeeds on two fronts. First, it can save itself the trouble of having to fund access to courts for boat-borne refugees. Second – and perhaps this is, in fact, their primary concern – it removes one line of attack from the Opposition. If they can simply factor in an Ashmore Reef stop-over for every boat interception, it avoids a great deal of trouble.
What doesn’t seem to factor anywhere in the Government’s ‘Indian solution’ is any sense of compassion for the people it herded ashore and tricked into possibly giving up their legal rights. Just political expediency.
Just like John Howard’s ‘Pacific Solution’.
We’ll have to wait and see if the High Court decision renders the Government’s dirty tricks pointless. In the meantime, we can hope that Bowen might come to some understanding of ‘humane behaviour’ and ‘fair play’.
I’m not holding my breath, mind you.