Hard-headed AND hard-hearted

August 13, 2012

The expert panel appointed by Prime Minister Julia Gillard to ‘fix’ Australia’s asylum seeker policy handed down its report today. There were 22 recommendations, which can be found here. They amount to a more draconian version of the Pacific Solution, with the worst of the current government’s policies thrown in.

The first thing that strikes the reader is the language. It’s all about ensuring there is ‘no advantage’ for asylum seekers, that they can gain ‘no benefit’. Houston took that one step further, implying that those who ‘choose’ to seek asylum via a boat voyage did so because it allowed them to ‘circumvent’ regular migrations arrangements.

So first up, we have the ‘queue-jumper’ argument. Those who arrive by boat and claim asylum are doing something ‘wrong’, which is unfair to those who sit in camps halfway around the world. That’s the foundation for the panel’s recommendations; that asylum seekers are selfish criminals. It doesn’t matter how much they dress it up with rhetoric about deaths at sea and protecting people from making dangerous voyages; once the queue-jumper argument is in play, real agendas become exposed.

With that in mind, it’s no wonder that the panel went on to recommend that the detention centre on Nauru be re-opened as soon as possible, and that another be established in Papua New Guinea (most likely, the refurbishment of the Manus Island facility). That’s what you do with criminals, right? You put them in detention, out of sight and (hopefully) out of mind.

To facilitate this, the panel suggested that the government introduce legislation to allow this offshore processing to take place – in other words, to close the loophole successfully exploited by human rights lawyer David Manne that put an end to the Malaysia people swap. And speaking of Malaysia, the panel said it wasn’t necessary to throw that away altogether. The solution, while currently unviable, can be rehabilitated with a little work.

So at this point we have the worst of the two major parties’ policies in an unholy marriage – the ridiculous, pointless, horrifying Malaysian people swap, and the proven inhumanity of the Pacific Solution. This panel – which apparently included a refugee advocate – recommends sending people to countries that are not signatories to UN conventions, and in the case of Nauru, into situations known to cause serious mental and physical harm.

But it gets worse.

You see, the panel determined there was a significant ‘pull’ factor. Boat-borne asylum seekers were likely to come to Australia because they could apply to bring their families over through the special humanitarian family reunion scheme. The solution, therefore, was to remove access to that scheme for any asylum seeker who came by sea. They’d have to go through the Migration program. Oh, and that includes anyone whose claims are currently in progress – that should stop right now.

Yeah, you read that right.

Not only did the panel again attempt to criminalise asylum seekers, they actually recommended something which is likely to result in more deaths at sea, not less. It’s common for a father or oldest male relative to make the journey, be processed and then apply to bring his family to his country of asylum, in order to spare them the risk. Certainly, it’s far more dangerous for a child to undertake the voyage than an adult. But as far as the panel is concerned, what’s ‘really’ going on is just an attempt to do an end run around our migration procedures. Never mind that these families live in constant fear while they wait to hear from their fathers. Never mind that this may be the only way a man can safeguard his family. The panel would have you believe that they’re just being unfair.

But of course, the ‘best’ thing to do would be to stop the boats altogether, right? That’s what we really want, surely? Houston was forced to admit that this just simply wasn’t feasible at the moment – but added that it could be . A little diplomacy here, the odd handshake there, and we can do it.

And just in case those pesky boat people do sneak through the net and make it to the Australian shore? The panel have a solution for that, too.

Remember when former Prime Minister John Howard decided to excise certain island territories from Australia’s migration zone, thus removing a number of legal protections under Australian law from asylum seekers? Well, the panel thinks we should standardise legal status – not to give people in the excised zones more rights, but to give those who land inside Australia’s migration zone less.

There were a couple of lines tacked onto the end dealing with the idea of beefing up our Search and Rescue capacity, and perhaps doing a bit more research, but that’s the gist of the report. Demonise them, keep them out if possible, and if we can’t, lock them up offshore (oh, I’m sorry, Houston doesn’t like the word ‘offshore’; he prefers ‘regional’) and do everything we can to ensure that their escape from persecution is as traumatic and xenophobic as possible. Oh, and the panel suggests that all their recommendations should be adopted, because they’re so wonderfully integrated. In other words, no naughty amendments to legislation, you bleeding hearts. Apparently this report is something like a Jenga tower, and would collapse if one little bit was moved.

These recommendations are the worst sort of dog-whistling, and the fact that Houston repeatedly described these decisions as ‘strategic’ only betrays the thinking behind them. Not ‘humanitarian’, not ‘compassionate’, not even ‘safe’. Strategic. Houston would have us believe that asylum seekers on boats are the enemy.

Asylum seekers are not the enemy. This ‘expert’ panel’s report is the enemy. It gives us no solutions, merely panders to the worst qualities in us, and seeks to wrap prejudice and expedience up in mealy-mouthed appeals to ‘fairness’.

In presenting the report, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston remarked that its recommendations were ‘hard-headed, but not hard-hearted’, ‘realistic but not idealistic’, and ‘driven by a sense of humanity as well as fairness’.

I beg to differ, sir.

UPDATE:

Ron Knight, MP for Manus Province in the Papua New Guinea national parliament, told the ABC today that he doubted the disused detention facility could be easily restored. Even if it were, he said, the people were already worried that there would be no benefit to local business, as last time nearly everything was sourced from offshore. He went on to intimate that local landowners might prove an insurmountable obstacle, no matter what the government recommended.

Then there’s the Nauru facility, which is in a state of incredible disrepair. It hasn’t been maintained, and over the years, parts of the structures have been co-opted to use as government offices or even cannibalised by the locals for other buildings.

Keep that in mind next time you hear Gillard or Abbott say that by the end of the week, there’ll be full assessments done, and that within a matter of weeks those facilities can be working at capacity.

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A representative Parliament? Tell her she’s dreaming

June 14, 2011

I had the most wonderful dream last night. I dreamed that politicians, asked to appear on media panel shows and radio interviews, engaged on the issues. I dreamed that three word slogans and blatant spin doctoring were somehow removed from the political vocabulary. I dreamed of passionate, substantive debate – that each side acknowledged the good ideas of the other, and owned up to their own mistakes. I dreamed that politicians worked together to get stuck into the really difficult issues – climate change, asylum seekers, mental health, indigenous health, true equality – without fear of losing the next election or its campaign donations.

I dreamed of an Australian Parliament that truly put the country’s welfare first, ahead of party ideology, ahead of points-scoring and vote-buying.

I woke up to this.

Peter Dutton, Shadow Spokesperson for Health and Ageing, appeared with Trade Minister Craig Emerson on Sky News’ AM Agenda program. He had this to say on asylum seekers: Nauru is the only possible solution for us to deal with this ‘problem’. Over there, people would be free to roam in the community, and even attend church. The Nauruans would welcome them, just like they did last time. It’s the only humane solution.

Humane. How does Dutton not choke on that word?

Nauru is a tiny, water-starved island only 21km across – a worked-out phosphate mine. It is completely dependent on other nations, primarily Australia, for almost everything. It is utterly isolated. Dutton’s declaration that asylum seekers sent there would be free to roam in the community is nonsensical – it’s not like they can disappear into the wider community, is it? Where would they go? Attempt to swim to the Solomon Islands, over 1000km away?

And you can just bet the Nauruan government is willing to bend over backwards to get the detention centre re-opened. They know a good cash cow when they see one. Australian money helps keep the bankrupt nation afloat. When the Pacific Solution was scrapped by the Rudd government, they were deeply dismayed at the loss of funds.

And Peter Dutton says this was humane. Innocent people were exiled to this island in handcuffs, repeatedly bullied to rescind their claim for refugee status, detained for long periods of time in conditions that would be unacceptable for prisoners of war, suffer physical and mental illness, self-harm and even attempt suicide. How could that possibly be humane?

But then Craig Emerson extolled the virtues of sending asylum seekers to Malaysia or Manus Island. It’s a ‘regional solution’. Clearly that is better than simply sending people back to Nauru.

I’ve already written about the potential dangers of Malaysia for asylum seekers. To even suggest that the government’s proposed refugee swap is in some way beneficial for those people is ludicrous.

But what about Manus Island in Papua New Guinea? That was part of the Pacific Solution. That might be a better place.

Well, it’s bigger than Nauru … around 100km x 30km.

Other than that … let’s see. Isolation, mental and physical illness, abuse of human rights … sound familiar?

Then there was Aladdin Sisalem, the ‘forgotten asylum seeker’, who was detained alone in the Manus Island centre well after its supposed closure.

And just by the way, Papua New Guinea also has a history of mistreating asylum seekers, and beating confirmed refugees.

The so-called success of every one of these ‘solutions’ depends entirely on the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ principle. If asylum seekers aren’t visible, they might as well not exist. Politically, that’s a big win. Never mind the systemic abuses of power and human rights – documented facts of record.

There was a Senate Committee investigation into the Pacific Solution, and Nauru in particular. One submission documented the conditions in the camps, and the plight of the asylum seekers held there. In the words of one interviewed detainee:

‘Nauru is not a camp for human, it is a jail just like a hell.’

Another investigation, undertaken by Oxfam, concluded that any way you slice it, the price of Australia’s offshore detention policy is ‘too high’.

Green Senator Sarah Hanson-Young wrote a stinging editorial in The Sydney Morning Herald today condemning the government’s ‘regional solution’, side-swiping the Coalition along the way. She made some excellent points, including the fact that Australia is shirking its legal obligations towards refugees.

But even she couldn’t resist throwing in a party political ad.

These are the people we elected. It’s no use saying, ‘Well, I didn’t vote for them!’ We did. We all did. And then we sit on our hands for three years until the next election, vote again and wonder why nothing changes.

Hanson-Young urged people to take to the streets in support of humane treatment for asylum seekers. While we’re at it, we could march in support of same-sex marriage, tackling climate change, equal pay, or any one of a dozen causes.

Or how about this? We take to the streets to protest against politicians who care more about votes than people. We march in support of a working Parliament committed to the good of the country rather than the perpetuation of ideology. We wave our banners and call for real debate. We stop traffic in the capital cities of Australia. We take the passion that we disseminate amongst all those causes, and focus it straight at Canberra, and say to politicians, ‘You serve us, and it’s about time you remembered that!’

Oh.

Damn.

I just woke up again.


The evil of the Malaysian solution

June 3, 2011

WARNING: This article contains graphic descriptions of torture and links to videos containing graphic violence.

The Gillard government’s proposed deal with Malaysia to get rid of its asylum seeker problem just goes from bad to worse. It’s not sealed yet – and may never be, as Shadow Immigration Spokesperson Scott Morrison keeps insisting – but it looks a lot more likely than the East Timor processing centre idea ever did.

Bad enough that the government intends to dump 800 of its asylum seekers into a country that has not signed the UN Convention on Refugees – a country over which we have no possible influence (unlike Nauru, which is effectively dependent on our money just to survive).

Bad enough that the government wants to take five times as many people back – people who’ve already been processed in Malaysia and found to be refugees.

Bad enough, the ridiculous argument that this deal would ‘remove the product’ for people smugglers to peddle.

But now documents have surfaced that show some of the wheeling and dealing taking place away from public scrutiny. What those documents show is just how much the government is willing to entertain – and it’s appalling.

Gillard maintained absolutely that Australia would determine who was sent overseas, and who would be accepted in return. She said repeatedly in Parliament that Malaysia did not have any kind of veto in that respect.

Yet this is exactly what Malaysia wants – the right to pick and choose who they want to offload on us, while ensuring they get the best possible deal.

Then there’s the matter of children. One of Labor’s biggest sticks for beating the former Howard government over the head was the dreadful prospect of children ‘behind razor wire’. There’s no doubt that particular image did a lot to turn people away from the kind of open-ended detention policies that former Prime Minister Rudd vowed to abolish. And then there was the announcement in October last year that children in detention would be re-settled in the community and given help from social services.

But lo and behold, the government now refuses to guarantee that children won’t be sent to Malaysia. Unaccompanied children. To do otherwise would ‘send the wrong message’ to the people smugglers, and suddenly we’d see even more children turning up on boats without relatives, apparently.

Right. Because the idea that children will be processed exactly the same as they currently are will immediately cause people smugglers to go out and advertise.

This is nothing but punitive – and it will do nothing to deter parents whose choices are to risk their kids being one of 800 sent to Malaysia, or risk their kids being killed by staying where they are. All it achieves is to frighten already desperate people, and put them through yet more trauma.

Finally – and most disgustingly – the documents reveal that Malaysia wants to excise two words from the proposed deal. Just two words – that’s all. How much of a difference could that make? And just what are those words, anyway?

Human. Rights.

Yes. Malaysia, apparently, doesn’t want to be troubled by such pesky notions. They’re not signatories to any Conventions – so why should they be bound by any other agreement? They’ve got a good system going there. They can detain people for up to 60 days without charge or representation. They allow refugees to be in the community – but won’t allow them to work legally or protect them from exploitation and abuse. They turn a blind eye to police brutality.

And they can cane people – even tourists – for such serious crimes as drinking beer in public. Technically, only men can be caned, but it’s a custom more honoured in the breach than the observance.

Amnesty International calls caning a form of torture. We’re not talking about a whack across the butt with a ruler in the Principal’s office, either. Caning is carried out in a prison yard with multiple witnesses present.

The victim is naked except for an apron tied around the waist that exposes the buttocks. They are tied to an A-frame and the strokes – up to 24 with a length of rattan of varying thicknesses (depending on the severity of the crime) – are administered at full force. The official administering the caning must ensure that the tip hits the victim’s body – increasing the pain.

The initial stroke raises a welt. Typically, the skin splits and bleeds as subsequent blows land on the same area. The victim may convulse or shake uncontrollably, cry out and break down emotionally. Officials wearing gloves and surgical masks flank the victim, sometimes lacing their fingers behind his head to hold him closer to the A-frame.

Horrifically, those same officials may pat the victim’s head while the abuse is taking place. Perhaps they think they’re being kind.

The entire sentence must be carried out in one session – unless the victim passes out or suffers some other kind of medical crisis from the pain and shock.

But it’s not all bad – they do take the victim to the prison hospital afterwards.

This is the system Malaysia seeks to preserve. This is the system into which the government is committed to sending people already traumatised by war or persecution. People exploited, beggared and sometimes enslaved by despicable opportunists. People who risk their lives to escape to a better place.

This is the system into which our government is prepared to send children who may not even have a parent to shelter behind.

Sustainable Population Minister Tony Burke backed up Immigration Minister Chris Bowen in the media. It’s only a preliminary document, they insisted. It’s not the actual deal. There are lots of issues to work through.

But it’s what they didn’t say that made their performance utterly contemptible.

They didn’t say that children would be protected.

And they didn’t say that ensuring the preservation of human rights would be a deal-breaker.

The implications are disturbing, to say the least. That the government is prepared to even consider such revolting provisions shows just how far they are willing to go to grab back a few votes and appear ‘tough on asylum seekers’. It shows that they believe building up their image is more important than the safety, well-being and quality of life of the most vulnerable people.

There’s a word for this behaviour when it happens in the schoolyard. It’s called bullying.

Yes, Prime Minister – you are a bully. Your Immigration Minister is a bully. Your Population Minister is a bully. And every member of your party that doesn’t outright condemn you and fight to stop this terrible deal is guilty of hiding behind a bully rather than doing something to stop you.

What Howard did with the Pacific Solution was horrible, and his government should always be rightly condemned. He, too, was a bully.

But what Gillard proposes is far, far worse. In fact, it’s simply evil.

Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young was asked today why she wasn’t out there marching in the streets leading people in protest against this deal.

It’s a good question. Australians were traumatised by seeing evidence of the unbelievable cruelty meted out to cattle in Indonesian slaughterhouses. They mobilised – and now we have enquiries, bans in place, bills to ban live export of cattle entirely, and any number of other measures are beginning.

Are we going to have to see a young teenaged boy tied up to a post and caned until he cries, bleeds and faints before we’ll do the same for asylum seekers?

Are we going to have to show many more videos like this one?

What will it take?


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