The dangers of ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’

July 26, 2013

There’s a ‘national emergency’ on our borders. Did you know that? I’m looking at you, beachfront dwellers. Surely you’ve noticed? Have you alerted the appropriate authorities? Laid in supplies? Built barricades and taken up arms?

You haven’t? Tsk. Clearly, you are not Doing Your Bit For The Country. Where is the Spirit of Anzac? Get out there and Support Our Boys!

What’s that, you say? What could possibly be so terrifyingly urgent that it requires us to declare a state of national emergency?

Asylum seeker boats.

Yes, you read that right. Let’s get serious.

Invasion Imminent - according to the Coalition

Invasion Imminent – according to the Coalition

Not to be outdone by the government’s deal with Papua New Guinea, the Coalition has gone one better, releasing its own policy for tackling the asylum seeker issue.

It’s called ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’, and proposes militarising the entire situation.

We’ll get to examining that, but first let’s take a look at the language. It’s probably true to say that many people won’t read past a summary, and perhaps an introduction, and the writers of this document appear to have taken that into account.

In the Introduction alone, the word ‘illegal’ is used five times to describe asylum seeker boats. The Coalition knows very well that it is not illegal to seek asylum in this way, yet has insisted on using the term. It’s difficult to see any reason for that other than to polarise opinion against asylum seekers – and with that underlying its entire argument, the Coalition quickly throws out a plethora of statistics to drive home the point that Australia is, effectively, under attack. These statistics look impressive, but what’s really going on here?

There’s a comparison between boat arrivals in 2007 and today. That’s it; just the raw numbers. There’s no reference to the changing global situation, the incredibly slow processing time for people in camps, nor, indeed, the fact that people are often not safe even within these camps. The so-called ‘push’ factors that prompt people are entirely glossed over.

There’s a reference to the ‘queue’, with boat arrivals virtually declared not to be genuine refugees before any processing has taken place. Rather, the Coalition asserts that they are simply cashed-up and selfish:

‘These people [in camps] are genuine refugees … denied a chance at resettlement by people who have money in their pocket’.

Of course, there is no acknowledgement that linking irregular maritime arrivals with our humanitarian intake was a political move instituted by the former Howard government, completely out of the hands of asylum seekers.

There are large dollar amounts mentioned, all apparently wasteful spending on failed policies. This money, the Coalition suggests, should have been spent on causes far more deserving, such as education, infrastructure, and hospitals. Again, we have the argument that in some way, asylum seekers are responsibly for denying people their ‘rightful’ portion – this time, Australians themselves. This is dogwhistling of an almost deafening sort; it appeals to the basest, most insecure feelings in the electorate, planting the seed of fear that somehow we – and our children – will suffer if we don’t do something to stop it.

Oh, and let’s not forget the numbers of drownings at sea. Of course, any death at sea is a terrible thing, but the Coalition would have us believe that these are entirely the government’s fault. What it doesn’t want people to remember are disasters like the loss of Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel X, resulting in the death of 353 people, or the sinking of SIEV 4 due to the strain of being towed – after shots were fired across its bow. Both these events happened on a Coalition government’s watch, and, to some extent, we contributed to them.

Having bombarded us with statistics, the Coalition gives us the meat of its policy. It boils down to this:

A single, ‘3-star ranking’ military commander would be in charge of dealing with asylum seeker boats. This commander is to be appointed by the Chief of the Defence Force, and report directly to the Minister for Immigration. An extraordinary amount of power would be concentrated in the hands of the commander, who would command a Task Force drawn from no less than 16 agencies, including six ministries and Australia’s intelligence agencies.

The Coalition offers this justification for such a move:

‘The scale of this problem requires the discipline and focus of a targeted military operation’.

Because there’s nothing more terrifying and dangerous to Australian security than a boat crammed full of unarmed men, women and children risking their lives, right?

To really drive home the point, ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’ would be overseen by the National Security Committee. It’s a neat piece of reasoning – we tell you it’s a national emergency, we wrap it up in khaki and paranoia, and we sell it to you as something not only necessary, but actually good.

And what would this commander and his task force actually do?

First, there’s the question of detention. The Coalition spent quite a bit of media time last week asserting that it would never ‘outsource’ processing of asylum seekers. That seems to have disappeared into the ether, as this new policy commits to using both Nauru and Manus Island, and to ‘ensure resettlement in Australia is not guaranteed’. Remember, only last week, Manus Island, and Papua New Guinea in general, were apparently not fit to house anyone.

Temporary Protection Visas get a look-in, as does denying family reunions. Just in case that isn’t tough enough, the Coalition would also completely refuse to process anyone they even suspect might have destroyed identifying documents. There is no presumption of innocence here. The burden of proof is on the asylum seeker to convince officials that, if they don’t have papers, it’s for a good reason.

Where the policy gets really disturbing, however, is in the greatly expanded role of the Navy. The Coalition have long trumpeted its ‘tow back the boats’ policy. It’s still there, but with a few twists. Not only would the Navy be instructed to intercept boats in our own waters, but also to intercept and board vessels outside our sea borders, particularly if that vessel was thought to originate from Sri Lanka (note: not ships registered in Sri Lanka, merely leaving its waters). If asylum seekers from Sri Lanka were found on such a vessel, they would be forcibly removed and sent back immediately.

There is no end to the issues that this raises. Leaving aside the fact that Indonesia has repeatedly said they would not accept boats towed back to their territorial waters and dumped there, what the Coalition proposes has the potential to affect our relations with countries both in the region, and globally.

Boarding a vessel in international waters (the so-called ‘high seas’) is problematic, to say the least. It’s an act that can only legally be undertaken in extreme circumstances, prescribed by the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention (LOSC), to which Australia is a signatory nation. Part VII spells out the limits of action – including the right of any ship not engaged in illegal acts to undertake ‘innocent passage’. To do otherwise could be called piracy. It could also be called an aggressive act against a sovereign nation. And the Coalition wants to use our Navy to commit these acts against unarmed, helpless civilians.

Alarm bells were certainly ringing at the Australian Defence Force when this policy booklet hit the internet. General David Hurley, Chief of the Defence Force quickly tweeted:

The ADA later released a statement on the policy. In the clearest possible terms, it stated that the ADF believed that asylum seeker arrivals were unequivocally a civil law enforcement matter. It went on to assert that military intervention should only be called upon in a ‘real emergency’, and that party politics had no place in military matters.

‘There is surely no need for the measures described in Operation Sovereign Borders to be led by a military officer, either on secondment or as part of his or her military duties directly.’

As if that weren’t enough to unravel the policy, the ADA statement went on to point out that the Coalition’s plans – particularly in terms of altering the chain of command and putting a civilian in charge of operational matters – may well be in breach of Westminster conventions, the Defence Act and the Constitution.

There are serious problems with the Coalition’s policy that go beyond issues of whether we should have ‘picked up the phone to Nauru’ or taken into account that Indonesia might object to a policy designed to deter asylum seekers from leaving their shores. What the Coalition proposes is nothing less than turning the military into an arm of civil law enforcement, using it to commit acts that not only breach our responsibilities under the LOSC, but could potentially cause diplomatic incidents with both our near neighbours and other countries around the world.

There was a great deal of derisive laughter when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd suggested the Coalition’s asylum seeker policy (at the time, reduced to a few motherhood statements) might lead to diplomatic conflict.

I doubt many people are laughing at that idea now.


Going behind the hysteria to examine the PNG deal

July 20, 2013

Yesterday, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced that Australia and Papua New Guinea had entered into a Regional Refugee Agreement, to address the issue of boat-borne asylum seekers.

In a joint media conference, Rudd spelled out the plan. Asylum boats will be intercepted as usual, taken to Christmas Island for preliminary processing (medical and security checks), then moved to the Manus Island detention facility for refugee assessment under UN protocols and supervision. Those deemed to be genuine refugees under the UN convention will either be settled in PNG, or in a third country. Those who do not meet the refugee criteria will be deported to their home countries or – if that was not possible – to another country. No refugee processed on Manus would be resettled in Australia.

In return, Australia will increase its humanitarian intake, upgrade and expand the Manus detention centre, and significantly invest in PNG infrastructure. There is no cap on the number of asylum seekers who may be processed through Manus.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that media – mainstream, independent and social – figuratively exploded as this announcement rolled out. The overwhelming reaction was negative. People swore that the ALP had forever lost their vote, that Rudd was showing his racist colours, that he was just using the plight of people to win an election. It was, in short, hysterical.

Over the years, I’ve condemned hardline policies relating to asylum seeker issues, regardless of their origin. At its base, this is a human issue. Not a political one. There are human beings involved, who are fleeing for their lives and seeking a safe haven. There is nothing dangerous about that – those who bleat about ‘border security’ and ‘protection’ deliberately play on fears and insecurities that have nothing to do with the people who become victims all over again just for wanting safety for themselves and their families.

But – and here’s the thing – there is an issue here. Not that there are hordes arriving on our shores to take our jobs and threaten our wimmins, all while turning us into Muslims with their sneaky ways (thank you, Senator Bernardi). The issue is that, no matter what, people are still putting themselves in the hands of criminals who have no interest in preserving life once money has changed hands. And people are dying at sea. Nothing – nothing – has changed that; not relaxing entry requirements, threatening to send people to Malaysia, or actually sending them to Nauru.

So, with that in mind, I took a look at this arrangement between Australian and Papua New Guinea.

Before moving on to discuss the Agreement in detail, let’s start with what it doesn’t mean.

1. Australia has not ‘slammed the door on refugees’, despite the incendiary headlines of today’s Age.

The RRA does not apply to those who are deemed refugees using normal channels, only those who arrive by boat (or who are intercepted on their way here). We still have a humanitarian intake and resettlement, which was increased last year by 6000, with further increases flagged over time.

That this is painfully obvious, and yet apparently ignored by those reporting the story in the media, smacks of nothing more than scare-mongering for the purposes of ratings and profit. It’s completely irresponsible to suggest that this RRA would let to Australia refusing any refugees.

2. The RRA is not a reinstatement of the infamous ‘White Australia’ policy.

Where do I start, with this one? It’s so ridiculous it shouldn’t have to be addressed – yet social media is full of cries to the effect that the RRA constitutes racial profiling, as part of an official policy to deny ‘brown-skinned’ people a place in Australian society. This is nothing more than an assertion – there isn’t a shred of evidence to back it up. In fact, there is good evidence to suggest otherwise.

Under the White Australia policy, would-be immigrants (note: not refugees) who did not conform to a certain ‘Britishness’ (or, at least, northern European Anglophones), were either denied entry altogether, or required to pass prohibitively difficult tests. Some of these tests were deliberately administered in a language unknown to the person seeking entry, virtually guaranteeing that they would fail. The choice of language for these tests was at the discretion of the administering officer.

The abolition of this policy, over time and by both Left and Right leaning governments, is one of Australia’s great achievements. That is absolutely undeniable. But to suggest that the RRA with Papua New Guinea seeks to reinstate it ignores – wilfully ignores – a number of facts.

As mentioned above, we still have a humanitarian refugee intake. Refugees are not immigrants in the usual sense. They are people fleeing unbearable conditions in their own countries, seeking resettlement elsewhere. Determination of refugee status is made according to certain conventions set down by the UN and agreed to by signatories.

Additionally – and surely this should not have to be pointed out – the overwhelming majority of people granted refugee status are not ‘white’ in any sense of the word. Refugees resettled here tend to be Iraqi, Afghani, Somali, or Tamil – and will likely continue to be, until conditions in their home countries change drastically. They are not about to be denied refugee status on the basis of their ethnicity.

3. The RRA is not purely an ‘election quick-fix’ (The Age editorial notwithstanding).

Now, there’s no doubt that this arrangement with Papua New Guinea cuts the legs out from under the Coalition’s stated intentions towards asylum seekers. It is likely to provide some deterrent for those who might otherwise fall prey to people smugglers’ assurances of resettlement and citizenship. (And the Department of Immigration and Citizenship has wasted no time in spreading that message far and wide, with posters popping up all over asylum seeker support pages on Facebook.) It has the advantage of being a signed agreement, rather than a simple, unilateral announcement – and there is detail available, which is more than could be said for former Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s ‘Malaysian Solution’.

That said, all those potential election benefits also have substantial effects. This is not merely a case of trading slogans. It’s arguable that the government is participating in a race to the bottom, but this is nothing new where asylum seekers are concerned. They have been pawns for years now, for all sides of politics. The real issue is policy itself.

So, if the RRA is neither a slammed door nor a new White Australia policy, what is it?

Our Navy and Coast Guard will still patrol for boats, and still escort them to Christmas Island. Asylum seekers who have come by boat will still be held in offshore detention, pending processing. Refugees will be resettled. The difference? Where those refugees – and only those refugees – will end up.

There are, however, real concerns with this agreement.

First, it begs the question of why we need offshore detention in the first place. So-called ‘pull factors’ have never been properly demonstrated. Despite the Coalition’s oft-repeated assertions, there is no proof that the Pacific Solution ‘stopped’ anything. There was a drop in boat arrivals, but in the global context, that is more likely attributable to the situation in home and transit countries. The difference between the Pacific Solution and the RRA is that it absolutely rules out resettlement in Australia. If boats drop in number once the RRA is in place, that may show that having Australia as a destination is, indeed a pull factor.

Second, the state of the Manus detention facility. To put it bluntly, it’s a dump. The housing is temporary, there are pools of stagnant water all over the camp (creating a malaria risk), and as late as July 12 this year, the UNHCR stated that the centre did not meet international standards.

Australia has pledged to spend whatever is necessary to make the permanent facility both up to standard, and able to handle up to 6000 people. And this brings us back to the earlier problem; if we’re prepared to spend that much money (and invest in PNG’s infrastructure) to keep people out of the country, why not spend money to refurbish, expand or even build new centres on the mainland? (Leaving aside, of course, the utterly insupportable decision to excise the mainland from our Migration Zone.)

Rudd’s answer is likely to be that this is a regional issue, deserving of a regional solution. That’s true enough – but is this the best we can do? The government proposes that Australia play the dual roles of bank and conference organiser. Both are undeniably important, but should we be expecting PNG – a country which we will have to prop up financially – to do most of the work for us?

The RRA may well stop boats leaving Indonesia – or, at least, preserve a status quo when it comes to our Navy and Coast Guard. Certainly, it’s nullified the issue where the Coalition is concerned – and the Greens, for all their passion, still have little detail to support them beyond assertions that we should expand our humanitarian refugee intake and restore the family reunion program. Politically, it’s a win. For all the rhetoric, Labor are unlikely to lose many votes with this agreement.

Morally, though? There are real questions that need to be answered, not least of which is: at what point did we decide we would no longer even consider processing boat-borne refugees – any refugees – on our own land?

That’s what is important here. Not hysteria, not deliberately misleading headlines, not hodge-podge rallies responding with the speed of a knee-jerk to a few bullet points.

Asking the right questions. Calmly, implacably, and constantly.


Busting the asylum seeker myths

August 15, 2012

Some of the most shameful debate in the history of Australian politics is taking place right now. Over 40 Coalition speakers rise, one after the other, to gloat about the Gillard government’s decision to cave in and re-open Nauru and Manus Island as asylum seeker detention centres. Oh, wait, sorry, they’re ‘processing centres’ now. That makes all the difference.

These dreadful speeches are replete with smugness, scorn and electioneering – but the worst, and most dangerous aspects are the lies. Every single speaker is lying, without shame and without consequences. Parliamentary privilege protects them. They can say whatever they like, and get away with it.

You know what? I don’t think they should get away with it. I think they should be called to account – and since the mainstream media seems unwilling to do it (witness the complete failure to call Opposition Leader Tony Abbott on his lies to the media yesterday), I guess it’s up to the rest of us.

So here goes. Let’s bust some myths.

Myth No. 1: Asylum seekers who arrive by boat are committing an illegal act.

It is not illegal to seek asylum, regardless of how someone arrives in the country. The proper designation for those who come by boat is ‘Irregular Maritime Arrival’. The Coalition knows this. The media know this – the Press Council is very careful to urge its members not to criminalise asylum seekers.

In contrast, those who overstay their visas do commit an illegal act, and can be deported.

CONCLUSION: BUSTED.

Myth No. 2: Without offshore processing, Temporary Protection Visas and turning boats around, we will be flooded with asylum seekers coming on boats.

This is a favourite argument of scaremongers and xenophobes. What it boils down to is:

Yet almost all asylum seekers who arrive by boat immediately declare their intentions and enter into the processing system. Visa overstayers, by contrast, often take great pains to hide their unlawful status and keep working. And just to drive the point home, boat-borne asylum seekers add up to around one-tenth of visa overstayers.

Conclusion: BUSTED.

Myth No. 3: Asylum seekers who arrive by boat are simply wealthy ‘queue-jumpers’ who use their money to force ‘real’ refugees to wait even longer for resettlement.

The idea of an orderly ‘queue’, where saintly refugees wait patiently to be re-settled while selfish, cashed-up ‘illegals’ bully their way to the front is both pervasive and pernicious. For many asylum seekers, it is not a matter of simply turning up at a refugee camp halfway around the world and talking to the UNHCR. Often, there are no camps, or diplomatic representation, in or near their countries of origin – and thus, there is no queue.

If they do make it to a camp, the strain on the system is so great that they may wait up to a decade to be resettled – and all the while, they are displaced persons, often living in tents and dependent on foreign aid. And these camps are not always secure, either; it’s not unknown for armies or paramilitary groups to raid, looking for ‘dissidents’. Is it any wonder people fleeing for their lives would look to any means possible?

Oh, and one more thing – it was the former Howard government that decided to include boat-borne asylum seekers in our total refugee quota. They created the fiction of a queue.

As for the idea that only the rich (read: and therefore the undeserving) can afford to pay a people smuggler, the UNHCR has found that generally, asylum seekers only pay up to $A5000 – and often, whole families will pool their resources to find that sum.

Conclusion: BUSTED.

Myth No. 4: Asylum seekers who arrive by boat deliberately get rid of their passports so that they cannot be sent back to their country of origin.

There is simply no evidence to support this. Certainly, many asylum seekers arrive without identification papers, but this can be for many reasons. Firstly, someone fleeing persecution may have had their papers confiscated or destroyed to prevent them leaving by normal means. They may have lost papers if they needed rescue from a sinking ship. They may indeed have destroyed their own papers, because they fear being identified by those who seek to imprison or execute them. And there may be a small minority who want to ensure they can’t ever be sent back to risk a resurgence of the state of affairs that prompted them to leave in the first place.

Conclusion: PARTIALLY TRUE, BUT NOT NECESSARILY FOR THE REASONS THE COALITION SAY.

Myth No. 5: Denying family reunion under the special humanitarian programs will deter husbands and fathers from making the boat voyage.

This is one of the recommendations of the Houston panel – and for the life of me, I can’t see how they could come to this conclusion. Neither can Amnesty International and a dozen other refugee organisations. Special humanitarian family reunions were instituted precisely to prevent women and children risking the boat voyage. It resulted in the journey being undertaken primarily by men, although there are still significant numbers of women and children travelling.

Axing the family reunion program will have no deterrent effect whatsoever. It is far more likely to increase the numbers of whole families on boats, wanting to secure a safe haven for re-settlement together. It will not remove the impetus for people to seek asylum through whatever means possible, merely ensure that it endangers more people. Given the possibility of waiting a decade in a refugee camp, living in utter poverty, raising children in an unsafe location, and risking a single boat voyage to possible safety and a new life – families are likely to opt for the latter. It’s a terrible choice either way.

Conclusion: BUSTED FROM SHEER STUPIDITY.

Myth No. 6: Anyone who opposes offshore processing does not believe in the security of the nation-state and has no interest in keeping Australia ‘safe’.

This particular assertion was made by Bronwyn Bishop in Parliament today. According to her, those ‘on the Left’ have a vested interest in tearing down the concept of the nation-state, and opening the borders to anyone who wants to come here, regardless of their origins or intentions.

Apart from the patent absurdity of referring to anyone who opposes offshore processing as necessarily ‘Leftist’, this is cherry-picking to an amazing degree. Bishop quoted former Senator Bob Brown’s declaration that he would like to see a global consciousness of all people as ‘Earthlings’ as evidence that Leftists seek the destruction of sovereign states, when in fact that statement was made in context of urging global action on climate change. She also conveniently ignored the fact that many of Labor’s declared Left, including the outspoken Senator Doug Cameron, have accepted the recommendations made by the expert panel for offshore processing.

Then there’s the idea that offshore processing will somehow keep Australia safe. Bishop here is dog-whistling. That’s all. There’s no evidence to suggest that boat-borne asylum seekers are in any way

Conclusion: BUSTED.

Myth No. 7: Offshore processing (preferably combined with TPVs and turning back boats) is the only way to stop the boats and break the people smugglers’ ‘business model’.

This is a particularly cunning idea. It sets up the proposition that the boats must be stopped, and challenges anyone to prove that there is a better way of doing this than via Coalition policy.

But take a step back. Why must the boats be stopped? The usual answer is that the voyage is dangerous – people smugglers tend to run a cut-rate operation, and little niggling details like seaworthiness are often overlooked. This much is true – but it begs the question. People only get on boats – and risk their lives – when they feel they have no other alternative.

So what are the alternatives? Increasing our humanitarian intake is one, and this was recommended by the Houston panel. Contributing more money to improving the efficiency and speed of asylum seeker processing is another – and if the government has funds to renovate Nauru and Manus Island, it has funds to contribute to this. Finally, there is the option of bringing asylum seekers directly to Australia via safe means, and processing them here. All of these would be far more likely to reduce the number of dangerous boat voyages and take profits from people smugglers.

As for the claim that these measures stop boats, it’s worth noting that the Pacific Solution did nothing of the kind. There were years when no boats arrived, but in the lead-up to the 2007 election, numbers jumped sharply and were on the rise again. This coincided with a resurgence of unrest in Afghanistan and Africa.

Conclusion: MISLEADING AND BUSTED.

I could go on – the claim that discarding the Pacific Solution made more boats come, that asylum seekers threaten our border, that our naval vessels are suffering from metal fatigue because they’re being used to rescue asylum seekers – but really, these are the major points. These are the most vicious of the lies. This is what the Coalition says, and keeps saying, apparently operating under the theory that a lie repeated often enough becomes the truth in people’s minds. This is the strategy of the parties that violated international maritime law with the Tampa, violated our obligations under UN treaties, subjected countless innocent people to shameful and damaging treatment, and continue to tell the world that they are ‘compassionate’ and ‘sensible’.

They are nothing of the kind – and they’ve successfully dragged the government down to their level. Not that it took much persuasion, in the end. Perhaps under Rudd it would have been different. We’ll never know.

What we do know is that this whole issue is surrounded by self-serving, disgusting lies. Those lies should be exposed for what they are, every time they’re uttered.

And apparently it’s up to us to do it, since (with few exceptions) our representatives won’t.


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.


Let’s have a real conversation about asylum seekers

September 13, 2011

There was an opportunity. The government was given a real chance by the High Court to regain some of its lost ground against the Coalition. More to the point, it had the chance to regain some shred of humanity and compassion. It could have used the High Court decision to jettison the whole idea of offshore processing once and for all. Certainly, that’s what the Left of the ALP – and increasing numbers of the Australian public – wanted.

The government isn’t interested. It’s wedded to the idea that sending 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia – a country with a terrible human rights record, who won’t sign any agreement that forces them to comply with human rights considerations – is the only possible way to ‘break the people smuggler’s business model’. Accordingly, it’s decided that the best thing it can do is change the Migration Act so that no pesky High Court can get in its way next time.

Ah, the convenience of legislation. Want to do something reprehensible that’s condemned by international organisations and banned by the judiciary? Just change the law. Then you can do what you want. Never mind that it’s ultimately a useless gesture, since it’s capped at 800. Never mind that it contravenes long-standing Labor policy. Never mind that in doing so, Australia will undermine its position as a signatory of the Refugee Conventions. Never mind that this is a gross abuse of power. If it means the government can get those 800 people packed onto planes and out of sight, they’ll do it.

And that’s exactly what they took to Caucus yesterday. Despite an attempt by Left faction leader Senator Doug Cameron to win a vote calling for onshore processing, ‘over half’ of the Caucus voted to change the Migration Act instead. The government plans to make sure that there cannot be any legal impediment to sending asylum seekers offshore. Additionally, it wants to change the Immigration (Guardianship of Children) Act, so it can shirk its responsibilities under the Refugee Conventions by doing the same to unaccompanied minors.

This is the equivalent of a child throwing a tantrum when the rules say he’s out of the game. Anyone with kids has probably seen it – first there’s an attempt to bluster, then negotiate, then bully, and finally the child is left with two options. He can take his bat and ball and go home, or he can decide that the game has new rules.

‘Bang bang! I shot you, you’re dead!’
‘Did not, missed me!’
‘Did too, you’re dead!’
‘It’s my game and I say I’m not dead, so ner!’

Et cetera.

Behold … your elected representatives in their full glory.

The Greens won’t support any change to the Migration Act. They were out in front of the media so quickly that the initial stories on the government’s plan had barely been filed. Senator Sarah Hanson-Young was particularly scathing; as far as the Greens are concerned, the government would be breaching its UN obligations.

To get the amendments passed, then, the government needs the support of the Coalition. To that end, they offered Opposition Leader Tony Abbott a briefing on the legal implications of the High Court judgment – a briefing advising him that both Nauru and Manus Island as alternative offshore destinations were also ruled out by the High Court decision. The idea was to convince him to support the amendments when they come before the Parliament, on the grounds that if Abbott ever became Prime Minister, it would benefit him just as much as the current governments.

But there’s a sticking point for Abbott, apparently. The government has no intention of using an amended Act for anything but the resurrection of its Malaysian deal. And Abbott has no intention of letting the government off the hook on the subject of re-opening the Nauru processing centre. The consistent message coming out of the Opposition is that Nauru is the only possible solution.

Gillard’s having none of that, though. When asked this morning, she said, ‘Going to Nauru is the equivalent of getting a ticket to Australia’, and quoted figures showing how many Nauru detainees ended up settling in Australia when their refugee claims were approved.

And there you have it. Despite constant avowals of how ‘humanitarian’ the government is, despite claims of being ‘compassionate’, the Prime Minister let the truth slip out. The government’s declared intent is to keep refugees away from Australia at all costs. (Oh, unless someone else has already done the hard work of processing asylum seeker claims, of course.) And why? Because if they’re here in Australia, they’re entitled to the protection of law – again, thanks to the High Court.

You’d think the Coalition would be on board with that, given the kind of responses given by Abbott and his front-benchers in interviews on the subject. Judging by the speeches they made in the House today, however, Abbott wants no part of any bipartisan effort to entrench executive power in this particular area. It’s a curious stance – surely it would benefit them?

Perhaps Abbott’s holding out in the hope that Gillard will finally cave in and re-open Nauru. Perhaps he’s trying to wring as many concessions as possible out of the government, including an admission that the government needs the Coalition to get them out of a gigantic mess. Or perhaps Abbott’s decided that he can always change the Act later, and he can get a far better result by watching the government fail to get amendments through the Parliament.

With any luck, pride will undo both major parties. The longer each refuses to budge on exactly which country it wants to use as a ‘dump and forget’ centre for our asylum seekers, the harder it will be to reach any kind of deal.

In the meantime, the Coalition is merrily pushing the line that with the Malaysia deal scuttled, Australia has ‘no border protection policy’. Yes, that’s right, folks – any moment now the boats will pull up on St Kilda Beach or surf into Bondi, and we’ll be invaded by thousands of asylum seekers who will force us to eat halal meat and wear burqas. Quick, circle the wagons, hide the women and the silver!

It’s ludicrous. Of course Australia has an asylum seeker policy (and no, I won’t play into the scare-mongering by calling it ‘border protection’). We have a policy of intercepting boats. We have a policy of mandatory detention. We have a processing centre on Christmas Island – which, let’s not forget, is excised from our Migration Zone anyway. We have processing centres onshore. We have an entire bureaucracy that works with the UN to process refugees then re-settle or deport them according to the outcome of their cases.

But it’s much better for the Coalition if it can create the impression that there is a complete policy void in this area. It plays right into the hands of the panic-mongers who seem to think that people in boats somehow threaten our very way of life. And it allows the Coalition to continue pushing Nauru as the tried-and-true ‘solution’ which is the only way to save us from a terrible fate.

And the media is utterly complicit in this.

Think about it. How often, lately, have you heard a commentator or reporter say that there’s ‘no border protection policy’?

And while we’re at it – when was the last time you heard someone in the media flat-out ask a politician exactly why we can’t have onshore processing? Given that it’s been in place for decades and – political rhetoric notwithstanding – has never been shown to encourage either people smuggling or people seeking asylum, why isn’t anyone nailing politicians in place and forcing them to answer this? Not often, I’ll bet.

Here are a few questions they could ask:

What evidence do you have that Australia’s long history of onshore refugee processing directly increased the number of asylum seeker boats?

Why are you prepared to spend millions of dollars in a third country, and risk Australia’s international reputation, rather than convert a few abandoned military bases onshore?

Exactly what is so frightening about asylum seekers that they must be kept away from Australia at all costs?

Why do you persist in referring to asylum seekers as a ‘product’ peddled by people smugglers, instead of calling them what they are – human beings?

Why do you persist in employing punitive measures against desperate people, and calling it ‘compassionate’?

If you really want to ‘break the people smugglers’ business model’, why don’t you simply fly asylum seekers to processing centres? You could save millions currently spent on keeping up the Coast Guard and Navy presence and detaining and prosecuting people smugglers – and the people smugglers wouldn’t be able to make any profit from the misery of others.

You see, it doesn’t matter what you believe on this issue – these questions should be asked. Politicians should be held to account for what they say, and required to show evidence to justify their policy decisions. This is what news media are for – asking uncomfortable questions and demanding real answers, investigating all sides of a question and providing that information to the public.

At the moment, this just isn’t happening. As long as media continue to unquestioningly accept politicians’ talking points, it never will.

We can see it happening right in front of us with the asylum seeker issue. So how about it, media – think you might want to stop letting politicians control the message and start subjecting them all to unwavering close scrutiny? There’s still time. The opportunity’s been missed, but not lost. If we’re going to have this conversation, then let’s talk about all the options.

If you do, then maybe – just maybe – the people who risk their lives to flee to a country where they can be safe and free, might actually find that country.

I’m sure it’s buried here somewhere under all the politics …


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.


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