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.


Seeking Asylum: The Punishment that Fits No Crime

October 22, 2012

Things are looking up for the government. The first study on the effect of carbon pricing indicates a related fall in carbon emissions, without the stupendous price hikes predicted by the Opposition. Australia comfortably won the vote to gain a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council, despite Opposition pessimism, doubt, and what looked suspiciously like sour grapes. Prime Minister Gillard’s numbers are up, and the government has even started to fight back in two-party preferred polls.

Yes, things are pretty rosy – and you know what happens next, don’t you?

The Opposition shift the ground. There’s always another issue on which they can fall back. This time, it’s asylum seekers – again. Specifically, the Coalition decided to take aim at the government’s part-adoption of the Pacific Solution, detaining asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island.

The Greens don’t want anyone on Nauru (or in mandatory detention at all, for that matter) – but are low on specifics as to how to implement their preferred ‘regional approach’. The government won’t tell us exactly how their ‘no advantage’ system is supposed to work – that is, how long asylum seekers on average would have to wait to be processed and granted refugee status. We’ve got some vague statements about making sure that those who come on boats don’t manage to get ahead of people ‘in the queue’ in refugee camps – never mind that the ‘queue’ simply doesn’t exist – but no numbers whatsoever.

Surprisingly, the one party who are giving us details is the Coalition. And those numbers are, frankly, horrifying.

Opposition Immigration spokesperson Scott Morrison announced that, under a Coalition government, asylum seekers should expect to be detained on Nauru for a minimum of five years. In what looked remarkably like a game of ‘Dare-You-Double-Dare-You’, he suggested the government adopt the same position, while Immigration Minister Chris Bowen countered by urging the Coalition to get on board the Malaysia solution. As usual, neither side wants to give an inch.

But let’s look at the Coalition’s proposal a bit more closely. Five years minimum mandatory detention. By anyone’s standards, that’s a long time to be stuck on an island with no idea whether you will eventually receive some certainty for your future. Add to that the fact that these are effectively stateless people, confined to sub-standard camps with poor facilities in a landscape devastated by phosphate mining, and sweltering in temperatures of over 30 degrees Celsius with very high humidity. Then take into account the fact that they can’t leave. They can’t decide to go for a walk, see a movie, have a picnic, or go shopping for a treat.

Looks a lot like a prison, doesn’t it? Of course, prisoners have an allowance, which they are allowed to spend. Asylum seekers simply cannot receive any form of financial assistance until they are out of detention – when they can apply for help from the Asylum Seeker Assistance Scheme. Generally, too, it’s a fairly straightforward process to visit a prisoner – you don’t need to find money for an international flight and visa, have a current passport, and jump through the bureaucratic hoops needed to gain permission to enter the detention centre.

While we’re on the subject of comparing prisons and asylum seeker detention centres, let’s look at that number again – at least five years. How does that stack up to sentences given to convicted prisoners?

According to a 2011 report prepared by the Sentencing Council of Victoria, of 228 people who received a custodial sentence for the crime of rape,
over 80% were sentenced to less than six years
. Half of those were eligible for parole in under four years.

Less than four years. Those who commit rape, a crime which our society regards as one of the worst outrages that can be inflicted on a human being, are imprisoned for roughly the same time it takes to complete a university degree – or hold two Federal elections. Under the Coalition’s plan, asylum seekers would be detained for at least a year longer.

Why such a long detention period? What have asylum seekers done, to warrant such strict conditions?

The short answer is: NOTHING.

Seeking asylum is not illegal. Despite the oft-repeated assertions of Morrison and his Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, people are absolutely entitled to seek asylum in Australia – and we have an obligation to process them, if not re-settle them in our country. We are, after all, signatories to Refugee Conventions. By referring to them as illegal, however, the Coalition plants the idea that something shifty is going on here.

It goes further. The Coalition suggests such people may not be ‘real’ refugees. Often they arrive without identification – what have they got to hide? They pay huge amounts (around US$4000) to people smugglers – why are they trying to get ahead of all those (real) refugees waiting patiently in camps around the world? If they’ve got money, why don’t they just leave normally? Any attempt to bring even a little factual evidence – or even logic – into the discussion is met with blustering rhetoric and accusations of being ‘soft on border protection’.

And make no mistake – Abbott knows exactly what he is doing. He knows that the official term used for boat-borne asylum seekers is ‘Irregular Maritime Arrivals’. He knows they’re not doing anything wrong by trying to get here. He knows that detaining people for long periods on remote islands, preferably ones that are not even part of Australia, tends to fade from the headlines if there are no faces to go with the protestations of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. If he plays the waiting game long enough, there will only be a few voices speaking up against a xenophobic attitude that he has done nothing to counter, and everything to encourage.

It’s really no surprise, then, that the Coalition should be now insisting on what can only be called an entirely punitive sentence for people who have committed no crime, circumvented no process, and are simply trying to save themselves and their families. It’s business as usual – demonise the victims, while claiming to ‘protect’ them from evil people smugglers and risky boat voyages.

Oh, and that five years? Is the low end of what the Coalition thinks is appropriate for mandatory detention. Morrison gave no figures for the maximum time an asylum seeker could be detained. Given that even twelve months’ detention on Nauru under the Pacific Solution resulted in adverse mental health outcomes that afflict refugees to this day, the prospect of five, six, or even more years smacks of outright, deliberate cruelty.

Lest we let the government off scot-free, however, it’s worth repeating: the Coalition have given us a minimum number. The government have given us nothing. We have no idea how long the government would be happy to keep someone in detention, other than some vague mutterings about being equivalent to the ‘average’ time taken to process someone in a camp in our region. As the UNHCR pointed out, though, it’s impossible to even establish an average time. It’s a meaningless concept – and since there is evidence of people in camps waiting for ten years or more, that ‘no advantage’ test starts to take on truly horrifying possibilities. The government seems to think that if one person suffers terrible hardship and interminable delays in having their refugee claim processed, then it’s acceptable for others to undergo the same ordeal. So sorry, but you understand how it is – we have to be fair, after all.

It’s not ‘fair’. It’s coldly, calculatedly inhumane. Whether it’s the government’s ‘we’re-not-telling’ or Morrison’s ‘five-years-and-counting’ solution, the treatment of asylum seekers has gone way past a race to the bottom. The major parties know that this issue can be manipulated in an election campaign, and are only too eager to play to the xenophobic strain that seems to run right through Australian society (with the help of certain areas of the media) if it will gain them votes.

Now, maybe I’m doing Prime Minister Gillard and Abbott a disservice. Maybe they do care about the welfare of asylum seekers, and the way they deal with them is sacrificing personal feelings for the long-term gain of the ‘top job’.

That only makes it worse.

Whichever way the next election goes, asylum seekers lose. They will be packed off, out of sight, to Nauru (or Manus Island, or Malaysia), and treated like prisoners of war who have no idea who is winning, or if it will ever end. Sadly, this is the best outcome – because even if the boats don’t stop coming, and the current strategy proves to be an utter failure, neither party is likely to retreat from a hard-line stance. They’d lose far too much face, and give their opposition a great deal of ammunition. The alternative is to become even more punitive, more harsh – and given the appalling state of affairs that exists now, that possibility is terrible. Human lives would become less than pawns.

And we would all be culpable.


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.


Migration Act changes are completely without humanity

September 19, 2011

Last week the government announced it would seek to change the Migration Act. Now, we can get a look at exactly what it is they want to do.

The proposed amendments give the Minister near-absolute power – and just incidentally removes those pesky human rights considerations.

Section 198A allows the Minister to designate a country for off-shore processing. In its current form, that designation needs to meet certain criteria:

(3) The Minister may:

(a) declare in writing that a specified country:

(i) provides access, for persons seeking asylum, to effective procedures for assessing their need for protection; and
(ii) provides protection for persons seeking asylum, pending determination of their refugee status; and
(iii) provides protection to persons who are given refugee status, pending their voluntary repatriation to their country of origin or resettlement in another country; and
(iv) meets relevant human rights standards in providing that protection; and

(b) in writing, revoke a declaration made under paragraph (a). (my emphasis)

The government proposes to repeal this sub-section entirely. Instead, they want to substitute this:

@198AB Offshore processing country

(1) The Minister may, in writing, designate that a country is an offshore processing country.

(2) The only condition for the exercise of the power under subsection (1) is that the Minister thinks that it is in the public interest to designate the country to be an offshore processing country.

(3) The power under subsection (1) may only be exercised by the Minister personally.

(4) If the Minister designates a country under subsection (1), the Minister may, in writing, revoke the designation.

(5) The rules of natural justice do not apply to the exercise of the power under subsection (1) or (4).

(6) A designation under subsection (1), or a revocation under subsection (4), is not a legislative instrument. (my emphasis)

Yes, you read that right. If this amendment passes, the Immigration Minister can simply declare that any given country (indeed, any overseas territory, protectorate or colony) is a suitable place to send asylum seekers. The country doesn’t have to meet any standards for protection of those people; in fact, it doesn’t have to concern itself with human rights at all. Forget being a signatory to the UN Conventions on Refugees – the Minister doesn’t even have to make sure there’s somewhere for asylum seekers to be adequately housed.

It also attempts to head off any further High Court action on behalf of asylum seekers. ‘The rules of natural justice do not apply’? That’s a big ‘screw you’ to anyone who might even think about trying to stop the Minister from exercising these incredibly wide-ranging powers.

All of which is apparently to be done ‘in the public interest’. What does that even mean? Whose interest? It’s a wonderful phrase that – evokes nobility and self-sacrifice, but under close examination reveals itself to be nothing more than a way to avoid providing any real reason for doing whatever you want to do.

Just to drive the point home, the government wants to include a few lines in section 198A about exactly why they consider they’re justified:

(c)it is a matter for the Minister to decide which countries should be designated as offshore processing countries; and

(d) the designation of a country to be an offshore processing country need not be determined by reference to the international obligations or domestic law of that country.

That’s about as blatant as it gets. It’s the government saying, ‘We’ll do what we want’. Worse, it deliberately flies in the face of Australia’s obligations as signatories to those oh-so-troublesome UN Conventions. If the Minister feels like it, he doesn’t have to take any of our international responsibilities into consideration.

There’s some attempt at pacifying those who might object to this arrangement. The Minister has to hand over any documents he used in making his determination to Parliament within two days of designating an offshore processing country. Presumably, this would allow Parliamentary scrutiny. It’s an attempt at transparency – and that can only be a good thing, right?

But wait.

@198AC Documents to be laid before Parliament

(4) The sole purpose of laying the documents referred to in subsection (2) before the Parliament is to inform the Parliament of the matters referred to in the documents and nothing in the documents affects the validity of the designation. Similarly, the fact that some or all of those documents do not exist does not affect the validity of the designation.

(5) A failure to comply with this section does not affect the validity of the designation. (my emphasis)

In other words, this is nothing more than a show. The Minister doesn’t have to seek UNHCR approval – and even if he does, and the UNHCR says no, it doesn’t matter. He can ignore any advice he gets that doesn’t give him the answer he wants. All he has to do is bundle up the documents and table them. It’s utter contempt for Parliament.

Richard Marles, Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Affairs, appeared on Sky news’ AM Agenda this morning. When questioned on these proposed changes, he offered a truly outrageous justification. The government has no choice, he argued. It’s because of the High Court – if they hadn’t made all these ‘new’ restrictions, we could be shipping people to Malaysia right now.

That dastardly High Court. Look at what they did. They ruled that we couldn’t send people to a country with a terrible human rights record. They declared that we had to meet our international obligations as regards human rights. No wonder the government was ‘forced’ to strip out every possible protection for asylum seekers from the legislation. What could they do, after all?

It was a weaselling little attempt to avoid criticism, and to his credit, Marles didn’t look comfortable saying it. Nonetheless, he did – and repeated it several times.

Sky’s David Speers then confronted Marles with the Labor Party’s own national policy platform: that protection claims made in Australia ‘will be assessed by Australians on Australian territory’. Marles’ response?

We have to stop the boats. This is about protecting asylum seekers.

I’m sure those desperate people will feel very protected when they’re forced onto planes and sent to a country that doesn’t even pretend to care about their safety.

There are literally not enough ways to spell out how wrong this legislation is – it’s reactionary, punitive, and completely without humanity. And that’s without even going into detail about the provisions dealing with children, which are – if anything – even worse.

Of course, it has to pass both Houses. The Greens have already unequivocally declared that under no circumstances would they support such amendments. The government’s hopes, then, lie with the Coalition, but it’s not looking promising. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott slammed the proposed changes, and Shadow Climate Spokesperson Greg Hunt criticised the removal of any reference to Australia’s international obligation.

Before we start lauding the Opposition for its apparent defence of ‘basic human decency’ (to quote Abbott), though, it’s worth taking a look at what else it’s saying. You guessed it – Nauru, Nauru, Nauru.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard urged the Coalition to support the amendments on the basis that if they ever do get into power, they’d be able to send people to Nauru without worrying about legal challenges. The Opposition doesn’t agree – it rejects the government’s legal advice. Nauru can be used right now. Nauru is ‘effective and humane’. The Prime Minister should ‘pick up the phone’.

Of course, the Prime Minister has no intention of doing anything of the kind. The government is committed to the Malaysian ‘five-for-one’ deal, and the proposed amendments are designed to make sure that deal is carried out. The Coalition hates the very idea of Malaysia.

And so we have a stalemate. As long as Malaysia’s on the table, the Coalition doesn’t want to pass the legislation. Worryingly, though, Hunt said that there’s still the possibility of working with the government on further amendments. If those amendments rule out Malaysia, however, the government is unlikely to come to the table.

The government has engaged with the Coalition in a headlong race to the bottom on this issue. If their amendments pass, they’ll have won.

Labor may well be under fire from within its own ranks, however. Labor’s Left faction last week failed to pass a motion requiring the government to return to its own platform, and full onshore processing – but Senator Doug Cameron this morning gave an indication that the faction might well vote against the proposed legislation. Although Cameron told ABC 774 this morning that he was bound by the decisions of the caucus, he pointed out that he was also bound by the national platform. His colleague, Member for Fremantle Melissa Parke, also hinted at a revolt from the Left. The faction meets tonight, ahead of tomorrow’ caucus meeting.

This is an invidious position for the government – wedged from both the Right and the Left. Labor deserves little sympathy, though. Its current predicament is the result of a cascade of bad policy decisions that started when it decided to abandon its own platform in favour of a so-called ‘regional solution’ that was little more than a re-badged Pacific Solution. The error was compounded by the deal with Malaysia – a one-off exchange of 800 asylum seekers for 4000 refugees on which the government pinned all its hopes of ‘stopping the boats’. Given the chance to get itself out of this quagmire by the High Court, it decided instead to simply change the rules. And in its eagerness to appear even tougher on so-called ‘border protection’ than the Coalition, it’s proposed legislation which has nothing to recommend it, and which should be widely and loudly condemned.

If it passes, it won’t stop the boats and it won’t ‘break the people smuggler’s business model’. As long as there are people desperate to flee war and persecution, there will be someone with a boat willing to fleece them for all they’re worth. (There will also be someone with a boat willing to give whatever help they can – not all people smugglers are moustache-twirling criminals.) As long as transit countries continue to look the other way upon receipt of a few hefty bribes, those boats will pick up their load of miserable human cargo and set off over the Indian Ocean and get away with it. Changing the Migration Act will do nothing to prevent that.

What will happen if the Act is changed is that the Minister will gain unprecedented power. It will breach Australia’s international obligations. It will confirm to the world that we are a country unwilling to shoulder even a tiny part of the refugee burden. It will show that we are xenophobic, heartless, racist and self-involved to the point where we would rather send people in need into appalling and inhuman situations rather than allow them a place in our community.

And it will make a mockery of our National Anthem – at least, the second verse that hardly anyone ever hears anymore:

‘Beneath our radiant Southern Cross
We’ll toil with hearts and hands;
To make this Commonwealth of ours
Renowned of all the lands;
For those who’ve come across the seas
We’ve boundless plains to share;

With courage let us all combine
To Advance Australia Fair.’

My emphasis. And my reminder – this Australia may be an ideal rather than reality, but it’s an ideal the government would put even further out of reach.

There is still time.

UPDATE: During Question Time today, Gillard was eager to point out that ‘substantial changes’ had been made to the proposed amendments, to assuage concerns that human rights weren’t going to be respected. Just how substantial are these changes?

At first glance, they appear very reassuring. The Minister is directed to ‘have regard’ to whether a proposed country is prepared to assure that asylum seekers will be properly processed and not simply sent on to a country where they won’t be protected. Except … ‘the assurances referred to in paragraph (3)(a) need not be legally binding’.

Gillard seems to think it’s outrageous to suggest that they should. How dare we require a country to bind itself legally to protect the people we send there?

So much for ‘substantial changes’.


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 …


Malaysia deal dead in the water – for now

August 31, 2011

The Full Bench of the High Court has ruled 5-2 in favour of the asylum seekers slated for Malaysia as part of Gillard’s deal.

The injunction prohibiting their removal from Australia is now permanent.

The High Court, expediting their decision, ruled that asylum seekers cannot be processed offshore unless the Minister for Immigration can demonstrate that human rights will be protected in accordance with section 198A of the Immigration Act. The Minister cannot simply declare a country has adequate human rights protections – he must demonstrate it.

By implication, this could rule out any country which is not a signatory to UN Conventions on Refugees – including Nauru and Manus Island. The Court did not specifically rule on this, however.

Unaccompanied minors cannot be sent offshore for processing unless an additional written consent is issued by the Minister.

No appeal is possible to this decision.

The Malaysia ‘one for five’ deal is, at this point, dead in the water.

A summary of the judgment can be found here and the full transcript here.

It’s a huge win for opponents of offshore detention, and a massive blow to the government. At every turn, it has been thwarted in efforts to ship the asylum seeker’ problem’ out of sight and (presumably) out of mind. Right now, the government is in a bind – but they have a couple of options open to them.

They can attempt to amend the Migration Act in order to water down s. 198A – effectively removing clause 3(iv), which currently requires that any proposed offshore destination ‘meets relevant human rights standards in providing that protection‘. (my emphasis)

In the current political climate, this would be an uphill battle at best. The Greens will vehemently oppose any attempt to remove human rights from the legislation, and it’s a fair bet that Independents Andrew Wilkie and Rob Oakeshott would do likewise. The government’s only hope, then, would be to enlist the Coalition’s support.

It’s a possibility. This ruling hurts the Coalition as much as it does the government, since the Opposition’s own asylum seeker policy hinges entirely on re-opening the Nauru detention centre built with Australian money under the Howard administration. It might well serve their interests to throw in with the government – although it would significantly weaken them, given their frequent declarations that no good policy or legislation has ever come out of the Gillard government. With enough spin, they might succeed in convincing the public that they’ve had to step in to ‘rescue’ bad policy, but it would be a very risky move.

The government’s other option is to return to the policies espoused under the Rudd government, processing asylum seekers either onshore or on Christmas Island. The Opposition consistently attacked these ideas, blaming them for a surge in boat arrivals. The night before he was forced to resign, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd cautioned against any ‘surge to the Right’ in this area. Julia Gillard’s actions since assuming the officer of Prime Minister, however, have taken Labor closer and closer to the Coalition’s hardline stance.

There is an opportunity now for the Gillard government to abandon the offshore system altogether, using the High Court ruling as a shelter against criticisms of ‘backflip’. Minister Chris Bowen could claim that his hand was forced by the judiciary. That, however, assumes that the government does not, in fact, wholeheartedly support offshore detention and similar harsh measures.

We’ve yet to hear from the government, and have no idea when it will make an announcement. At this point, it’s all speculation as to what they might do next. If you have a recommendation for them, I urge you to email your local MP, Minister Bowen and/or Prime Minister Gillard. You can be sure that certain groups on both sides of the issue are already doing so. Don’t let them give the government the impression they speak for you.

In the meantime, this is a decision worthy of celebration. The dreadful plan to send asylum seekers to a country where they would be completely unprotected by even lip service to human rights conventions is absolutely blocked. For now, at least, Australia has regained a little compassion.

It’s shameful that we needed the Full Bench of the High Court to force us to do that.


%d bloggers like this: