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.

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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.


A representative Parliament? Tell her she’s dreaming

June 14, 2011

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

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

I woke up to this.

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

Humane. How does Dutton not choke on that word?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh.

Damn.

I just woke up again.


The evil of the Malaysian solution

June 3, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Human. Rights.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They didn’t say that children would be protected.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What will it take?


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