BY EMMA MURPHY
& LESLIE RICHMOND
Fourteen men claiming to be Kurds from Turkey, four Indonesian crew and one small fishing boat drifting into shore on Melville Island, 80km from Darwin — that's all it took for the government to declare "national security" to be under such threat that it hastily and retrospectively excised 4000 islands from Australia's migration zone.
Even the corporate media can hardly disguise its incredulity at the government's dramatic response to this small group of asylum seekers.
But with an election looming, PM John Howard sees another Tampa, albeit on an embarrassingly small scale. Using the same fear tactics and manipulative language that we saw back in 2001, he is trying to generate a wave of fear, based on racist ideas about Muslims, that he can ride all the way back to the Lodge.
On November 4, the Minasa Bone — a 12-metre Indonesian fishing vessel — ran aground at Melville Island. Milikapiti community management council chairperson Gibson Farmer and three other Melville Islanders spoke to those aboard, and were told they were having engine trouble.
"We went down there and told those people to stay on the boat because we were worried they were, you know, boatpeople", he told The Australian.
That people, who had clearly travelled a long way in a small boat, landing on an island and asking for water, were greeted with hostility and fear before concern is an indication of just how successful the government's anti-asylum seeker propaganda has been.
Melville Islanders notified authorities of the arrivals, and patrol boat HMAS Geelong was directed to the area, while customs and quarantine officials and federal police were quickly flown in from Darwin.
Meanwhile, the federal government was calling an emergency Executive Council meeting, preparing to squash any hope these 14 Kurds had of finding asylum in Australia.
Regulations were introduced altering Australia's migration zone to exclude Melville Island. This means that any person arriving — with or without legal authorisation — on the excised territories does not have the right to seek refugee status in Australia.
Instead, they may be lawfully detained, removed to another country, or — as seems to be the government's preferred option in this case — towed back out to sea and left to survive as best they can.
All this sounds like a long and complicated process. But as immigration minister Amanda Vanstone told ABC radio's AM on November 5, the regulations "were prepared to be ready for such an event so that we could protect our borders and make sure that any people who did subsequently land on islands would not be able to claim visas, and therefore the regulations were ready and executive council was held."
What a display of foresight! Eighteen people in a small boat have the audacity to arrive on one of "our" islands, but within hours the government has "restored national security". The thousands of Australian islands suddenly excluded from the Australian migration zone, not to mention the breach of international human rights law are just minor, inconsequential details.
The Coalition government seems intent on making electoral gains from the racism and fear they have generated around refugees and other migrants from Muslim countries. Howard and his allies were quick to blame the ALP for this arrival. Amanda Vanstone told AM, "the government wanted to protect Australia's border by excising these islands from the migration zone ages ago. The Labor Party rejected that."
Instead of ridiculing the government's "fear" of a few thirsty people, the ALP is countering with the claim that this arrival proves Howard's border protection system is failing. Labor leader Simon Crean has blamed the government's cuts to the defence force's Operation Relex border protection patrols for the boat managing to reach Australian territories undetected.
The only thing missing from the exchanges between the two major parties is any concern for the people on the boat. To these career politicians, the world's desperate are little more than political toys to be wielded at will.
Along with the Greens and the Democrats, the ALP spent last week indicating that it would disallow the government's new excision regulation, in a special Senate sitting on November 7 that was called to ban more "terrorist" organisations. When it came to the crunch, however, Labor refused to allow the matter to be discussed, putting it off for weeks.
While the disallowal would have made the new regulation invalid for any future arrivals on Melville Island, it is doubtful it would alter the fate of the 14 Kurds. In a convenient legal twist, while the regulation was introduced retrospectively, it cannot be disallowed retrospectively.
This is the fourth attempt the government has made to change the migration zone, the three previous attempts having been blocked in the Senate. This time though, Howard seems to think it's a regulative — rather than a legislative — issue.
However, lawyers and legal experts question the legality of the government's move. Melbourne lawyer Eric Vadarlis claims that by introducing a regulation which clearly aims to take away a person's rights (in this case the right to apply for a visa) the government has breached the Acts Interpretation Act. A habeas corpus hearing in Darwin on November 7 found that several of the Kurdish men landed on Melville Island, thus entitling them to legal representation. The Territory Legal Aid Commission is therefore seeking access to the asylum seekers. However David Bennett, the Australian solicitor-general, told the hearing that the boat was now on the high seas and would be prevented from re-entering Australian waters.
Meanwhile, the United Nations Human Rights Commission has warned that excising Melville Island from the migration zone has no bearing in international law, and does not alter Australia's responsibilities towards these asylum seekers. The UNHCR's Australian representative Michel Gabaudan told ABC radio on November 7, "The denial to allow asylum seekers to apply for asylum in a country that has signed a convention would be a fundamental breach of international law, both under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the refugee convention."
He continued: "There is no evidence... in any country that terrorists have used asylum channels to get into a country and there've been again comments to the effect that this was a security matter and I think we would like to see asylum issues clearly de-linked from security discussions."
The government's reaction to the arrival of the Kurds has sparked outcry and criticism around the country. In Darwin, activists convened an emergency meeting to decide how to campaign.
Brianna Pike is an activist in Darwin's Refugee Rights Action Network and a member of the Socialist Alliance. She told Green Left Weekly: "There has been a flood of pro-refugee outcry in the community; local talk-back radio has been inundated by Darwin residents raising their concerns at the latest wave of anti-refugee actions by the government, as well as their concern for the 14 asylum seekers that at this time still remain in limbo on the ocean. They were only 80 km from the 'mainland' — should we expect that the government will try to exclude Darwin next?"
Many were frustrated by the ALP's sudden decision to let the excision stand for now. Refugee advocate and member of the South Australian parliament Kris Hanna resigned from the ALP in January over the party's stance on refugees and the war. "This act of bastardry prevents these desperate people, probably Kurds fleeing vicious persecution in Turkey, from [accessing] the limited benefits of the Australian legal system. It is an attempt to excise these asylum-seekers from humanity itself", he told Green Left Weekly.
Hanna pointed out that the excision-by-regulation was only possible in the first place because "the ALP consented to a law allowing the government to do just this sort of dirty work [in a Senate vote on September 25, 2001]."
While the two main parties continue to argue over who is responsible for the arrival of the Minasa Bone, and the government tries to convince us that this is an issue of "national security", the future of 14 Kurdish men remains afloat in a sea of political point-scoring and human rights abuses.
From Green Left Weekly, November 12, 2003.
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