BY SARAH STEPHEN
SYDNEY — For two days, beginning on October 7 every section of the corporate media, from TV to newspaper, reported that a group of around 220 Iraqi asylum seekers had callously thrown their children overboard before themselves jumping into the water, supposedly in a bid to force those aboard the HMAS Adelaide to rescue them.
Only the October 8 Australian included a critical fact: "Defence personnel boarded and took control of the vessel after HMAS Adelaide fired warning shots across its bow", but the article did not speculate on the effect this might have had on the asylum seekers decision to jump into the water.
"I find that it is against the natural instinct", PM John Howard told reporters, when asked about the incident. Reported in the October 11 Age, foreign minister Alexander Downer was even more categorical: "Any civilised person would never dream of treating their own children in that way." Before the circumstances of any of those asylum seekers were assessed, Howard had passed judgment: "Genuine refugees don't do that." Howard said: "I certainly don't want people of that type in Australia."
The most vile and xenophobic reaction came from Western Australian Senator Ross Lightfoot, who told the October 11 Age that Australians were entitled to express disgust at their behaviour. "Such attempts to blackmail Australia into accepting these uninvited and repulsive people only serve to harden the resolve of decent, balanced Australians", he said. "One wonders just where these wretched people would be acceptable."
Finally, on October 10, the government sheepishly confirmed that the Adelaide had indeed fired four warning shots — together with a short burst of automatic gunfire — after a written warning presented to the crew of the fishing boat was ignored.
Defence minister Peter Reith, taking a very defensive tone on the October 10 SBS TV news, asserted that he was sure the shots had definitely been fired "hundreds of metres" away from the boat. It appears that some of the Iraqi asylum seekers in fact jumped overboard in response to the gunfire. More jumped over when RAN personnel boarded the fishing boat to take it back into international waters. Why should such a response surprise us when people have fled torture and repression by a military dictatorship?
This latest appalling incident is the direct result of the government's new policy of intercepting and turning away boats heading for Australia. Yet rather than accept responsibility for creating the situation, Howard found a way to blame the victims.
The government's efforts to brand asylum seekers arriving by boat as manipulators who don't care about their children marks the latest attempt to dehumanise, even demonise, them.
Labor "Opposition" leader Kim Beazley joined the refugee-bashing chorus. The October 9 Australian Financial Review reported that Beazley "condemned the actions of the refugees, saying he absolutely deplored 'anyone who throws children, whether they have got life jackets or not, into the water". It wasn't until the media began to question the details of what had happened that Beazley raised any concerns of his own with the government's version of events.
The Indonesian government has refused to take this latest boatload of refugees back, and Nauru is already overburdened with the task of processing close to 800 asylum seekers, a 7% increase in the island's tiny population. The October 11 Age reported that Kiribati had offered to house them, and could be used later.
On October 10, Howard announced an agreement with Papua New Guinea to build a new detention centre, for which the Australian government will bear the full cost. It will be operated by the International Organisation for Migration, with assistance from Australia. The asylum seekers will be held on Christmas Island temporarily until they can be transferred to PNG.
It would seem, however, that shipping asylum seekers to a third country has a limited shelf life, unless the Australian government is prepared to take full responsibility for processing asylum claims. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has refused to take responsibility for processing any asylum seekers beyond the 290 Afghans first brought to Nauru on the HMAS Manoora.
ABC Radio National's law report, broadcast on October 2, interviewed Ellen Hanson, spokesperson for the UNHCR in Canberra: "It is inappropriate for countries such as Australia, which has very sophisticated and very well-developed refugee status determination procedures, to ask UNHCR to undertake such processing of people who've come within Australian territory and then are intercepted at sea and taken elsewhere."