Australia stops boats, turns them back to danger

Vigil for Saeed at Villawood. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

As immigration minister Peter Dutton and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull boast in front of a wall of Australian flags about how they have stopped the boats and saved lives at sea, the Australian Navy is turning boats back to danger.

US immigration officials have admitted it is possible that no one from the Manus Island and Nauru detention centres will be resettled in the US. Meanwhile, Australian border force officers have been ramping up deportations on Manus Island.

The immigration department is fast-tracking more than 25,000 claims for protection, potentially putting thousands of people currently living in the Australian community at risk of deportation. The case of Saeed, a 60-year-old Iraqi asylum seeker, whom refugee activists are trying to prevent from being deported from Villawood is just the tip of the iceberg.

Boat turnbacks and deportations are key elements of any system designed to keep refugees locked out and migrant communities subordinate. It happens at great and often unknown human cost, with many people deported or turned back never heard from again.

But it is not just happening in Australia. It is happening across Europe, Britain and the US.

Last year, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, led by Germany, deployed warships, planes and submarines across the Aegean Sea to intercept people fleeing Syria and send them back to Turkey. In the same year Germany deported 80,000 asylum seekers. Deportations are expected to rise this year, with almost half of the 700,000 claims submitted for protection last year being rejected.

Britain has been deporting hundreds of people on charter flights to Nigeria and Ghana, including families who have lived in Britain for years. Anti-deportation activists surrounded one of the planes at Stansted airport on March 28 and locked their arms together in concrete tubes in an attempt to stop it leaving.

In the US, Trump is taking his anti-refugee racism to a new level with his attempted Muslim ban and giving immigration and customs enforcement agents increased funding, freedom and power to step up raids and deportations of undocumented immigrants. Airport occupations and sanctuary campuses are just some of the inspiring ways people are resisting.  

Australia, with its unique geographical position and decades of anti-refugee policies, has one of the more sinister and effective operations to stop asylum seekers — secretive boat turnbacks.

Dutton and his predecessors have consistently refused to answer questions and allegations around the government’s policy of boat turnbacks, citing national security concerns. Revelations in the Guardian on April 3 show the scale of Australia’s naval operations in turning back boats.

The Guardian’s attempts to access documents on boat turnbacks under freedom of information legislation have been met with resistance from the government at every step. However, a small part has now been released.

The documents, despite being heavily censored, clearly show the Australian navy has been turning boats back on the orders of the immigration department since 2013. The same year, Australia gave Sri Lanka two military patrol boats with no restrictions on their use. It can be safely assumed they have been used to stop Tamils fleeing Sri Lanka.

Asylum seekers whose boats have been turned back have not had a chance for their refugee claims to be properly assessed, if they were assessed at all. The number of boats the Australian government has turned back and what happened to the people in them is unknown.

In the Manus Island detention centre, immigration officials are giving people the choice of accepting US$25,000 and being sent back “voluntarily” or being deported by force anyway.

Four years of torture including denial of medical aid, beatings by guards and uncertainty if detention will ever end, has broken detainees, leaving some believing they have no choice but to accept being deported — even if it puts their life at risk.

Phil Glendenning and the Edmund Rice Foundation have tracked down some of those who were deported to Afghanistan, Syria and Sri Lanka. Their report, Deported to Danger, released in 2004 and with subsequent updates, paints a grim picture and shows the government’s claims that people who are deported remain safe to be pure fiction.

In a 2015 update they found Tamils who returned to Sri Lanka faced torture. One man’s story: “On arrival at Colombo Airport he was detained and then held for three days of intensive interrogation including being threatened at gun point, stripped naked and pain inflicted on his body and face with a number of sharp instruments.”

This is the harsh reality of deportations.  

Deportations are part of the detention system. The government can say it has stopped the boats at election time, when in reality people are still coming by boat seeking asylum. The constant fear of deportation is a way of sowing fear in migrant communities and thus keeping people subordinated.

Deportations give the government ammunition for its claims that people coming to Australia are “illegal immigrants”. This is despite the fact that before the fast-tracking of asylum claims and cuts to legal aid were introduced, more than 90% of people arriving by boat seeking asylum who had their claims assessed in Australia were found to be genuine refugees.

The campaign to stop deportations will be won only when the campaign to close the detention system and welcome refugees is won. A key part of this overall strategy is anti-deportation actions, which give hope to refugees inside, give people practical ways of making a difference and connect people to a human narrative in the political travesty that is Australia’s detention system.

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