Australia's war on people smugglers is really a war on refugees

May 22, 2015
Rohingya women in a boat drifiting in Thai waters on May 14.

The toll of Australia's bipartisan anti-refugee policies in death and suffering is rising. In the past fortnight more than 3000 Rohingya refugees from Arakan state in Burma (Myanmar) have turned up on the shores of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, having either swum ashore or been rescued by local fishing boat crews. An estimated 7000 more are trapped on boats that have been described as “floating coffins”.

Abandoned by people smugglers following a crackdown by Thai authorities, and towed out to sea by the Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian navies, the refugees are lacking food, water and fuel and their boats – not designed for long-distance voyages – are sinking. Hundreds have died from hunger, dehydration, drowning, or in fights over the small amounts of food and water that the navies have given them.

This is Australian policy at work. When Australian politicians talk about their “war on people smugglers” it is code for “war on refugees”. It is the language of racist “dog whistling” – what is meant is clear but no actual admission is made. Likewise with claims that “stopping the boats” is based on concerns for maritime safety. If anyone had doubts, the horrific fate of the Rohingya refugees should dispel them.

Australia has continually demanded that its south-east Asian neighbours assist it in its “war on people smugglers”. This is what Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia have done and the current maritime holocaust is the result.

Representatives of international organisations and NGOs have expressed horror at what is happening. The leaders of the few countries that have progressive, humane governments have echoed this.

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa said on May 16: “This world is crazy. It shows a total disregard for human life to have people stranded on a boat, dying of starvation without being allowed to get off the boat.” He added that the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States was willing to provide emergency aid and resettle the refugees.

In contrast, Australian PM Tony Abbott was characteristically sadistic and smug. “I’m in no way critical of regional countries for the efforts that they make to stop the boats. Yes, we’ve always got to be humane and we’ve always got to be decent, but in the end we have to stop the boats,” he said on May 17.

“If that means taking more vigorous action on the high seas, if that means taking more vigorous action to uphold safety at sea closer to Burma and other countries which appear to be the source of this latest surge of boat people, well so be it.

“But I don’t apologise in any way for the action that Australia has taken to preserve safety at sea by turning boats around where necessary and if other countries choose to do that, frankly, that is almost certainly absolutely necessary if the scourge of people smuggling is to be beaten.”

Ironically, Australia has previously justified refusing asylum to refugees arriving by boat on the basis that they travelled through other countries before reaching Australia.

The Rohingya are the most oppressed of Burma's numerous national minorities, not recognised as citizens by either the Burmese government or most of the Burmese opposition. While they are indigenous to the coastal and northern regions of Arakan, both the Burmese regime and the nationalist movement of the Rakhine majority in Arakan maintain they are Bangladeshi immigrants.

For its part, Bangladesh refuses to accept Rohingya refugees. Those fleeing there are either kept in squalid camps on the border or pushed back into Burma.

In 2012 pogroms against the Muslim Rohingya, instigated by the Buddhist clergy and Burmese state, swept Arakan. The official death toll was in the hundreds but local human rights groups estimated that more than 10,000 were killed. Homes were burned, mosques destroyed or occupied by government troops and the survivors have since been held in “Internally Displaced People camps” that in reality are concentration camps. The people are not allowed out and little food and medicine is allowed in. The situation for those detained there is not tenable.

Burmese authorities have collaborated with people smugglers in putting Rohingya on boats. People smugglers can range from those motivated by humanitarian concern to ruthless criminals. Those that Burma works with are generally the latter and have been responsible for the torture and murder of Rohingya refugees.

On May 20, the governments of Malaysia and Indonesia announced that they would stop towing back boats and give temporary refuge to the Rohingya refugees currently at sea. Thailand followed on May 21. This is in part motivated by domestic pressure. In contrast to their governments, impoverished fishing communities have been rescuing refugees.

The May 20 Sydney Morning Herald reported that in the province of Aceh, devastated by a war and the 2004 tsunami, there was an outpouring of human solidarity as poor people found food and clothes for those rescued by fishing crews.

“You know they were on boats for so long, they lost everything, we felt pity for them … they've been weeks, maybe months at sea and it's worse than what we experienced with the tsunami … The Rohingyas were rejected by Thailand, they were rejected by Malaysia, even our own navy rejected them. I don't understand why the navy did that, but Aceh people helped them,” the head of the Tamiang Farmers and Fishermen Association, Muhammad Hendra, said.

In Australia the extremely expensive policy of detaining refugees in Australian-run privatised concentration camps in Nauru and Manus Island is in part motivated to stop such sentiments of human solidarity. On May 19, a Senate inquiry began investigating appalling revelations of abuse, rape and torture of refugees, including children, on Nauru. Similar revelations have emerged from Manus Island.

However, on May 15 the Senate passed the Australian Border Force Act, which is an attempt to stop such revelations by making it an offence punishable by jail for staff at Australian-run detention centres to disclose abuse they witness.

On April 30 the Nauruan government blocked Facebook, which refugees have used to communicate with the outside world. “My contacts are telling me that this was done at the request of the Australian government,” Pamela Curr from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre told Radio Australia's Pacific Beat program on May 5.

Nauruan Opposition MP Matthew Batsiua described the Facebook ban as part of a trend towards dictatorship. Since the Australian detention centre was opened, Nauru has expelled senior judicial officers and restricted access of foreign journalists.

The offer of temporary refuge for the Rohingyas by Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand was accompanied by a request for UN refugee convention signatories to provide permanent asylum. While several governments, including the US, said they would consider doing so, Abbott responded with “Nope. Nope. Nope.”

[Tony Iltis is a member of Socialist Alliance.]

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