A barbed-wire election campaign

SYDNEY — On August 7, 250 people gathered at Town Hall to rally for refugee rights, in the lead up to the federal elections. Z

As of June 25, more than 4116 people, 566 of them children, were in Australian immigration detention centres, according to figures published on the Department of Immigration and Citizenship website.

The site also noted an increase of 46 people in the past week.

In a country of 22 million people, 46 is a minute figure. That “stopping the boats” is a key election promise of both major parties illustrates the mean-spiritedness of their campaign.

The website does not detail the conditions for families detained behind barbed wire in a disused mining camp, a few hundred kilometres north of Kalgoorlie.

The figures say nothing about the hopes and fears of 306 mainly Afghan refugees holed up indefinitely in the mothballed Air Force base at the Curtin detention centre in Western Australia.

Over the past week, the Gillard Labor team has barely mentioned Labor’s proposed “East Timor solution”. The lack of progress in strongarming the Timorese government into allowing a detention centre to be set up on the impoverished half-island must be a problem.

East Timor's Deputy Prime Minister Mario Carrascalao told ABC Radio National on July 26 that the “majority of people are going to ... reject this proposal”.

The July 24 Australian carried a report that talks were being held with Jakarta to resolve the asylum-seeker problem by building new detention centres in Indonesia. The source was a “senior federal government official who asked not to be named”.

The Tony Abbott-led Coalition, meanwhile, keeps singing the same old jingle about “picking up the phone to Nauru”.

The Pacific island ran a prison camp for those seeking asylum in Australia under former Coalition prime minister John Howard’s government. It has expressed a willingness to accept Australia’s bribes and do it again.

We’re definitely in the grip of a Tampa-style election. The only direction Australia is moving on refugee rights is backwards.

On July 28, the government planned to use shonky travel documents to remove 32-year-old Sudanese man Joel Aggrey Bulabeki from a Perth detention centre and send him to Tanzania.

Bulabeki has been detained for more than two years. He has never lived in Tanzania.

Ian Rintoul, of Sydney’s Refugee Action Coalition, said on July 28: “This was a practice we thought had been ended with the end of the Howard government. A similar incident saw a man deported with false documents to Tanzania in 2003, only to be imprisoned there before eventually being returned from South Africa to Australia.”

The return to the past permeates all levels of government.

Green Left Weekly spoke to several asylum seekers and refugee advocates who asked not to be named. Their stories suggest Rintoul’s observation holds true.

One asylum seeker on Christmas Island could not get the medical treatment he needed. But when a Melbourne doctor wrote to a lawyer explaining the need for treatment, it was suddenly provided.

Another man — one of the thousands who suffer distress —received counselling, only after a refugee advocate involved a human rights organisation in his case.

Yet there is another man, who finds it difficult to eat because food is associated with memories of torture, is not receiving any treatment.

Many of the refugees in detention have been there for more than a year, worried sick about their families, some carrying shrapnel wounds, terrified and uncertain — and not receiving adequate care.

In Perth’s detention centre and Christmas Island, many of the refugees report not being allowed to use outdoor areas and not being allowed to pray.

At Sydney’s Villawood detention centre on July 25, a planned visit by refugee-rights supporters to play soccer with detainees was not permitted.

Other regular visitors were also denied access. Not for any good reason, just petty bloody mindedness.

Have we become such a narrow, grey land?

Don't let the racists be the only ones heard in this election. A pro-refugee rights demonstration took place in Sydney on August 7. Another protest is scheduled in Melbourne on August 13 at 5.30pm outside the State Library in Swanston Street.

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