BY SARAH STEPHEN
Refugee-bashing has proved a winner for Prime Minister John Howard, helping him boost his government's popularity to the highest it has been since the 1998 election. Yet while opinion polls are backing the government's draconian stance against asylum seekers, criticism is also growing louder.
The PM's "Pacific solution", whereby incoming asylum seekers are sent to camps in Pacific island nations rather than being allowed to even set foot in this country, is causing rumblings of discontent throughout the region.
Leaders at the UN Pacific Islands Forum, held in Kiribati from October 27-30, spoke out against the "emerging refugee market" and Australia's pressure on them to take asylum seekers.
The day before the forum began, on October 26, the Pacific Conference of Churches, the World Council of Churches and other regional organisations called Australian aid deals to induce Pacific nations to house asylum seekers "human trafficking" and protested the use of their region as a "dumping ground".
The statement voiced "concern over the Australian leadership's denial of their moral and legal obligation to support and protect those who flee their own countries because of persecution and violation of human rights".
Widespread discontent within Papua New Guinea at the government's agreement to take asylum seekers has even led to a demand by Prime Minister Makere Morauta that his foreign minister, John Pundari, resign. Pundari had sent a statement to Australian High Commissioner Nick Warner stating his objection to the policy; he has so far refused the PM's order.
In Fiji, Labour opposition leader Mahendra Chaudhry has criticised Australia's offer to pay the island nation $30 million to establish a processing centre for 1000 asylum seekers, calling it a shameful display of cheque-book diplomacy.
Criticism is starting to increase within Australia too.
The head of the Uniting Church in Australia, the Reverend Professor James Haire, told the November 1 Sydney Morning Herald that deals brokered with poor Pacific island nations for the building of detention centres "reeked of colonialism".
Former prime minister Malcolm Fraser made a stinging attack on Australia's treatment of refugees in a speech on the October 30 ABC TV program, Visions for a Nation.
"I never thought I would live to see the day when Australia would turn its back on people fleeing persecution and terror", he said. "It is obscene that a wealthy country such as Australia is buying space in poor countries such as Nauru and Papua New Guinea to help solve an Australian problem."
Criticism has even come from inside the government — Commonwealth Ombudsman Ron McLeod's annual report has found that asylum seekers in detention centres have less rights than convicted criminals locked behind bars.
But one factor which is undoubtedly aiding the Prime Minister's vendetta against some of the most desperate people on Earth is the lack of opposition from the "Opposition".
At an October 31 media conference, Labor leader Kim Beazley reiterated his party's full support for the government's policy and emphasised that a Labor government would turn boats around as long as they were not in danger or in poor condition.
Just in case anyone had a poor memory, Beazley proudly reminded his audience, "The Labor Party invented mandatory detention for people coming to this country illegally and we support that proposition."
From Green Left Weekly, November 7, 2001.
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