Prime Minister Julia Gillard seems determined to avoid the facts on asylum seeker issues. In her address to the Lowy Institute on July 6, she claimed an updated United Nations report “confirmed the improved human rights and security situation in Sri Lanka and that displaced people continue to return to their homes”.
In fact, the report repeatedly referred to “acts of violence and human rights abuses ... abductions, disappearances, assaults, extortion, forced recruitment and extra-judicial killings continue to be committed with impunity by multiple actors”.
During her televised July 25 debate with Coalition leader Tony Abbott, she continued to talk about her plan for East Timor to become a “Regional Processing Centre” for those seeking asylum in Australia — despite the overwhelming rejection of the plan by that country.
Seeking political capital from appearing “tough” on the “problem” of small numbers of desperate people that arrive on boats to seek asylum in Australia, both Abbott and Gillard mentioned “boats” as many times as possible.
Excluded from the debate, Greens Senator Bob Brown commented on Twitter: “The word ‘boats’ is getting much more prominence ‘schools’, ‘hospitals’, ‘pensions’, ‘farms’ or ‘trains’.”
Abbott insists he doesn’t want a return of the anti-worker Work Choices policies of John Howard’s former Coalition government, but he makes much of wanting a return to Howard’s asylum policies.
Howard’s “Pacific Solution”, in which asylum seekers were imprisoned on the tiny island of Nauru, enabled mass hunger strikes and suicide attempts by detainees to be kept hidden from public scrutiny. Hundreds of people were detained there for years.
The detention centre on Nauru was a hellhole. More than 40 people had to be airlifted out, because its infrastructure could not provide the medical care they needed.
In June 2004, the “Flotilla of Hope” (two yachts from Brisbane with refugee rights supporters onboard) sailed to Nauru with humanitarian supplies. They were forced back at gun point.
Refugee rights activist Frederika Steen pointed out in a February 2004 article on Safecom.org that the “vacuum in news and information feeds a serious misconception among Australians that detaining people on Nauru [was] a response to September 11 and part of the war on terror”.
Misconceptions are still being spread by the major parties and many in the media. WAtoday.com.au ran an article on July 23 titled “Here’s new proof on boat people”.
It was about a ship with 200 Tamil asylum seekers on board that at first planned to sail to Australia, but is now heading towards Canada.
The “proof” in the article consists of this astonishing piece of investigative journalism: “Reports in the Sri Lankan media claim that several of the 200 passengers are suspected of having links with the Tamil Tigers.”
This is a standard claim from the Sri Lankan regime, which seeks to divert attention from its ongoing human rights abuses against the Tamil minority.
Despite the lies and scaremongering of the major parties, not everyone buys the official line.
Comments made on the WAToday.com article were strongly in favour of the rights of asylum seekers. One was particularly apt: “This story of a boat sailing from country to country without being able to land reminds me of the SS St. Louis.”
The St Louis carried Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution in 1939.