The human cost of the 'Pacific solution'

Wednesday, August 21, 2002


The human cost of the 'Pacific solution'

On August 26, 2001, 433 asylum seekers aboard an Indonesian fishing
boat, the KM Palapa 1, overloaded and sinking, were rescued by the
Norwegian freighter, MV Tampa. On August 27, the Howard government
shocked the world by refusing permission for the captain, Arne Rinnan,
to deliver the asylum seekers to Christmas Island.

In defiance of the government's orders, the Tampa entered
Australian waters two days later. SAS troops were ordered to board and
take control of the ship. The asylum seekers were transferred to HMAS Arunta
and taken to Nauru, marking the beginning of the “Pacific solution”
and a series of massive and unprecedented attacks on the human rights of
asylum seekers.

A year of vicious policy followed. Parliament removed asylum seekers'
appeal rights, it excised most islands from Australian territory for migration
purposes, and created two new discriminatory visas which rob refugees of
the right to permanent settlement if they arrive on Australian territory
without a visa, and spend more than seven days in transit from the country
they are fleeing.

Much criticism of the Pacific solution has emphasised its financial
costs, which are estimated at half a billion dollars. While it's true that
this is an appalling waste of taxpayers' money — money which could have

been used to resettle three times as many refugees in Australia — our greatest
concern should be the human cost borne by the 1500 asylum
seekers banished to their Pacific hell.

Many have been imprisoned for a year, without access to lawyers and
without being able to contact their relatives. Most have now had their
claims processed, with 59% of the Iraqis having been granted refugee status,
compared with only 7% of Afghans. The injustice of the decision sparked
a riot on Nauru — most Afghans would have been granted refugee status if
they had been taken to Australia when they first arrived.

Of the more than 300 determined as refugees, New Zealand has taken 59
and may take another 100. Sweden has agreed to accept nine. Australia has
accepted just over 100, leaving 150 in limbo while the rest face deportation.

Labor's objection to the Pacific solution has never been about the human
rights of asylum seekers, but simply the monetary cost of the policy and
its “unsustainability”. This is reflected in the Hawke-Wran review of the
ALP's structures, released on August 10, which proposes an “Indian Ocean
solution” in place of the Pacific solution. It states: “Boat people and
refugees should be located … in the natural holding area of Christmas Island
and, on completion of the new facility, John Howard's diaspora of the desperate
around the Pacific should be located there. The unacceptable detention
centres on the Australian mainland, like Woomera, can then be closed.”

No doubt Howard will have little disagreement with these proposals.
In fact, it is rumoured that on August 27, the remaining asylum seekers
on Nauru will be moved to Christmas Island.

While the government generated the impression that its action against
the Tampa stopped the flow of asylum seekers to Australia,
there were in fact another 12 boats carrying 1014 asylum seekers which
made it to Australian territory between September and December. A further
five boats carrying 996 people were intercepted and turned back to Indonesia,
or never made it to Australia, such as the boat known as SIEV-X, which
sank drowning 353 people.

The Australian government's vicious, inhuman policy has left an indelible
impression on those who turned to it for help and were turned away. The
August 13 Sydney Morning Herald reported that Daulat Khan,
an asylum seeker who has just returned to Afghanistan, said he never wanted
to hear the word Australia again. “I spent three years in detention. I
was not prepared to stay there and rot and go mad like the rest of them”,
Khan said. “Philip Ruddock is the smiling executioner. He says he is always
doing the right thing and then he stabs you in the back.”

From Green Left Weekly, August 21, 2002.

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