New refugees face Tasers, tear gas

August 5, 2011
Australian federal police drill on Christmas Island.

Federal riot police have the go-ahead to use Tasers, tear gas, batons, capsicum spray and handcuffs to force refugees onto a flight to Malaysia from Christmas Island. Immigration officials say they will film the ordeal to put online as a “potent message” to other refugees.

The first asylum seekers to undergo this ordeal arrived in Australian waters less than a week after the “Malaysia solution” came into effect. A boat carrying 55 Afghan, Iranian and Iraqi refugees was intercepted near Scott Reef on July 31.

More than one third of the asylum seekers on the boat are children.

A “cattle run” has been built to move the refugees into the island’s Phosphate Hill detention compound, the Daily Telegraph said.

News Limited published footage from the island of police in riot gear practising military drills and shouting “get back”.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard gave them authority to “use appropriate force” if the refugees try to resist their deportation.

She said the federal police were there to “do what was necessary” and it was “not a question of volunteering”.

“It means taking appropriate steps to get people to board the plane and disembark the plane at the other end,” she said on August 1.

The inclusion of Tasers in the “appropriate force” measures has been heavily criticised by human rights and legal groups.

Tasers have already led to several deaths in Australia. As well, the beanbag bullets police fired at refugees during protests in March may have fractured one refugee’s leg.

However, these “less lethal” weapons continue to be used with impunity.

The Australian Lawyers Alliance president, Greg Barns, said Gillard had authorised the use of dangerous and harmful weapons against traumatised people.

He told ABC Online: “These are vulnerable people who, in many, cases, have been brutalised by police in their own country.

“This is heavy-handed, jackbooted and unnecessary … [Gillard] is playing politics with human life.”

The Christmas Island Shire president Gordon Thomson expressed similar fears: “It’s going to be very disturbing for the people involved, both the asylum seekers and the people charged with removing them.”

When the new arrivals were told of the government's plans, they began a hunger strike on August 5.

Michelle Dimasi, founder of advocay group Asylum Seekers Christmas Island, said a man from among the new arrivals phoned her. He said: "We need help ... The women and children are in a bad way."

But the immigration department denied it. A spokesperson said: "Just because someone misses a meal or two does not mean they are on voluntary starvation."

Immigration minister Chris Bowen has repeatedly said the government would not back away from its “tough message”.

He told Sky News on August 1 there was now “no question, that if you take that boat journey to Australia we’re going to take you back to Malaysia”.

Immigration spokesperson Sandi Logan later added: “We will be documenting [the forced deportations] so pictures get out far and wide.”

Immigration and customs officials will film the nightmare trial for the refugees from their moment of arrival to the distressing moment they are forced on planes bound for Malaysia.

The footage will likely be added to the federal government’s YouTube channel “No to people smuggling” — a government fear campaign against refugees trying to seek asylum in Australia.

The channel has operated since May 2010. It broadcasts short videos showing images of the inhumane conditions in Australia’s detention centres, the Christmas Island shipwreck in December and a graphic portrayal of a man drowning at sea.

A new video on the “refugees swap”, translated into eight languages, was uploaded on June 25.

It’s starkly similar to the Howard government’s scare tactics in 2000, when then-immigration minister Philip Ruddock designed similar videos — with sharks, crocodiles and spiders — to scare off asylum seekers from attempting to reach Australia.

At the time, Ruddock said: “Now when you see them you might think that they are a little sensational. You may think that they’re horrific.” But he said the videos were based on “fact” and were necessary to keep refugees away from Australia.

The Labor government has taken this cynical stance to a new level, taking drastic measures to deter people seeking asylum in Australia but ignoring the refugee crisis worldwide.

The immigration department says it wants to reduce the time it takes to deport refugees to within 72 hours of their arrival in Australia. This stands in stark contrast to the 12 months or longer some refugees spend in detention while their claims are processed.

Refugee and human rights groups around the country have damned the refugee swap with Malaysia, labelling it a criminal human-trafficking deal.

Advocacy group Asylum Seekers Christmas Island said on August 4 the deal was “ethically abhorrent, legally questionable and practically unsustainable”.

“Australia can no longer call itself a compassionate, humanitarian country,” the group said.

Protests have been planned by refugees groups around the country to oppose mandatory detention and the “Malaysia solution”.

The Refugee Action Coalition Sydney said on July 26: “Australia should do everything it can to find new homes for refugees currently suffering in Malaysia. But this must not be at the cost of the wholesale undermining of Australia’s basic humanitarian obligation to welcome refugees in this country.”

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