BY SARAH STEPHEN
Despite being pushed off the front pages by the September 11 attacks in the US, the Australian government's scandalous treatment of asylum seekers has continued unabated.
The government's "war on refugees" reached a new level of vulgar hysteria at the end of August following the rescue of 438 refugees by the MV Tampa. The refugees were transferred to the Australian navy's HMAS Manoora. Refusing to allow the refugees to set foot on Australian soil, PM John Howard arranged to have the tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru take the asylum seekers while their refugee applications were assessed.
Once in Nauru's waters, a two-week stand-off began as more than 200 Iraqi and Palestinian asylum seekers refused to leave the Manoora. Their main demand was to be taken to Australia. They also wanted other guarantees, such as a time frame for their stay in Nauru and information about their fate should their claims for asylum be rejected.
The Australian government's response was to send federal police hostage negotiators to try to break the will of the protesting refugees. Federal front bencher Warren Entsch foreshadowed the government's next move when he said on September 24: "Quite frankly, those that are stirring it up should be grabbed by the scruff of the neck and dragged off. One way, I guess, of convincing them would be to stop feeding them. If they want the food it's on the beach. It's as simple as that."
The Australian government didn't stop feeding asylum seekers. Instead, they used a combination of force and deceit to get the leaders of the group off the ship.
On October 1, newspapers carried pictures of 12 Australian soldiers in full battle dress escorting six asylum seekers off the Manoora. A second stand-off took place when the refugees refused to leave a bus that was to take them to the detention centre on Nauru.
The October 2 Sydney Morning Herald reported that one of the six, a telecommunications engineer from Iraq, shouted to journalists that the asylum seekers had been deceived. "One of them, they hit one of us, and he is injured now", he said. "We negotiated with the Australian Federal Police for three days, then they hit us and bring us here."
The engineer said one of the police officers told the asylum seekers he was a representative of John Howard. "He is cheating us", he said. "How could you elect Mr John Howard, when he does this illegally? We are coming from Iraq, we are escaping from Saddam Hussein, then we are arrested here. The Australian government is the second face of Saddam Hussein."
"We are not terrorists", he told reporters. "We are looking for peace and we want to live in freedom. We spent 20 years with war in Iraq. We want to rest, we want to be saved."
The remainder of the protesting refugees were removed from the Manoora by October 4.
Opposition leader Kim Beazley was fully supportive of the government's brutal actions. Nobody is entitled to be on an Australian navy ship, he said. "If the navy wants you off, you're off."
Despite threats of suicide on board the Manoora, Howard's hard-line stance only firmed. He told a media conference during the stand-off: "I should make it quite clear that the people on the Manoora will be going to Nauru. They will not come to the Australian mainland or Australian territory. I am sure, in the end, the people involved will be persuaded that the most sensible thing is to go to Nauru."
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees has refused to process any further arrivals on Nauru, calling for future asylum seekers to be processed in Australia. Diverting boat people to Nauru was not a normal procedure, said UNHCR spokesperson Ellen Hansen. "We are urging Australia to grant these persons access to national asylum procedures."
The October 1 Melbourne Age reported that the government may be forced to send immigration officials to Nauru to process the 262 asylum seekers on the way to the island aboard HMAS Tobruk, who will arrive the coming weeks.
While the government has called for other countries to take their "fair share" of refugees on Nauru, it has admitted that a substantial number will be taken in by Australia. This reveals that the entire, expensive operation was a pre-election political stunt.
Given the instability in the Middle East and Afghanistan caused by the US preparations for war, it is also unlikely that asylum seekers in Nauru whose claims are rejected will not be able to be sent back.
Caught in the middle of a cruel election campaign in which Australia's two main capitalist parties are determined to outdo each other in refugee-bashing, 750 asylum seekers in Nauru face a fearful and uncertain future.