Refugees: Labor outdoes Coalition cruelty

November 22, 2012
The Manus Island detention centre in August.

Labor is making a full-scale assault on the right of refugees to seek protection, as it continues to fill the Nauru detention camp, forcibly deport hundreds back to Sri Lanka before hearing their claims for asylum and keep thousands in perpetual limbo in the name of “deterrence”.

Now, the federal government has revealed its plans for the almost 8000 people that have arrived seeking asylum by boat in recent months. The plan is worse than the extreme temporary protection visas introduced by the former John Howard Government.

On the same day that the first group of refugees, including women and children, were taken to the Manus Island detention centre, immigration minister Chris Bowen announced a new “bridging” visa for refugees that arrived after Labor's “cut-off” date of August 13.

The visa status supposedly applies the “no advantage” rule to those the government cannot find room for offshore. But, Bowen said, “they will not … be issued with a permanent protection visa if found to be a refugee.”

Instead, some would remain in Australian detention, which the government is now expanding to hold more people. The Pontville detention centre in Hobart will be reopened, and 300 beds will be added at the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation centre.

But most detention centres are already overcrowded. So other asylum seekers will be placed in the community with no right to work or no family reunion rights. They will receive only basic accommodation and financial support equivalent to 89% of the Newstart allowance. This status could continue for up to five years or longer — the period Labor decided other refugees awaited resettlement around the region.

But aside from being forced into certain poverty and precarious living conditions, immigration said “these people” could be sent “offshore at a future date”.

“Their status as offshore entry people is unchanged.”

This dire uncertainty to be imposed on people that had a legal right to seek protection in Australia is a close copy of the temporary protection visas imposed by Howard, under which refugees waited up to three years, always with the threat of sudden deportation or detention, with no chance of truly beginning a new life or considering themselves safe.

It was a cruel form of mental torture, designed to make refugees regret seeking protection in Australia and prolong the punishment received for coming by boat. This refusal to grant due protection reinforced Howard's use of fear and racism to steer public debate.

Human rights lawyer Julian Burnside wrote on The Conversation on November 23 that Labor's moves also pander to the same prejudiced elements in the Australian public.

“Almost everything that has happened in refugee policy over the past 11 years has been informed and supported by dishonest rhetoric.”

He said playing up terms like “illegal” and “queue jumpers” is “not only false, it is calculated to prejudice the public against a tiny group of weak, vulnerable people who deserve our help, not our hatred.”

The announcement that some asylum seekers would receive bridging visas in Australia has devastated the refugees now languishing in Nauru. Refugees in the “tent city” camp said one man tried to kill himself after hearing the news.

The Iranian man “hanged himself inside his tent with a bed sheet”, they said on November 22.

He was taken from the camp and refugees had not heard of his condition.

Those who were transferred to Nauru now feel they have been subject to a lottery, chosen randomly to be sent to the unbearable island camp. The conditions on Nauru are intentionally cruel and brutal, as the government hopes to “deter” others while also pushing detained refugees to “voluntarily” return to the places they first fled.

Amnesty International visitors called the camp “appalling”. "We saw people who showed us scars where they had cut themselves, and they wanted to highlight one of the poles where someone tried to hang themselves," Graham Thom told ABC radio from the camp.

"The confined environment that people are being kept in, the very small tents, 14 people to a tent, in the very hot conditions. I think harsh is an understatement when it comes to describing conditions in the centre."

"Nearly 400 men in a very small environment with nothing to do, really, if we're going to be honest, and with just uncertainty praying on them, this is what breaks people and ultimately they are breaking."

"We met a man who’s been on a hunger strike for over 40 days, and has lost 19 kilograms."

The man is known as Omid. An Iranian refugee, he had been on hunger strike for 43 days by November 23. Refugee advocates say his life is in the immigration minister's hands.

Australia has now also started sending refugees to the Manus Island detention camp in Papua New Guinea. The immigration department said the first group “made up entirely of families” and including four children were put on a chartered flight from Christmas Island on November 22.

Children's services on Manus Island would be run by Save the Children, the immigration department said. But several advocacy and human rights groups have condemned the decision to send children offshore.

UNICEF Australia and the National Children’s and Youth Law Centre have asked the government for evidence that the “best interests of the child” will be maintained.

UNICEF's chief executive said on November 21, “we are concerned that before these safeguards have been made available for review that children are already being sent there, potentially jeopardising their health, education and psychological welfare".

It is not hard to predict what will happen to children and adults locked up in hostile conditions on Nauru and Manus Island, because Labor's policy is now a near replica — if increasingly more brutal version — of Howard's trashed and derided regime.

Under Howard, dozens of children witnessed violent self-harm, suicide attempts and the psychological breakdown of their parents. This is a recent past Australia's government is determined to repeat.

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