By Sue Bull
SYDNEY — "The Australian government's attempts to eject 37 Cambodian boat people applying for refugee status is racist, heartless and uncaring", says Rosanna Barbero, a member of the Action Committee for Refugees in Australia.
ACRA formed in March in response to the Immigration Department's show of force regarding illegal immigrants. At this stage, 37 of the 438 people who have arrived in nine unauthorised boats since 1989 are awaiting the outcome of a High Court case.
On arrival in Australia each successive group of boat people has been locked up at Port Hedland, Darwin or Villawood. In these detention centres, the refugees have waited for over two years while the Immigration Department assesses their refugee status. Each refugee must prove that, if they return to their country, they will be politically persecuted.
According to Barbero, "These people are genuinely frightened. Even the Australian government sees Cambodia as unsafe and unstable. They should have been granted temporary residency on arrival and been able to have some dignity in their applications to become Australian citizens."
Another member of ACRA, Zhiew, a Cambodian who arrived in Australia nine years ago as a refugee from the Thai-Cambodian border camps, says, "It is not safe to return, as the Khmer Rouge is still a very great danger."
Yet the Australian government and immigration minister Gerry Hand persist in claiming that the boat people are queue jumpers.
Indeed, Janice Crosio, the ALP member for Prospect, the electorate where the Villawood Detention Centre is located, was quoted in the Fairfield Champion on April 15 as saying, "I've got no time for queue jumpers".
Barbero and Zhiew find such comments preposterous and outrageous. " When these people left Cambodia, there was no queue", says Barbero. "The country was so devastated that there were no channels for emigration from Cambodia."
"When you're fleeing for your life, you're not worried about queues. Australia wasn't even the intended destination for these people. They just wanted to get to safety", says Zhiew.
"As for Hand's other comments about whole shiploads of illegal immigrants making for Australia if these few are allowed to stay, that's just rubbish", says Barbero. "If in periods of trauma and crisis throughout the South-East Asian region, very few boatloads have arrived, why should they now? We're surrounded by poor Third World countries, yet boatloads aren't coming. It's just too dangerous."
Barbero believes that the government is attempting to find an issue which diverts attention from the real issues of the recession. "Migrants and refugees have always been scapegoats during recessions. The whole world is in recession, and it's not migrant people who've caused unemployment."
For Zhiew, the whole situation smacks of racial discrimination and unfairness. "Residency status has been given to others, like the Chinese students, who were flown here. Bob Hawke cried for them. But these people from my country get nothing. Haven't they too endured massive hardships and persecution? ... It's like the Australian government's double standards over Indonesia's invasion of East Timor and Iraq's invasion of Kuwait."
Meanwhile, the refugees wait it out. During the earlier part of their internment, they were hopeful that the Australian government would react with humanity and compassion to their plight, but now they are losing hope. They also fear for the futures of the three babies who have been born on Australian soil.
The Action Committee for Refugees in Australia is organising a rally for 12 noon in Martin Place on Saturday, June 6, to march to the ALP state conference at Town Hall, where a press conference will be held. Speakers, singers and dancers from many supportive communities, including the Aboriginal and Latin American communities, will attend.