Refugees: who is putting their lives at risk?


On September 2, 40 people attended a public forum organised by Refugee Action Collective (RAC) Queensland on the treatment of asylum seekers under the Rudd Labor government.

The meeting marked the eighth anniversary of the Tampa event. It was also prompted by recent events such as the Australian and Indonesian governments' neglect of an asylum seeker boat in distress in early July. Since the meeting, there have been more "interceptions" of boats carrying asylum seekers.

The speakers included two refugees, a Tamil Sri Lankan and a Hazara Afghan, and two prominent refugee advocates, Ian Rintoul and Andrew Bartlett (a former Democrats senator).

Vijayaraja Alageson gave a harrowing account of his life in Sri Lanka as part of the oppressed Tamil minority. He left the audience in no doubt about why so many Tamils fled for safety.

Chaman Shah Nasiri spoke of what drove him to escape the Taliban's rule in Afghanistan. Nasiri spent several years as a detainee in the Nauru detention centre before being recognised as a refugee and offered Australian residency, and finally citizenship.

He recently visited family and friends among the expatriate Hazara community in Pakistan. He said that, in much of Afghanistan, the US-led occupation has changed nothing; the same warlords that ran regions under the Taliban now run them under the Karzai government.

Hazaras were still subject to persecution — even when they escaped to Pakistan. That is why there were so many Afghan asylum seekers still on the move.

Rintoul was instrumental in the events surrounding an asylum seeker boat in trouble in July. The boat went missing despite monitoring by Australian authorities — that refused to take responsibility because the boat had been in Indonesian waters.

Rintoul received a message the boat was in distress and conveyed this to the Australian authorities, notably the Australian Federal Police (AFP).

He told the meeting he was disturbed by the authorities' sheer indifference to whether the asylum seekers lived or died. He also said it became obvious the AFP was already aware of the boat in question, and knew it was in distress.

It already knew before he reported it, but did nothing.

He contrasted this callous lack of response to the response to lone British adventurers who get into trouble at sea, for whom no expense is spared to rescue them.

Rintoul also said that, at Christmas Island, people with children, supposedly in "community accommodation", are really in detention. He said the government's claims that no children are in detention are lies.

Bartlett acknowledged the positive reforms made by the Rudd government, but emphasised they would not have happened without the huge grassroots campaigns over the last decade.

He urged refugee supporters to continue campaigning, because there are still injustices the Rudd government has no intention of correcting.

Bartlett said the refugee rights movement should not ignore the collusion of the Australian government with the Indonesian and Malaysian governments, ostensibly to defeat and frustrate people smugglers.

He said the collusion was about frustrating asylum seekers' wishes for freedom and keeping them away from Australia. It includes warehousing asylum seekers in terrible camps and deporting them back to danger.

Several of the speakers responded to the government's tactic of demonising people smugglers instead of demonising asylum seekers as former prime minister John Howard did.

Rintoul said demonising people smugglers served precisely the same political purpose for PM Kevin Rudd as demonising asylum seekers did for Howard: it was a way of influencing public opinion to support keeping uninvited asylum seekers out of Australia.

Nasiri said: "Look at me. If not for a people smuggler, I would not be here. I would be dead!"

[Paul McKinnon is an activist in the Refugee Action Collective Queensland.]<