Tamils flee genocide — refugees should be welcomed!

Issue 

On October 15, almost 260 Tamil refugees were stranded at an Indonesian port in west Java. They were refusing to disembark from the boat that had carried them from Malaysia and pleaded for the Australian government to hear their case. That evening they declared a hunger strike.

Alex,a spokesperson for the group, told the media: "We decided on the strike to let the whole world know that we need their assistance as soon as possible. We need somebody to consider our case."

The hunger strike was ended on October 17, although the refugees still refuse to leave their boats.

The boat had been moored at Merak after it was caught sailing toward Australian waters. The Indonesian navy took it to the port.

The move was at the specific request of Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who had phoned his Indonesian counterpart and fed "top-level intelligence detailing the whereabouts of the boat", the West Australian said on October 13.

The information had come from Australian border security based in Indonesia.

Alex told Green Left Weekly by phone that the refugees are escaping government-driven genocide in Sri Lanka.

"We have run away from a war, a 26-year war against our people and we are fleeing genocide", he said.

Tamils are victims of war crimes in Sri Lanka. Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka have released reports of widespread abductions and executions at the behest of Sri Lankan officials.

Three hundred thousand Tamils remain imprisoned in government concentration camps. Alex told ABC journalists, "there is not the opportunity for Tamils to survive in Sri Lanka".

He told GLW the asylum seekers were devastated by Australia's actions.

"When people are fleeing war and genocide, how can a country think protecting themselves is more important than helping these people?" he told GLW. "The world is for all of humankind, we are just like you except we do not have a country."

The October 16 Age said two of the refugees on hunger strike were taken to hospital in a "critical condition".

These refugees escaped, risked everything, got out by boat, spent one month hiding in a Malaysian jungle and then made it close enough to Australian waters to prompt the PM himself to intervene and turn them away.

Despite their clear fear and desperation, no Australian authority, government or border protection personnel, have approached or talked to them.
In fact, since Rudd's phone call, they've been completely dismissed. On October 15, deputy PM Julia Gillard declared the refugees were Indonesia's problem.

The event has fuelled government and media panic about the rise in boatloads of people from war-torn countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and, increasingly, Sri Lanka.

But this concern is steeped in racist nationalism. The opposition has repeatedly declared Rudd's refugee policy "soft" and an "invitation" to asylum seekers. The federal government says it has a "tough line" on border control and remains preoccupied with a farcical war on so-called people smugglers.

The mainstream media continue to label the arrival of boats a "surge" and stir fear. Christmas Island is at capacity and the boats keep coming. One of the government's "solutions" is to house arriving refugees in fitted shipping containers that were originally commissioned for the Northern Territory intervention as temporary Indigenous "housing".

Eighty-one of these "dongas" are being taken to Christmas Island, ABC Online said on October 15. But in November last year, some were found to contain the noxious gas formaldehyde. It is unclear whether the containers planned for asylum seekers have been assessed for this carcinogenic chemical.

All asylum seekers who try to reach Australia by boat are taken to Christmas Island and locked up. Mandatory detention is an arbitrary and cruel system the Australian government uses to maintain hostility to refugees and squash public sympathy for their plight.

It is not the fault of the people housed in the inhumane facility. No one is illegal, least of all people seeking safety and protection.

Despite this, Rudd remains "unapologetic" and unsympathetic.

"We have a clear cut policy for dealing with it", he said on 5AA Radio on October 15. "Make no apologies for a tough approach to border protection, make no apologies for the retention of mandatory detention on Christmas Island."

With the crowding of Christmas Island a growing problem, the government is now looking beyond its borders to stem the tide.

The government is putting more pressure on regional nations and pledges to fund detention centres in Indonesia. The October 16 Sydney Morning Herald said: "Australia is preparing to provide police assistance to Sri Lanka to help combat people smuggling, including training for local officers. The government is also paying Indonesia to hold more asylum seekers in Indonesia."

Australian navy surveillance roves the waters of Indonesia and Malaysia, and monitors boats around Sri Lanka. The operations are not in place to rescue passengers if their hazardous journey turns deadly, but to "disrupt" and "repel" their passage to Australia.

As the tension escalated onboard the vessel in Merak, the media released reports that "Australian authorities are tracking about six asylum boats suspected to be on their way to Australia", the Australian said on October 15.

Rudd claimed his policy was "tough" on border protection, but "humane" when dealing with people. Yet actively tracking dangerous boat journeys simply to prevent them from landing on Australian shores is outright hypocrisy. The real policy is border control at all costs, including the lives of anyone onboard.

With each new boat that is "intercepted", Rudd sounds more and more like the former Coalition government of John Howard.
In fact, he's taking the "tough" approach one step further, playing the role of regional bully to try to "stem the tide".

The fact is there has been a significant rise in refugees around the world. The UNHCR recognises not only 16 million refugees worldwide, but also 26 million "internally displaced persons" — people unable to stay in their country.

Exploiting an unfounded fear of "boat people" will lead only to more deaths and more tragedies. It will do nothing to prevent people boarding boats.
In all the media and political hysteria about the rising number of boat arrivals, there has been no mention of why people come in boats in the first place.

Asylum seekers aren't irrational risk-takers who put their children's lives in jeopardy for fun. Those fleeing torture, war and persecution long for a safe, quiet place to call home more than anything else.

If Australia's refugee policy were genuinely "humane", more people could seek refuge by safer means, knowing they'd be welcomed and given the protection to which they're entitled. They would be given the resources and support they need to recover from their trauma and build new lives.

"People-smuggling" would be eradicated, as human lives would no longer seen as contraband to be "illegally" shifted around the globe.

"We are refugees and we want to get away from genocide", Alex said. "There are women and children on board here. And we are not animals, we are people, but we are being treated inhumanely."

Fewer than 2000 people have reached Australian waters in the past year. It is true this is small compared with the millions of refugees worldwide. Yet, it is too many people forced into a risky passage of last resort.

After the refugee boat SIEV 36 exploded off Ashmore Reef in April, Australian journalist and long-time writer on refugee issues David Marr said there should be no boats.

"They sink — another nine died in a boat that sank off West Timor in January — they explode, some simply disappear on a largely empty sea", he wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald on April 18.

The resources the government pours into atrocious practices of maritime intervention and regional lockdown should instead be used to bring people safely to Australia and settle them quickly into the community.

This is what a humane and just refugee policy would look like.