Why Australia must welcome refugees

November 11, 2009

Australia's racist refugee policy continues to create greater horror stories. Over recent weeks, in a replay of the years of former prime minister John Howard, the prospect of masses of refugee boats landing on Australian shores have sent politicians and the corporate media into a frenzy of right-wing rhetoric.

First, a boat was diverted to Merak port in West Java on its way to Australia on October 11. More than 250 asylum seekers on board were intercepted by Indonesia after a tip-off by Australian border protection officials and a direct plea by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. The boat remains there. The Tamils on board refuse to disembark.

On November 7, the Australian said that boat spokesperson Alex was a "people smuggler" who had been deported from Canada for street gang violence. The evidence for this claim came from the Sri Lankan foreign ministry.

Then the Australian customs ship Oceanic Viking rescued 78 refugees from their sinking vessel. The Oceanic Viking docked in Indonesia on October 16, but the 78 refugees have refused to leave the ship. They "would rather end their lives in the ocean" than get off in Indonesia, ABC Online said on November 2.

Then on November 1, a boat tragically sunk 350 nautical miles from the Cocos Islands, en route to Australia. Three people died and nine remain lost at sea. Among the missing were a 13 and 14-year-old. The 27 Sri Lankan survivors were taken to Christmas Island for processing.

These ongoing, unresolved cases are just more evidence that Australia's refugee policy is inhumane, increases suffering and even causes people to die.

Of the Ocean Viking's 78 passengers, 37 hold refugee cards from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). But many of them have nonetheless been stuck in Indonesia for years — refugee status is no guarantee of a new life.

In Indonesia today, the UNHCR has registered 2107 refugees. Even in Australia's official offshore detention centre at Christmas Island, 50 people have been registered as refugees without being granted resettlement.

With the so-called legal channel so cruelly inadequate, it's not hard to understand why travelling by boat to Australia may be the only option for some.

Indonesia is refusing to allow the UNHCR onto the boats to begin formal assessment of the asylum seekers at Merak or 78 Tamils aboard the Oceanic Viking off Bintan Island.

A November 4 statement signed by those on board the boat in Merak said: "We are dismayed to discover that efforts are being made to detain us in camps or hotels, as we have committed no crime and only seek refuge.

"We have been made refugees in our own country and have lost everything we had except our lives. What we seek is a country that will not detain us and will provide education and other rights for our young ones."

As a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol, Australia has a responsibility to give refuge to asylum seekers. Australia attracts a tiny fraction of the more than 15 million refugees worldwide each year.

Rudd was quick to phase out some of the worst aspects of Howard's refugee policy — temporary protection visas and the "Pacific Solution". But Labor's policy continues the tired "solution" of keeping refugees as far away from the Australian mainland as possible, including in other countries.

Labor minister Anthony Albanese told ABC TV's Lateline on October 27: "Australia had responsibility for Australian law and what occurs within Australia. We cannot, with due respect, take responsibility for everything that happens offshore in other countries."

Instead of allowing refugees to land and be processed in Australia, the government is spending millions to ensure refugees are denied passage to Australia.

Australia's resettlement of refugees currently held in Indonesia is pitiful. Immigration department figures said in the year 2008-09, only 35 people were granted asylum. The figures show that from 2001 to 2009, only 460 people have been resettled from Indonesia.

The centrepiece of Rudd's new plan is the so-called Indonesian Solution. It has already received condemnation from inside Indonesia. It basically means Australia pays Indonesia in order to avoid its responsibility towards refugees. Indonesia is not a signatory to the UN refugee convention.

Australia's "warehousing" of refugees in Indonesia has become what the camps on Nauru and Christmas Island were intended as — offshore detention camps where asylum seekers could be kept at a distance, and without any legal rights.

As part of the plan, the October 16 Sydney Morning Herald said, Australia will pay Indonesia more than $14 million to help stop asylum seekers over the next four years.

One million dollars will help "enhance capacity" at its two detention centres and $5 million is for refugee "community housing". Another $8 million would support people smuggling "outreach" offices around Indonesia.

Australia's policy of using other countries to deflect its own responsibilities continues.
Lawyer and documentary maker Jessie Taylor said in the recent report, Behind Australian Doors: Examining the Conditions of Detention of Asylum Seekers, that the Australian Federal Police's sole goal was to track down "people smugglers", even to the point of ignoring the problems refugees faced in home and transit countries.

The report said refugees can wait several years before even the brief interview they receive, and may wait another year before receiving a decision on their status.

The report also said UNHCR staff were overworked and under-resourced. Relying on international funds and the compliance of local authorities in a country that didn't recognise the UN Refugee Convention had massively undermined the work of the UN. Taylor reported that the UNHCR's Jakarta office has only 12 staff overseeing more than 2000 registered refugees.

Australia also helps fund the International Organisation of Migration's operations in Indonesia. The report shows the IOM has been involved in unsanitary detention centres, where education and medical care are regularly withheld.

QC Julian Burnside wrote in the October 16 SMH: "The UNHCR, International Organisation for Migration and Australia are involved in a serious breach of human rights made all the worse because it has the superficial appearance of due process. It is a charade. Australia really can do better than this."

In Sri Lanka, Australia is funding projects that will attempt to stop refugees from leaving the country.

The SMH reported that the $48 million "people-smuggling program" will set up an AFP liaison post in the country. It will help pay for training for local police forces and equipment such as computers, cameras and evidence collection kits.

But none of this will stop people risking their lives by attempting to come to Australia by boat. Labor's policy ignores the reasons people are fleeing in the first place, it ignores Australia's support for Sri Lanka's war on Tamils, and its involvement in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (where many refugees are also coming from).

While the Coalition criticises Labor from the right, claiming its "failed policy" is encouraging more asylum seekers to try to come to Australia, the "Indonesian solution" may simply encourage them to avoid Indonesia. The boat that sank off Cocos Island, for example, en route to Australia, was possibly avoiding travelling into Indonesian waters, risking treacherous high seas instead.

On November 2, the Australian Council of Trade Unions had a half-page advertisement in the Australian, which said it's "time to show our humanity". The statement attacked the use of rhetoric to demonise refugees for political gain, and called for Australia to meet its international obligations towards refugees.

The November 6 SMH said that the Maritime Union of Australia and the Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union had jointly donated $10,000 to the asylum seekers on the Oceanic Viking.

[Jessie Taylor's report can be downloaded from

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