Refugees are not criminals

July 3, 2009

The mainstream media has gone into a frenzy over Indonesian claims that thousands of new refugees will soon seek refuge in Australia.

The sensationalist claims were splashed across the front pages of the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age on June 30. This fearmongering followed the Australian navy's June 28 "interception" of a boat carrying 194 refugees, 23 nautical miles north-west of Christmas Island.

The refugees were taken to Christmas Island detention centre. Most of them are believed to be Tamils escaping a genocidal war in their homeland.

Up to 16 refugee boats have been intercepted in Australian waters this year.

In a flashback to the anti-refugee paranoia of the Howard years, The Australian began its coverage on June 30 saying it "has been told" that authorities were worried that ex-Tamil Tiger fighters might be among the refugee intake. The paper did not name its source.

Christmas Island

The Christmas Island detention centre is located 2600 kilometres north-west of the Western Australian coast. It has a total capacity of 1200 refugees.

It acts as a processing centre to assess the refugees, but has been widely condemned by human rights organisations as an inhumane prison camp. The latest arrivals will take the number of asylum seekers in the detention centre to more than 700.

The Rudd government reopened the Christmas Island facility in September 2008. In July 2008, the government revised its immigration policy. It abolished Temporary Protection Visas, closed the detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island and promised greater accountability in processing.

The revised migration act said children should only be held in detention "as a measure of last resort". Despite this, refugee advocate Marion Le told SBS News on June 29 that up to 100 children are currently impounded on Christmas Island, many unaccompanied.

Immigration policy dictates that any asylum seekers found trying to reach the Australian mainland by boat will be "escorted" to the offshore detention centre to be jailed while their claim is assessed.

The latest boat arrival has been met by racist rhetoric among mainstream politicians and media alike. The federal Liberal opposition has used the incident to question Labor's "softening" of immigration policy.

It wants to push public debate further to the right by calling for inquiries into the "boat people" and a return to the even harsher laws of the past.

Tiny fraction

But as Richard Towle, the representative for Oceania at the UN High Commissioner for Refugees told the New York Times on June 9: "The number of people who come to Australia is a tiny fraction of those on the move.

"This question of arrivals by boat has had a rather unfortunate history in domestic politics in Australia, which doesn't have any relationship to the nature or size of the problem internationally."

The reality is that Australia has only modestly raised its refugee intake this year by 250 places, to a total of 13,750. The recent budget allocated $1.3 billion over six years "aimed at tackling people-smuggling and securing Australia's borders", the Australian reported on May 13.

When introducing its immigration policy, the Labor government said it was based around seven key values. The first one of these was that "mandatory detention is an essential component of strong border control".

Australia's policy of mandatory detention – compulsory jailing – has been criticised by human rights organisations around the world. The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission has repeatedly called for mandatory detention to be repealed.

The UN Human Rights Committee has concluded on many occasions that Australia's system of immigration detention breaches the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

It argued that Australia's detention regime is arbitrary as "there is no consideration of the particular circumstances of each detainee's case". Also, "the Australian government could not demonstrate, in the particular circumstances of each case, that there were no less invasive means of achieving the government's immigration policy objectives".

Also mentioned was the indefinite length of detention and that the right to judicial review and appeal was "non existent" or "irrelevant".

Barrister Julian Burnside told ABC Online on April 22: "Ordinarily, if a person gets to Australia and they ask for protection, we have an obligation under international and domestic law to consider their claim for protection, and if they are in fact refugees, well then we have an obligation to protect them."


Despite sensationalised beat-ups in the mainstream media, refugees are people fleeing war and persecution in desperation. Worldwide, more refugees will seek protection because of crises such as climate change and the economic crisis.

Wealthy First World countries such as Australia have a responsibility to give refuge to people in need. In a June 30 article on former Democrats senator Andrew Bartlett pointed out that the world's poorest nations carry the biggest refugee burden.

"The burden on all industrialised countries is insignificant when placed against poorer countries. 80% of the world's refugees are in developing nations – most of them in insecure, unsafe or tenuous situations. The host countries obviously have far fewer resources to handle these numbers."

Many of the people wanting to settle in Australia are fleeing dangerous conflicts and repressive regimes in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Iraq and Burma.

On June 29, immigration minister Chris Evans acknowledged this. "We've got an awful lot of people moving through south-east Asia at the moment", he said.

"The worsening situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan – and of course the developments in Sri Lanka – means that there's a lot of people seeking safe haven throughout south-east Asia and many of them [are] hoping to come to Australia."

But Australia supported the Sri Lankan government's recent brutal assault on the Tamils and sent troops to the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq. The pro-war policies of past and present Australian governments have helped create more refugees in these countries, some of who are now seeking asylum here.

Despite this, the government has maintained its anti-refugee policy regardless of international human rights law. The policy of mandatory detention, and the jailing of children, wrongly treats refugees as criminals.

Of the huge numbers of refugees in the world, only a tiny number actually try to seek refuge in Australia. In 2008, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said there were 15.2 million refugees worldwide.

In Malaysia, often a transit point for refugees coming to Australia, the UNHCR reported that 49,000 refugees were on its lists, waiting to be allocated to a new home.

These people often wait in vain for placement in a new country. Refugee camps are often under-resourced and dangerous.

The Refugee Council of Australia's "The Search for Protection" report explained that refugees often live in constant fear of arrest and deportation and regularly experience harassment and exploitation in their battle to be resettled.

The report found that refugee registration with the UNHCR often provided little hope for the refugees, forcing them to travel in dangerous boats to seek safety in countries like Australia.

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