Cruelty to refugees in the spotlight

June 24, 2011
Sydney World Refugee Day rally & march, June 19.
Sydney World Refugee Day rally & march, June 19. Photo: Peter Boyle

The lawyer who won access for refugees to Australia’s courts last year has gone to the High Court again to prevent a family being split up by the federal government’s “Malaysia swap”.

David Manne from the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre said he would represent a Kurdish woman and her four-year-old son, who fled war-torn Iraq and are now held in the Christmas Island detention centre.

Manne said the two newly-arrived refugees have a right under Australia’s refugee laws to be reunited with the woman’s husband, a refugee who has been in Australian detention for 18 months. His refugee claim has been accepted but he remains held in Maribyrnong detention centre in Melbourne.

The mother and son arrived in Australia after May 7, when the Gillard Labor government said all asylum seekers who arrived by boat would be sent to Malaysia, pending an agreement between the two countries.

Manne said this contravenes Australian law. He told ABC’s Lateline on June 16: “Under Australian law and international law, there is this right to family unity, which means that other family members should be able to stay, to be protected and to live together in safety instead of being expelled to a situation such as Malaysia where it is widely known that they could face serious dangers.

“Essentially, what we’re arguing is … whether the government can in fact expel a wife and a child where the husband has already been found to be a refugee in Australia.”

Australia’s practice of mandatory detention would also be a focus of the case.

Manne said: “Part of the case is also seeking to have them released from detention. The court will have to determine whether in fact it is justifiable to detain them at all.”

Australia’s law says a child should be detained only as a last resort, he said. In Australia, more than 1000 refugees under 18 are locked up, many without any family.

Manne said the mother and son had not been given any legal support. Neither had the more than 250 others that have arrived since the “swap” deal was announced. Their situation is bleak — separated from others and restricted from seeking help. The government refuses to examine their refugee claims.

Manne told Lateline they had been told only that they would be deported to “an unspecified place at an unspecified time”, which had caused “uncertainty and confusion”. Since the case was filed to the High Court in June, others held on Christmas Island have come forward for legal help.

However, immigration minister Chris Bowen continued to defend the abhorrent plan. He said “blanket exemptions” for groups such as children and families would only offer a “loophole for people-smugglers to exploit”.

In the face of such inhumane government policies and the ill-informed media coverage that labels refugees “illegal” and “queue jumpers”, SBS’s Go Back Where You Came From has cut through the distorted refugee debate. It has done so by exposing the human consequences of anti-refugee prejudices.

The show, which broadcast over June 21-23 and was SBS’s highest-rating program of the year, took six Australians on an “asylum journey in reverse” to challenge notions about refugees.

The show was deft at humanising the difficulties for more than 10 million people displaced by poverty, conflict and persecution worldwide; challenging irrational racism; and debunking the myths that flourish in Australia.

Only one participant on the show was an open racist, but four of the six participants considered refugees arriving by boat to be “criminals”. However, while witnessing the conditions for many refugees in Malaysia, one participant — who witnessed and supported the 2005 Cronulla riots — said he would definitely “get on a boat” if he were in such a position.

Executive producer Michael Cordell said: “We tried to find a group of people that do hold some broadly held views and create a series where those views are put under a microscope by thrusting them into a world that, when it comes to it, they know very little about.”

The emotional substance of the show — openly trying to foster empathy for people who are consistently demonised and hidden from many Australians — has been criticised by right-wing commentators, such as Paul Sheehan writing in the June 23 Age.

But throughout the show's broadcast, public opinion was for once openly and overwhelmingly in favour of refugees.

Go Back Where You Came From and the High Court challenge to the “Malaysia swap” have brought vital information to a broader layer of the Australian public. They expose the devastating effects of the anti-refugee policies cooked up by the two big parties, supposedly so they can look “tough on people smuggling” but also to scapegoat refugees.

They show what horrific suffering these policies really cause and why the refugee rights campaign in Australia is so vital.

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