Gov't playing politics with refugees' lives

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Media reports about a deal being struck this week between the Australian government and Cambodia to resettle refugees from Nauru have been denied by Immigration and Border Protection Minister Scott Morrison. However the government has confirmed that negotiations towards a memorandum of understanding was continuing.

The federal government is determined to keep any details under wraps until a deal is done, including how much money Australia will provide in aid to Cambodia in exchange for their cooperation. Morrison told the media that he had no plans to go to Phnom Penh “this week” to sign an agreement. But rumours have been circulating in the Cambodian media that senior government negotiators are due to arrive in Phnom Penh on August 20.

Cambodian daily the Phnom Penh Post reoprted that four rooms at a local hotel were reserved by an Australian embassy staffer under the name of Ambassador for People Smuggling Issues for Australia, Craig Chittick, for the night of August 20.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's website said Chittick was Australia's lead investment and services negotiator on the Malaysia-Australia Free Trade Agreement. He was appointed to the role of Ambassador for People Smuggling Issues by Bob Carr in May 2012, to "work with the region to stem the growing number of asylum seekers arriving on Australia's shores".

Chittick's predecessor, James Larsen, "was instrumental in helping to broker the Malaysia solution and, before that, the ill-fated Timor solution" on behalf of the former ALP government.

Australia's outsourcing of its humanitarian responsibilities to a poor country such as Cambodia, and its deal with PNG and Nauru, is only made possible thanks to the imperialist role Australia plays in the Asia-Pacific region, that allows it to bully and bribe its neighbours.

The government is desperate to finalise negotiations with Cambodia, as more harrowing evidence comes before the Australian Human Rights Commission Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention.

Also bearing down on the government are the desperate pleas to the minister from detainees imprisoned in intolerable conditions in Australia's offshore detention centres. The "J'Accuse" statement signed by more than 220 professionals and refugee advocates is the latest, accusing the government, among other things, of "persuading the public that cruelty to people who arrive by boat is justifiable on the false pretext that they are ‘illegal’, when in truth they have broken no law by coming to Australia and seeking asylum" and “cynically negotiating with poor, weakly governed countries [Nauru/ PNG/Cambodia] to house refugees in circumstances that leave them unsafe".

But thanks to the vigilance of refugee advocates and the growing refugee rights movement across Australia, the government's bullying and cruel disregard for the safety of refugees is being exposed. Also under the spotlight is the trail of secrecy and lies about offshore processing and detention.

That the government's hypocritical and disingenuous approach isn't fooling the Australian public has been backed up by an Essential Media poll on July 9, which found that 78% of respondents thought that politicians were "just playing politics" with the welfare of asylum-seekers. Only 11% thought politicians were "genuinely concerned" about their welfare.

Christian refugee groups such as "Love Makes A Way" have occupied MPs' offices and faced arrest as they hold protest prayer vigils around the country to demand the release of children from detention.

The Refugee Action Coalition is planning a major protest rally in Sydney on October 11. The Socialist Alliance will be working to build this rally and other actions to keep the pressure up on the government.

[Susan Price is active in the refugee rights movement in Sydney and is the national co-convener of the Socialist Alliance.]

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From GLW issue 1021