Labor's refugee hypocrisy

The Rudd Labor government’s refugee “Indian Ocean” solution to “unauthorised” asylum seekers arriving by boat has led to growing tensions among detainees in the Christmas Island detention centre. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has threatened those involved in the November 21 detention centre brawl with deportation. Immigration minister Chris Evans blamed the brawl on ethnic tensions in the detention centre, but Labor’s retention of mandatory detention and offshore processing has led to increasingly crowded conditions on Christmas Island.

So far this year most of the 45 boatloads of asylum seekers arriving in Australian waters (2254 people), have fled wars that the Australian government and its imperialist ally in Washington has backed (Sri Lanka)or directly prosecuted (Afghanistan, Iraq). Nearly half of them are still detained at the Christmas Island detention centre. Ian Rintoul from the Sydney Refugee Action Coalition told the November 23 ABC World Today program that he had been in contact with asylum seekers inside the detention centre since the brawl, which reportedly involved 150 detainees.

Rintoul said many asylum seekers were worried by some recent deportations, but the sheer number of asylum seekers at the centre was the main reason for the brawl. “I have spoken to one Afghan and one Tamil detainee inside the detention centre” said Rintoul. “What they say is that there was no particular cause. That it was a result of people being angry, people are frustrated. The overcrowded conditions inside simply boiled over inside the Green 1 compound and the Afghan detainee told me he was surprised it hasn’t happened before and he is very certain that it will happen again.”

Overcrowding is leading to restricted access to recreation facilities and the detainees’ access to the internet has been cut off. “There is restricted news access, restrictions on some of the access to kitchen facilities and making tea and coffee during the day”, Rintoul said. “All the consequences, all the difficulties, that were faced by the Howard government, will be visited on the Rudd government because they have perpetuated the appalling conditions in mandatory detention.”

On November 23 Evans told ABC News: “There’s been some tensions growing among a certain group of the detainees concerned about possible return to Sri Lanka.” Tamil asylum seekers are concerned that they will face persecution, repression and imprisonment by the Sinhala-chauvinist Sri Lankan government for seeking asylum if deported back to Sri Lanka.

Labor’s Indian Ocean solution

Australian Navy warships criss-cross the Indian Ocean ferrying asylum seekers thousands of kilometres from where they are found to the remote Christmas Island for processing. On November 23, for example, HMAS Bathurst intercepted a boat carrying 58 suspected asylum seekers only 100 nautical miles north-west of the Western Australian coastal town of Derby. In accordance with Labor’s mandatory detention policy, the group has been taken to Christmas Island for health and security checks, and assessment of any claim for refugee status.

The Rudd Labor government announced in October that it plans to add 2000 beds to the Christmas Island detention centre as the mid-ocean island refugee prison nears its 1088 bed capacity. The previous Howard Coalition government built the $400 million Christmas Island detention centre as part of the core of its racist “border protection” policies — mandatory detention, offshore processing and excision of islands and reefs from Australia’s immigration zone, all of which were backed by the ALP.

But an increasingly organised and diverse refugee rights movement mobilised in opposition to mandatory detention (a policy first introduced by the Keating Labor government in 1992), offshore processing and the racist lies that were peddled about asylum seekers and why they would risk their lives in leaky boats to seek refugee status in Australia. The refugee rights movement was able to win some concessions from the Howard government including the removal of children from immigration detention.

Prior to the election of Rudd Labor in November 2008, the ALP had promised to end the Howard government’s “Pacific solution”. In a July 29, 2008 speech, Evans announced an end to the costly “Pacific solution” and the closure of the offshore processing centres on Nauru and PNG’s Manus Island. Labor claimed it had undone the “worst excesses” of the Coalition’s racist anti-refugee policy — it had scrapped the “Pacific solution”; abolished temporary protection visas; waived refugees’ debts; put the onus of proof on the immigration department for deportations; released asylum seekers who arrived “unauthorised” by commercial aircraft into the general community while their claims are processed; and shortened the time taken for processing claims. But the Rudd government has maintained mandatory detention and offshore processing for “unauthorised” boat arrivals, thus denying them the same rights as those who have arrived by plane.

While Labor claims it is according equal treatment to all asylum seekers, it has hypocritically kept the Howard government’s expensive “deterrence and punishment” asylum-seeker policies in direct contravention of its obligations under the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the 1951 Geneva Convention on refugees. The latter prohibits returning asylum seekers to possible persecution and requires protection without discrimination for all asylum seekers, regardless of how they enter a country. The convention also gives the same human rights to refugees that are afforded to a country’s citizens, including rights to work, education, housing, welfare, freedom of movement and freedom of opinion.

The Christmas Island detention centre is too far and too expensive for regular visits from the Australian mainland by advocates, community members, human rights and refugee activists concerned about the treatment of refugees. The Christmas Island Shire Council has said there is not enough housing to cope with an influx of officials and contractors working at the immigration detention centre. The Christmas Island’s population is usually around 1200, ABC News reported on November 21. Council president Gordon Thompson said the population has doubled because of the increase in asylum seekers, officials and contractors, pushing rental prices through the roof. “The impact of having a doubling of the population on housing is that either you double the number of people in the existing houses, or you build some new ones”, he said. “We need the government to tell us whether they are going to continue to operate a detention centre here, how big it’s going to be and any other plans that they might have about expansion or reduction of their activities [with] respect to the detention centre.”

‘Indonesian solution’

The Rudd government will outsource its international refugee obligations by paying the Indonesian government through the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) at least $50 million, on top of $12 million for renovating and building detention centres and $7.9 million on “border control management”. The Tanjung Pinang detention centre on Bintan Island is the 78 Tamils agreed to be sent after almost four weeks refusing to disembark from the Australian customs vessel Ocean Viking for fear of being returned to Sri Lanka.

The callous disregard for the plight of these asylum seekers and Labor’s willingness to engage in bullying those on board to leave the ship when it knew that most had already been accorded refugee status by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and had been waiting in Indonesia for resettlement, in some cases for four years, has shown that any claim by Labor to have a different, “humane”, approach to that of the Howard Coalition government is a hypocritical sham.

Canberra’s deal with Indonesia includes co-ordinating the interception of “unauthorised” asylum boats by the Indonesian navy, but Labor will not take responsibility for the conditions or treatment of asylum seekers or the length of time spent waiting in Indonesian detention centres, or for their resettlement or deportation. Indonesia is not a signatory to the UN refugee convention. According to the IOM, there are 2000 asylum seekers and refugees being held in prisons, detention centres and compounds across Indonesia, including a large number of children, babies and unaccompanied minors. They are mostly Iraqis and Afghan Hazaras.

According to a Monash University study, Behind Australian Doors: Examining the Conditions of Detention of Asylum Seekers in Indonesia, many of these asylum seekers have a connection to Australia, with family members either permanent residents or citizens. Others were held in Nauru under the “Pacific solution” and forcibly returned to Iraq or Afghanistan under the Howard government.

Others made it all the way to Australia, were granted temporary protection visas and (unaware of limitations on that visa) travelled overseas to see their families, only to be disallowed return to Australia. Many of them cannot keep appointments with the UNHCR to have their refugee status determined as they are unable to leave the Indonesian detention centres. A tiny number of refugees from Indonesia are resettled in Australia. The IOM figure for 2006-07 is 32; for 2007-08, 89; and for 2008-09, 35.