Labor's refugee policies create conditions for more deaths

A January 25 Darwin inquest into the deaths of five asylum seekers — after an April 16 explosion last year on a boat (Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel 36) carrying 49 asylum seekers and two Indonesian crew near Ashmore Reef and under the control of the Australian naval vessel HMAS Childers — was adjourned on February 19 until March 17, when Northern Territory coroner Greg Cavanagh will present his findings after hearing evidence for three weeks from more than 30 witnesses.

Given past false accusations in 2001 during the Howard Coalition government that asylum seekers had thrown their children overboard when they were in the process of being rescued from a sinking boat, the Australian navy released some 25 photos, posted on the ADF website on April 24, but which only showed before the explosion; survivors being treated on HMAS Childers; the boat burning and sinking in the background. Over a hundred photos were withheld, with some more photos and film footage released after the police investigation at the beginning of the inquest by the coroner.

Before the inquest began on January 25, Cavanagh upheld an application by the navy to exclude its interception procedures for “national security” reasons. Those procedures include the use of force, maximum patrol boat speed and fishing zone surveillance.

Asylum seeker deaths

The SIEV 36 had been boarded by the Australian navy on April 15 and the asylum seekers had been kept onboard the overcrowded vessel for 20 hours before the explosion The five men who died from the explosion — Mohammad Hassan Ayubi, Muzafar Ali Sefarli, Mohammed Amen Zamen, Awar Nader and Baquer Husani — were aged between 26 and 50. Forty others were injured in the blast. The 42 other men on board have since been granted asylum visas.

The explosion prompted a review of Department of Defence standing orders and procedures relating to illegal boat arrivals headed by Brigadier Don Higgins which did not recommend changing the policy from rescuing naval personnel first. The full defence departmernt review was not made public. Its findings were submitted to the NT coroner.

The coronial inquest heard on January 27 that Commander Brett Westcott, the officer-in-charge at the scene of the explosion, was not aware that a government policy to take asylum seekers to Christmas Island had replaced a previous policy of returning illegal boats that were seaworthy to Indonesian waters. The inquest was also told that the asylum seekers became agitated and took control of the boat from naval personnel after being ordered not to enter Australian waters and to return to Indonesia.

Stephen Walsh, QC, assisting the coroner, said that evidence presented at the inquest would show a level of confusion, oversight and lack of control by Australian Defence Force personnel before and after the explosion. Walsh said that a decision to keep passengers and crew on the boat for days “held the potential to result in unrest, given the hard conditions and overcrowding on the vessel”. The ADF’s Northern Command had ordered that SIEV 36 be kept in a “holding operation” near Ashmore Reef for up to three days while HMAS Tobruk underwent repairs. The Tobruk was to have towed the asylum-seekers’ boat to Christmas Island.

During this delay, an Indonesian crew member on the boat was handed a notice, part of which read: “You should now consider immediately returning to Indonesia with your passengers and not enter Australian territory.” This note was found sometime later by some of the asylum seekers on board and translated. The asylum seekers on the boat thought they were being returned to Indonesia as nobody had told them they were going to be taken to Christmas Island.

Walsh alleged that “agitated asylum seekers, making cut-throat gestures and repeating ‘no Indonesia’” had taken control of the boat from the ADF boarding party shortly before the explosion. But he said the asylum seekers had already been detained in Australian territory and it was not Australia’s policy to return them to Indonesia. Walsh said said there would be evidence that the naval boarding party did not search for and remove cigarette lighters and matches from the asylum seekers when the boat was intercepted on April 15. Two 20-to-30-litre containers of unleaded petrol remained on the boat.

A January 26 Melbourne Age article reported that video footage showed navy personnel in four inflatable vessels bypassing asylum seekers struggling in the sea in the minutes after the explosion. Many of the 49 asylum seekers and crew could not swim and none were wearing lifejackets. Navy personnel had left bundles of lifejackets still wrapped in plastic on the deck of the boat, the coronial inquest was told. The navy video shows bundles of lifejackets floating near people struggling in the water.

Left in the water

Nine navy personnel were on the boat when it exploded, blowing most of those on board into the water or forcing them to jump into the sea to escape the flames of the burning boat. On January 28, Corporal Sharon Jager told the inquest that she was blown into the water by a blast on the SIEV 36 asylum seeker boat near Ashmore Reef. She said her life jacket did not open and she was struggling to get onto a navy boat that had come to rescue her. She told the inquest that Able Seaman Adrian Medbury had “physically removed” two asylum seekers from the navy boat, “saying ‘Get the fuck off her, get the fuck off her’ as he dragged me into the boat”. She added: “I saw him raise one of his feet, connect with the asylum seekers, from what I saw it was the head.”

On January 29, ABC news reported that Able Seaman Adrian Medbury confirmed that he had kicked out at the asylum seekers holding onto Corporal Jager with one hand as she was struggling in the water after the SIEV 36 exploded. A colleague tried to pull her into their rescue boat but Medbury, who was steering the boat, had to leave his position to help pull her out of the water. He said his priority was to rescue his ADF team. “My teamates were on that boat ... and they’d been attacked”, he said. At the inquest, Medbury also said asylum seekers screamed in agony after the explosion.

The February 1 Australian reported the inquest was told that Leading Seaman Paul Heatherington said he drove his rigid hulled inflatable boat (RHIB) up alongside a wooden fishing vessel after it exploded in April last year, ignoring orders from HMAS Childers to move the RHIB away from SIEV 36 — a warning that was issued out of concern the boat might explode a second time.

“The people that were clinging on to the SIEV wouldn’t let go to swim that metre to our sea boat, which is why we had to raft up ... to pull these people into our boat,” Heatherington said. “There were people on the burning boat, sir. They needed rescuing and we were there.” The inquest heard that Heatherington rescued about 12 people, including a man who was face-down beneath the burning boat. The man was among the five who died.

There was widespread media speculation after the April 2009 boat explosion that immediately laid the blame for it on the asylum seekers. Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett opposed federal Immigration Minister Chris Evans’ October 2009 decision to grant protection visas to the SIEV 36 asylum seekers saying that the men should not have been granted refugee status until after the coronial inquest. Last October 12, the Melbourne Age reported the NT Police investigation into the boat explosion interviewed more than 200 witnesses and concluded there was insufficient evidence to charge anyone in relation to the fatal blast.

The Rudd Labor government’s expanded racist mandatory detention and offshore processing policies — the “Indonesian and Christmas Island solution” — has created the conditions for more deaths to occur of “boat people” who in the vast majority of cases are subsequently recognised as refugees. The number of people seeking asylum in Australia by boat during the Rudd Labor government’s first two years is far below that reached under the Howard government. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees such asylum seekers numbered 3721 in 1999, 2939 in 2000 and 5516 in 2001.

According to the Melbourne-based Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in its 2009 It’s Time for a humane not harder approach to asylum seekers report, Australia is taking fewer refugees under the Rudd government than under Howard as a percentage of Australia’s overall immigration intake, which is half the rate the Howard government set in 2000-01. In 2008-09, the refugee proportion of Australia’s immigration intake was reduced to 7.3% (13,500) in 2008-09, before rising slightly to 7.5% (13,750) for the present financial year. The Rudd “humanitarian” intake quota is half the size in real terms of the benchmark Paul Keating set in his last year as prime minister — 7.5% in 2009-10, compared with 15.3% in 1995-96.

On February 23 federal Labor backbencher Kelvin Thomson and the Refugee Council of Australia called on the Rudd government to increase Australia’s refugee intake from the current level of 13,750 a year — about 6% of the total migrant intake — to 20,000. “We certainly don’t want people smuggling and we certainly don’t want people jumping on boats and engaging in risky ventures”, Thompson said. However, the Rudd Labor leadership hopes to gain electorally by encouraging racist myths about asylum-seeking “boatpeople” from Third World countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Sri Lanka being a “threat” to the living standards of Australian working people.

By continuing policies that directly drive an ideological wedge against sentiment for international solidarity with Third World working people fleeing imperialist-government-supported wars and repression, Labor presents itself to Australia’s capitalist ruling class as a better defender of its participation in the imperialist exploitation of the poor countries’ natural and human resources.

The Labor leadership has long encouraged fear and loathing of “boatpeople” despite its supposedly more sophisticated “understanding” of the “push factors” that drive working people in war-torn countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Sri Lanka to seek asylum in Australia by risking their lives in unseaworthy boats. Mandatory detention of asylum seekers arriving “unauthorised” by boat was first brought in by the Keating Labor government in 1992. In concentrating its rhetoric on the alleged need to combat “people smugglers”, Rudd Labor tries to avoid discussion and debate about why it scapegoats the small numbers of Asian working people arriving by boat who are fleeing repressive regimes which the Australian imperialist ruling class politically supports.