ALP continues jailing refugees

The dangers refugees face trying to reach the shores of Australia were briefly brought to attention on December 15, when 28 refugees, mostly from Iran and Iraq, lost their lives after the small wooden fishing boat they were on was smashed against rocks off the coast of Christmas Island. Little attention has been paid to the tragedy of the boat wreck, labelled SIEV221, since it happened. There were 42 survivors from the wreckage, 11 of them children.

Local people from Christmas Island did what they could to help those being flung against the rocks, throwing them life jackets and ropes. The Border Protection Command (BPC), which is responsible for protecting people at sea, maintains that it did not know of the vessel until 6.00am, when locals spotted it offshore being pushed and dragged back against the rocks. Three 000 calls were made by crew members on the vessel to WA police requesting help. The navy ship HMAS Pirie was 25km away seeking shelter from the rough seas and did not arrive for another half hour, deploying an inflatable craft to rescue some of the refugees.

The BPC’s vessels are owned and crewed by the navy, the Australian Federal Police and the Customs Service. Usually, once a boat’s time and place of arrival are estimated, a BPC ship is stationed at sea to intercept and bring it safely into port. Many refugee advocates are asking how the BPC could allow a small vessel to come so close to the island in such dangerous swells. Given that Christmas Island is a known destination of asylum seekers from Indonesia, how could sea and aerial surveillance have missed the vessel?

A coronial inquiry is yet to be completed. An internal review by Customs and Border Protection revealed that the radar systems used by the BPC are dependent on the position of their ships and aircraft. There is no land-based radar at Christmas Island. The review also suggested that communication protocols be reviewed.

Three men devastated by the tragedy, Abdul Rashid, 60, Hardi Han, 22, and Supriyadi, 32, were dragged before the Perth Magistrates Court on June 25 and charged with facilitating the bringing of persons into Australia illegally. They face 20 years’ imprisonment and/or a $220,000 fine.

Orphans

Three children were orphaned by the tragedy. The Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) has classified those children as UAMs (unaccompanied minors), who can be held indefinitely in detention. According to immigration law, the onus is on them to present their case for a protection visa. It was discovered that one of the children has two aunts who arrived on a subsequent vessel. DIAC withheld reuniting the boy with his relatives on the grounds that he needed to undergo a “psychological assessment”. Essentially the immigration department and the minister, Chris Bowen, are these children’s legal guardians. Many other children, particularly from Afghanistan, are in the same situation.

In October Bowen announced that it would be ALP policy to remove families and unaccompanied children from immigration detention and place them into community accommodation. DIAC’s own website states: “It is government policy that children will not be held in immigration detention centres.

“While there will be occasions when children will be accommodated in low-security facilities within the immigration detention network, such as immigration residential housing, immigration transit accommodation and community detention, the priority will always be that children and their families will be promptly accommodated in community detention.

“This allows children and their families to move about in the community and receive support from non-government organisations and state welfare agencies, as necessary.”

Children still in detention

This has turned out to be a bald-faced lie. There is no up-to-date official public record of how many children are kept in detention. At Leonora, Refugee Rights Action Network activists ascertained that there were 55 children held in that camp. The January 25 Sydney Morning Herald reported that there were 427 unaccompanied minors still in detention. Refugee rights groups believe that there are 1003 children held in detention in Australia. Only four unaccompanied children have been released since Julia Gillard was elected prime minister.

In order to appear tough on asylum seekers - tough on the victims of human rights abuses - successive governments and political parties have enacted or proposed policies that severely curtail the rights of people fleeing war, persecution and torture. There is a misconception that the ALP is simply carrying on the policies of the Howard era. Many people don’t know or have forgotten that it was the ALP that introduced mandatory detention, specifically targeting refugees, in 1992. It was some time before an opposition movement was formed. The policy attracted attention during the Howard era, when the US’s imperialist wars in Afghanistan and Iraq forced thousands of people to flee those countries. Some of them made it to Australia in small fishing vessels from Indonesia. Howard used them to dig deep into the dark depths of xenophobia, polarising the electorate and giving him an election win in 2001 when he was facing defeat. “Border security” became a mantra.

Between 1999 and 2003, more than 2000 children were held inside immigration detention centres commissioned by the Australian government and run by private contractors. There is still no legislated time limit for anyone in detention, and refugees can be deported arbitrarily to the country they were fleeing from. Even if asylum seekers have met the UN’s criteria for refugee status, they must still undergo a security check conducted by ASIO. Little is known about the checks, but it’s obvious refugees may fail the security check if they have a political affiliation that is not to the liking of the government. A person’s “character” is also assessed, making the process completely arbitrary. In many cases the government is unable to deport refugees because they have met the UN’s criteria, but refuses to give them residency, keeping them in limbo.

During the Howard era, some refugees were held for up to seven years. The government then attempted to reclaim the costs of their detention from the refugees, plunging them into a merciless cycle of debt. Due to the pressure from the refugee rights movement, children and others in detention deemed “vulnerable” were provided with community housing and access to casework support and health care. In 2005 the Howard government amended the Migration Act so that detention was lawful only as a last resort.

Labor spin

In a press conference during the last election, Julia Gillard told the media: “When we came to government we issued detention values about not having children in high security, behind razor wire, and obviously we have worked to deliver on those detention values”. Whatever spin they might put on it, the ALP still punitively detains children under lock and key, setting them apart from the broader community. The detention of vulnerable children and young people involves a significant breach of Australia’s obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. All people, adults as well as children, regardless of their beliefs or circumstances, need to be removed from detention.

The tragic incident of the Christmas Island boat wreck is a reminder of the risks that people will take in their search for safety. These people are unaware that they will be locked away in detention centres when they arrive in Australia. In many cases they have spent years on the run, with Australia a country of last resort; there is nowhere else to run to. Locking these people up indefinitely is a torture that is often the last straw, leading to suicides or long-term psychological damage. The expediency of the ALP is destroying people’s lives.