The arrival of a few asylum seekers’ boats has produced the kind of shocking anti-refugee hysteria that marked the Howard years. It was “children overboard” all over again when news broke of the tragic fire resulting in a number of deaths on a boat of Afghan asylum seekers.
The Liberal Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett blamed the asylum seekers for starting the fire, just as the Liberals wrongly claimed refugees threw their children into the sea in 2001.
Liberal spokesperson Dr Sharman Stone did her bit by attributing the deaths to the soft policies of the Rudd government. The Australian also joined the refugee bashing, with a front page article casting doubts on the legitimacy of asylum seekers because they were “well dressed” and had stayed in a “hotel” in Indonesia.
The number of asylum seekers is tiny. As Solidarity went to press, the total number of asylum seekers this year was just 254, compared to over 36,000 who sought asylum in Italy in 2008.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees reports that international numbers of asylum seekers are rising, up 12 per cent since last year.
It is the “push factors”—wars and political persecution in their home countries—that create refugees. The draconian deterrence measures of the Howard years—indefinite mandatory detention, temporary protection visas, the Pacific Solution—did not stop asylum seekers attempting to come to Australia.
To its credit, the Rudd government has pointed to the turmoil in Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Pakistan as the real reason for the increase in asylum seekers numbers.
But Australia is partly responsible for these worsening conditions. In Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, the Rudd government is an enthusiastic part of the occupying forces inflicting civilian casualties and fomenting political unrest.
Shamefully, they have played into the Liberals’ hands by using much of the same anti-refugee rhetoric of the Howard years. Rudd himself has called people smugglers “scum of the earth”, saying that they should “rot in hell”. Bob Debus, Labor’s Home Affairs Minister, consistently refers to asylum seekers as “illegals”.
The government is pressuring Indonesia to crack down on asylum seekers and people smugglers. Yet it is not illegal to seek asylum and it is widely recognised that people fleeing persecution are likely to use irregular means (such as people smugglers) to travel.
The idea of protecting borders from asylum seekers is a repudiation of Refugee Convention which is designed to provide protection for asylum seekers.
While the Rudd government has introduced permanent protection visas for refugees, many of Howard’s policies for dealing with boat arrivals remain in place. Christmas Island has replaced Nauru, but as with Nauru’s off-shore processing, asylum seekers are beyond the reach of Australian refugee law.
Rather than implementing Labor’s policy to release asylum seekers into the community after identity and health checks, they are being held in that high security prison for longer and longer periods. Indefinite detention remains the law within Australia.
The Rudd government has also harshly implemented Howard’s policies of jailing any Indonesian crew of refugee boats, creating greater dangers for those seeking to travel safely to Australia.
Cracking down on asylum seekers in Indonesia risks re-creating the conditions that lead to the tragedy of the sinking of SIEV X in October 2001, when 253 desperate refugee women and children drowned in their attempt to be re-united with husbands and fathers in Australia.
More boats will come to Australia in the next weeks. The Liberals and some sections of the media want to take us back to the darkest days of the racism of the Howard years.
But the refugee movement fought the Howard government and shifted public opinion on refugees.
The Rudd government can continue to let the Liberals whip up hysteria, or it can go on the front foot. That means ditching the Liberals’ rhetoric of “border protection” and “people smuggling” and implementing a genuinely humanitarian policy that says “refugees are welcome”.
By Ian Rintoul