Tony Abbott’s hysteria about refugee boats is set to be a key issue in the lead up to this year’s election, but Kevin Rudd’s capitulation to it through freezing new refugee visas and re-opening Curtin has re-galvanised the refugee rights movement
As this article is being written, news reports indicate that five asylum seekers, headed for Australia, have drowned near the Cocos Islands. The Australian government knew their boat was in distress on April 30. A passing ship gave them some supplies but it seems the five left the boat when supplies again ran out a few days later.
Refugee advocates have called for a full inquiry into their deaths to ascertain the role of Australian Border Protection authorities. The boat had been tracked prior to April 30 but mysteriously the authorities seem to have been unaware that the boat was again in distress. They are the latest victims of the renewed hysteria about refugees.
One of the things fuelling that hysteria is the Liberals newly-released TV ad. It’s straight out of the Howard handbook of fear-mongering. The background graphic, reminiscent of the White Australia warnings about the yellow peril from the North, shows stark red arrows pointing at Australia, representing Sri Lankan, Afghan and other asylum seekers. Abbott wants to re-introduce temporary protection visas, deny refugees family reunions, tow boats back to Indonesia and even re-establish the Pacific Solution.
Concerns had already been growing as both Liberal and Labor ratcheted up anti-refugee rhetoric with Christmas Island filled to overflowing. But the announcement that visa applications for Sri Lankan and Afghan asylum seekers have been frozen for three and six months respectively has re-galvanised the refugee movement. There have been protests in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Brisbane.
Immigration Minister Chris Evans justified the visa freeze by claiming that conditions in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan were improving. But a few days later, the UNHCR released its authoritative Country Background report on Sri Lanka. It quotes a 2009 US State Department report that says, “outside the conflict zone the overwhelming majority of victims of human rights violations, such as extra-judicial killings and disappearances, were young male Tamils.” Nader Nadery, a commissioner with the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, told the ABC’s World Today, “[Afghanistan] is not a safe place and it’s very dangerous to make a general statement about the entire country.”
In truth, the decision has nothing to do with conditions in Sri Lanka or Afghanistan, and everything to do with Rudd’s concern to outflank Abbott’s criticism that Labor is too soft on refugees.
Afghan asylum seekers arriving after the visa ban face up to six months in detention before processing. Australian of the Year Professor Patrick McGorry, who has called detention centres “factories for mental illness”, condemned the freeze on processing claims saying, “Anything that contributes to delays in processing is clearly damaging to mental health”.A few days after the visa freeze announcement, Chris Evans declared that Curtin detention centre would be re-opened to house single men caught by the visa freeze. Shock turned to horror. The spectre of Curtin truly haunts the refugee community. It has a well-deserved reputation as the worst of the worst of Howard’s hellholes. There is a long list of refugees whose lives have been blighted by the months they spent in the remote and cruelly administered centre. Many are permanently damaged by the abuse.
The Labor government is re-opening Curtin to ensure that any detainees’ protests are kept well away from prying eyes.
Assessment not independent
Howard excised over 4000 islands from the Migration Act to prevent refugees having access to the Australian legal system. Labor promised to “un-excise” all the islands but reneged once in office. Because Christmas Island is excised, asylum seekers there are excluded from making a claim under the Migration Act. Refugee processing is administered directly by the Australian government relying on the discretion of the Immigration minister.There was little comment about this when refugee claims were mostly being dealt with promptly. Although the 90-day administration detention target (which is still not law) never applied to Christmas Island, most Afghans were getting visas within four and a half months.
But the arbitrary nature of offshore processing has been exposed by the visa freeze. Evans announced that rejections would go up—and overnight, the rejection rate for Sri Lankan and Afghan applications skyrocketed.
Eighty-nine Afghans, Sri Lankans, and Iraqis who were rejected at their Refugee Status Assessment hearing are now in Villawood detention centre. Some have already been rejected at their so-called independent review hearing and are waiting for their last chance appeal letter to the Minister.
Time to fight
Leaving the refugee debate to Rudd and Abbott will only mean more xenophobia and more refugee-bashing in the months leading up to the election.
A letter signed by 20 union leaders and Labor for Refugees has been sent to the Prime Minister. It reads: “we want to avoid a repeat of the politics of fear that overcame Australia in 2001 to 2004”. It calls on the government to re-consider the visa freeze and assess asylum seekers case by case.
Refugee groups in Canberra, Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, are planning “Refugees are Welcome” rallies for World Refugee Day in June, to say no to another Tampa election.
By Ian Rintoul