The Guardian September 5, 2001


Refugee Disgrace: Howard's Shame

Amid widespread national and international condemnation the Howard 
Government has disgraced itself and held Australia up as a state prepared 
to take the most extreme military measures to prevent over 430 mostly 
Afghani refugees from even having the opportunity to lodge a claim for 
refugee status and be granted asylum in Australia. 

The Government has not only shown its inhumanity but is also tearing up its 
international obligations. "Australia has voluntarily taken on board an 
international obligation to render humanitarian services, which include 
humanitarian services to vessel and crew laden with hundreds of people", 
said Dr Michael White, Director of the Centre for Maritime Law at the 
University of Queensland.

Immigration lawyer Erskine Rodan noted: "Basically, Australia has an 
obligation to tell refugees at the front door that we have obligations to 
them under international agreements  but that obligation isn't activated 
until they claim to be refugees."

"Experts said it was a ludicrous situation in which the asylum-seekers 
would not be told that they could make a refugee claim  or how to make a 
claim, or of Australia's obligations to them under international law..." 
wrote Katherine Towers in the Financial Review (31/8/01).

This explains the desperate attempts of the Federal Government to virtually 
imprison the refugees on the MV "Tampa" (and now on the "Manoora") and to 
transport them to Nauru which is not a signatory to international covenants 
on refugees. 

The refugee crisis, and it was only made into a crisis by the actions of 
the Australian Government, commenced with the request of Australian 
authorities to the MV "Tampa" to take on board the refugees from a sinking 
boat that was headed for Australia. The Norwegian ship's captain agreed as 
he was bound to do under the law of the sea.

He headed for Christmas Island to disembark the refugees but was ordered 
out by the same Australian authorities.

What has happened since then will go down in history as one of the most 
inhumane and immoral episodes in Australian history. 

The storming of the "Tampa", in Australian waters off Christmas Island last 
Thursday (August 30) by the military commando unit of the Special Air 
Service was condemned by the Norwegian Government as "an act of piracy".

In Australia, refugee rights groups, trade unions, churches and some 
political parties have been outraged by the Government's actions to prevent 
desperate refugees from landing on Australian territory.

Peter Symon, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Australia told 
The Guardian: "The actions of the Howard Government are 
contemptible. Refugees have a right to have their refugee status tested and 
their search for asylum determined.

"The heavy involvement of military and naval forces in its operations are 
expressions of the Government's growing militarist agenda and its strident 
anti-refugee stand which is fundamentally racist.

"There are an estimated 50,000 people overstaying their holiday visas in 
Australia. Most are from Britain and the USA and more than 15,000 of them 
have been in Australia for nine years or more. Presumably they are 
acceptable migrants even though they are in Australia illegally. But 
desperate refugees from the Taliban or Saddam Hussein or the oppressive 
Iranian regime are to be forcibly excluded. This discrimination proves the 
racist outlook of the Howard Government", said Peter Symon

"Let them land! Fair go for refugee and asylum seekers", was the decision 
of a group of citizens, people looking after refugees, churches and unions 
which met in Adelaide last week. "Has the Howard Government absolutely no 
moral or humanitarian values. Our first duty is to rescue those in need", 
read their statement.

The ACTU called the Govt's actions "clumsy and heavy-handed" which have 
become an international embarrassment to Australia. The Government's 
actions in relation to the "Tampa" threaten to undermine humanitarian 
operations under the International Law of the Sea.

"The international movement of asylum-seekers is a worldwide problem and no 
decent Prime Minister would abandon people at sea. We need a solution that 
meets international and Australian law. Mr Howard should stop treating 
people as disposable cargo", said Sharan Burrow, President of the ACTU.

It has been revealed in Federal Court that the cost of the military 
operation is $20 million thus far. The Maritime Union of Australia said it 
deplored what was essentially a military invasion of a friendly ship in 
peacetime.

The Refugee Action Committee's Phil Griffiths said, "When the Norwegians 
called it an act of piracy, they were right. This Government has created a 
climate of fear and racism towards refugees, and it has led to Australia 
becoming renowned for the brutality it shows towards these traumatised and 
vulnerable people.

"There is no way that the Afghani refugees represent any kind of threat. 
The number on the Norwegian boat is little more than a jumbo jet load", 
said Mr Griffiths.

In an attempt to slam the door shut on any further refugees entering 
Australian waters by boat from Indonesia or elsewhere, the Government 
attempted to push through legislation  the Border Protection Bill  
which would have allowed it to bar all vessels carrying refugees from 
Australian waters by use of military force if thought necessary by the 
Government's representatives. 

While the legislation was ruled out by the Senate, the draconian terms of 
the legislation are a severe warning to the Australian people of the 
oppressive and militarist thinking of the Howard Government.

The legislation provided that:

* A ship that reached the outer limits of the territorial sea of Australia 
be directed to move outside the territorial sea. and those giving such 
direction may use "any reasonable means" to have that direction carried 
out;

* "Reasonable" is defined to include "reasonable force";

* Proceedings, whether civil or criminal, may not be instituted or 
continued against the Commonwealth in respect of action taken under the 
Act. In other words, should a person be killed or injured as a result of 
the exercise of "reasonable force", there would be no recourse to a court 
for damages or other remedy.

* A ship so removed would not have any rights to challenge the order in any 
court;

* The Act declared that it "has effect in spite of any other law" thereby 
overriding every other law of the Commonwealth or Australia's international 
obligations;

* "Any application for a protection visa under the Migration Act made by a 
person who is on board a ship at the time when a direction is given is not 
a valid application".

The Howard Government's request to East Timor  a country which has only 
just won its independence and has enormous refugee problems of its own  
to take the refugees from the "Tampa" must go down as one of the most 
contemptible actions of this Government.

Its next "solution" to have the claims of the refugees processed in Nauru 
is little better. One can only speculate on what pressure or bribes were 
offered the Government of Nauru to agree to this extraordinary proposal. 

As The Guardian goes to press, the hearing of applications by the 
Victorian Council for Civil Liberties and solicitor Eric Vadarlis in the 
Federal Court to permit the refugees onto Australian soil to allow them to 
make claims for asylum and to obtain legal advice and representation has 
not concluded.

It is to be hoped that the Federal Court will uphold the Australian 
Constitution and Australia's obligations under international law.

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