Communist Party of Australia

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Issue #1604      July 31, 2013

Asylum seeker policies

More people speak out

The Fijian government has joined the United Nations Human Rights Commission and many other organisations in vehement criticism of the Rudd Government’s decision to send all future asylum seekers who arrive by boat to Papua New Guinea, and to ban them from settlement in Australia.

People are coming together to protest and speak out against Rudd’s PNG “solution”. (Photo: Richard Titelius)

Increasing numbers of people are coming together to protest and speak out as the brutal and punitive nature of the policy becomes more public.

The policy is causing ructions and potential divisions in the region. At the Australian Fiji Business Forum in Brisbane at the weekend Fiji’s Foreign Minister Ratu Inoke Kubuabola was scathing of the government’s plans, calling them “high handed and arrogant”. He stated: “For an Australian problem you are using a Melanesian solution … We demand to have our voices heard.”

The government and the federal opposition have both claimed that their objective is to prevent the death of asylum seekers at sea. However, the policies and tactics of both will inflict terribly cruel punishments on the asylum seekers, and lives will still be lost at sea.

The stated objective of both parties, to save lives at sea, could readily be achieved by other means. Last week former prime minister Malcolm Fraser publicly denounced the policies of both parties, called for a Royal Commission into the asylum seeker issue. He also recommended that the government should establish an agency of the Australian Department of Immigration within Indonesia, which would invite applications from asylum seekers and process them there.

This system was successfully used by the Fraser government in the late 1970s to cope with the applications of asylum seekers from Vietnam. The fact that their applications had actually been submitted was sufficient to deter those asylum seekers from boarding leaky boats.

Human rights barrister Julian Burnside has also suggested that people who lodged applications in the transit countries should be given an assurance from the government that their cases would be given fair consideration.

If for some reason the Indonesian government was unwilling to accept the presence of an Australian Immigration office, the second part of Burnside’s recommendation could also be implemented, i.e. to fly applicants to Australia’s mainland detention centres where their applications would be processed.

The wrong way to go

Neither of the two major parties is willing to even open discussions about alternatives to their present vindictive asylum seeker policies, because both are focused on winning key electorates where (they believe) the majority of electors are unsympathetic to asylum seekers.

Instead, they have engaged in a series of “leap-frog” policy changes in which both have portrayed themselves as eager to impose the maximum penalty on asylum seekers for the unpardonable crime of seeking our help and coming here unannounced in leaky boats.

A fortnight ago Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced his “PNG solution”, and launched a series of full-page national newspaper advertisements that declared: “If you come here by boat without a visa YOU WON’T BE SETTLED IN AUSTRALIA”.

Although addressed to asylum seekers, the ads were obviously not going to be read by them. They were, in fact, a blatant election gimmick paid for by Australian taxpayers at enormous expense.

Last week, opposition leader Tony Abbott initially expressed reluctant admiration for the PNG policy, then changed his mind and denounced it as inhumane.

In doing so he and other Liberals made a number of disparaging references to conditions in Papua New Guinea, which led to a sharp rebuke from PNG diplomat Charles Lepani. The Liberals had already angered the Indonesian government by arrogantly proclaiming their intention to impose their “turning back the boats” policy.

The opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison has now indicated that a Liberal/National coalition government would “salvage whatever we can” from the Rudd government’s PNG arrangement, i.e. it would incorporate the PNG proposal into their own policies, along with the highly dangerous proposal to force asylum seeker boats back into Indonesian waters.

Opportunism blunders into reality

There is no way that the policies of Australia’s two major parties will persuade asylum seekers to stay in the transit countries. At the time of writing, 17 boats have already been intercepted and their passengers are en route to Manus Island. One boat capsized, with the loss of one adult and four children.

Last Friday former PNG Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare condemned the PNG deal. He commented: “Those people coming on boats want to go to Australia, so why send them to Papua New Guinea? … It looks as though Australia is dumping them into Papua New Guinea.”

The Papua New Guinea government has signed the UN Refugee Convention, but with reservations (i.e. a refusal to commit) concerning the convention’s stipulated standards of education and accommodation in the detention centres of signatory countries.

For those whose refugee status is confirmed, the outlook is little better than for the detainees. The Papua New Guinea people will not appreciate the competition of large numbers of newcomers for employment. Accommodation is also difficult to find, and very expensive, because almost all the habitable land is communally owned by local tribes and clans.

If the PNG arrangement is pursued, some of the refugees, and possibly the majority, will find themselves swelling the ranks of the fringe-dwellers, the poorest of PNG’s inhabitants.

The need to speak out

Instead of giving the asylum seekers an opportunity to contribute to our national development, we’ve incarcerated them in a network of soul-destroying prisons, where the inmates have no idea of the length of their sentences, and in many cases no idea if they’ll ever be released.

The emerging “PNG solution” and “turning back the boats” policies are part of the battle between the two biggest parties for key marginal seats. Both parties have assumed that an anti-asylum seeker bias predominates in those locations. Neither has sought to counteract that impression, and both have ignored the more compassionate views of members of those electorates.

The Liberals have also sought to capitalise on the historic Australian fear of invasion from the north, by describing the current asylum seeker situation as a national emergency requiring a military solution. To achieve this they propose to appoint a “three-star” general to coordinate 15 government agencies in a campaign known as “Operation Sovereign Borders” intended to force asylum seeker boats to return to the transit countries they left.

The Rudd government’s advertisements dramatically demonstrate its failure to educate the public about the necessity to abide by the UN Refugee Convention, and to behave in a decent and humane way towards those who seek our help.

The Rudd government and the Liberal/National coalition have both joined the “shock jock” radio presenters and other right-wing media commentators in a concerted attack on the asylum seekers.

In contrast, the Guardian takes a stand in favour of these desperate and displaced people. Our editorial policy aims to shed light on the true reasons for the adoption of the cruel, reactionary policies of the Labor and Liberal parties.

The current asylum seeker situation is not a national emergency, but the response to it by the Rudd government and federal opposition constitutes a national disgrace.  

Next article – Editorial – Keep “local” in local govt

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