Julian Burnside QC on the importance of this issue

16 09 2009

From The Age and Sydney Morning Herald, 16 September 2009:

Australia’s ugly secret: we are still warehousing asylum seekers
JULIAN BURNSIDE


The past week has seen a significant change in the treatment of asylum seekers in Australia. The grotesque practice of charging refugees for the daily cost of their imprisonment in our detention centres has now ended (despite the resistance of the Opposition). The degrading indignity of a visa which denies refugees the right to work or to receive Medicare or Centrelink benefits has ended. For these reforms the Government must be warmly congratulated.

But despite these welcome developments, the Government has an ugly secret: it is involved in warehousing asylum seekers in Indonesia in order to prevent them from seeking protection here. This is well documented, but not widely known.

Warehousing is not a new feature of Australia’s refugee policy. The Pacific Solution pioneered the idea. Nauru was a textbook example: an offshore place where asylum seekers could be kept at a distance, outside Australia so as not to trigger any legal rights, at a price that far outweighs the normal cost of processing and resettling refugees onshore.

The Rudd government has enjoyed widespread praise for closing the Nauru camp quickly. However, through the continued use of Indonesia for warehousing people, Rudd and Evans are emulating the darkest, meanest and most cynical practices of Howard and Ruddock.

There is one difference: under Howard, Nauru was closed to the outside world. Australia controlled who could go there and who could not. Indonesia is not so servile, and it is possible to visit the detention centres there to see what is being done in our name, with our taxes.

Jessie Taylor is a lawyer and refugee activist who recently travelled to Indonesia. She met more than 250 people, in 11 places of detention across the country. There were infants and young children in maximum security jails, with faeces and fungus in their drinking water. There were rodents, spiders and cockroaches in their living areas. Skin diseases, vomiting, diarrhoea, dramatic weight loss and unidentified tumour-like growths are fairly common. Despair is universal.

While in Indonesia, Jessie Taylor met a flustered, overworked UN Refugee Agency representative in a Jakarta prison. The UNHCR representative informed her that she had conducted 20 interviews the previous day. Based on an eight-hour day, this allows 24 minutes per interview. The interview is the only opportunity asylum seekers have to present their full claims to the UNHCR. Twenty-four minutes is a hopelessly short time for such an interview, but half of that time is taken up by the process of interpreting, and half of the remaining time is taken up by the UNHCR representative explaining the process and asking questions. That leaves the applicant just six minutes to explain the circumstances which forced them to flee. Any qualified migration agent or solicitor will attest to the fact that this process, done properly, normally takes many hours, over a number of interviews, allowing the applicant to go slowly and carefully when describing the trauma that has caused them to leave their homelands in search of safety.

Asylum seekers are being processed in this perfunctory way and many are being rejected and sent back to extreme danger based on information gleaned from a six minute statement. The UNHCR, International Organisation for Migration and Australia are involved in a serious breach of human rights made all the worse because it has the superficial appearance of due process. It is a charade. Australia really can do better than this.

The asylum seekers are held, mostly, by the IOM. We pay it to look after them. They can wait several years before even the brief interview they receive, and may wait another year before getting a decision on their status.

That Australia is responsible for these conditions is a fact that should keep the Immigration Minister awake at night.

Most of the asylum seekers are Iraqis, and Afghan Hazaras. Hazaras are the ethnic group considered by the Taliban to be overdue for genocide. A modest number of Hazaras have managed to get to Australia already: more than 95% of them have been found to be genuine refugees. They have been quickly resettled in Australia and are already contributing to Australian society. So here we are, paying the IOM about $8 million dollars of Australian taxpayers’ money to hold people in shocking conditions, potentially for many years.

For more than a decade, the Taliban has terrorised the Afghan people. Many Australians have fought and died in battle against the Taliban. Australia recognises the terrible deeds this group has committed against their countrymen. Why is it that so many Australians can readily recognise the evils of the Taliban or other oppressive forces, but they cannot extend that understanding to the the victims of those groups? Most Australians denounce the Taliban’s shocking human rights abuses, but few are willing to welcome the victims of those abuses, and provide them with safety and protection.

It is to our eternal shame that the best bet for the men, women and children held at our expense in Indonesia is to get on a leaky boat and make for Christmas Island. Instead we should be contributing to swift and safe processing and resettlement directly from Indonesia; not a game of maritime Russian roulette.

Many of the people held at our expense in Indonesia have plausible ties to Australia: some were caught up in the Pacific Solution but were forced back to Afghanistan or Iraq; some have family here. Australia should assess their claims for protection and resettle them here without delay: not only is it the decent thing to do, it will be cheaper. And it will go some way to restoring our tarnished reputation.

Advertisements

Actions

Information

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s




%d bloggers like this: