- Created: Friday, 15 May 2009 09:34
- Written by Mark Pegg
FRFI 170 December 2002 / January 2003
John Howard’s hard line on asylum seekers reveals the ingrained racism of the Australian government. But the tide may be starting to turn in Australia’s immigration debate.
No-one was surprised when John Howard’s conservative government was returned for a third term in October 2001. Howard capitalised on the 11 September attacks in the US, creating a khaki election atmosphere where a change of government to Labor was never likely.
What was surprising was the extra mileage that Howard made once Australians were sensitised to the asylum seeker issue. The Tampa, a Norwegian freighter, arrived off Christmas Island on 28 August 2001, after rescuing 450 refugees, mostly Afghanis, just as their boat was breaking up. The Australian government refused them permission to land, and ordered The Tampa out of Australian waters. But the captain declined to leave, pointing out that his vessel was not equipped to carry so many passengers. Howard responded by sending heavily armed SAS troops to occupy the ship. The stand-off was only resolved by an expensive deal stitched up when New Zealand and Nauru agreed to ‘process’ the asylum seekers.
Polling during the election campaign showed that 78 per cent of voters supported the government’s hard line on boat people. Pressed to show leadership, Labor instead supported Howard’s policy of zero tolerance. The polls showed older blue collar Labor voters had drifted to the conservatives over the issue. Younger, inner city voters defected to the Greens – the only party that immediately condemned the action against The Tampa – which doubled its total vote to around 5 per cent. On election day, Howard was returned with a slightly increased majority.
The destructive power of this new ‘Fortress Australia’ mentality quickly became clear. On 19 October 2001, 353 of the 400 asylum seekers on the vessel now known as SIEV V drowned at sea between Java and Christmas Island. There is compelling evidence that the Australian defence force was well aware of the dangers facing the people aboard the ship, but took no action.
Both Labor and Coalition (Liberal and National) governments alike have actively promoted a climate of xenophobia and hostility towards refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. They have undermined the few protections offered by the 1951 International Convention on the Status of Refugees. Because asylum seekers, by necessity, are often forced to escape from their countries and travel illegally, the Convention stipulates that governments should not penalise refugees ‘on account of illegal entry or presence’. Despite this, it was Labor which introduced mandatory detention for unwanted arrivals in 1992, stigmatising them as ‘illegals’ and ‘queue jumpers’.
John Howard made the next attack on refugee rights. Through its infamous Border Protection legislation, the Howard government changed the law in 2000 to prevent most asylum seekers – who arrive at offshore parts of Australia such as Christmas Island, Ashmore and the Cartier and Cocos Islands – from making an asylum application. By denying asylum seekers access to refugee-determination procedures, this legislation undermines the right to seek asylum, which is supposed to be enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
But the Howard government is being challenged on its asylum seeker policy. In particular, recent months have seen effective direct action against the policy of mandatory detention. Refugees went on a hunger strike at the Port Headland Detention Centre in Western Australia. At the Woomera Detention Centre in South Australia, people sewed their lips together and started digging their own graves. The government has responded by establishing new detention centres in neighbouring countries, such as the Manus Island facility in Papua New Guinea. Journalists and activists wishing to visit these camps have routinely had their visa applications rejected, but the issues continue to be canvassed in the media.
Community opposition to mandatory detention is also growing, with the emergence of a powerful grassroots refugee rights campaign. One group, Justice for Asylum Seekers, an alliance of 25 welfare and church organisations, wants to reverse the onus of proof for detainees so that they can live in the community. It calls for asylum seekers to be detained only for a limited time for the purposes of identity, health and security checks, and for caseworkers to be appointed to provide information, referral and welfare support. If adopted, this policy would see children and their primary carers released from detention as soon as possible. Unaccompanied minors, families, single women and pyschologically vulnerable people would receive community care.
One successful recent action brought together members of Resistance, the National Union of Students and the Free the Refugees organisation, as well as Iranian and Afghani community members. Protesters held a 24-hour hunger strike outside Sydney’s Villawood detention centre in an act of solidarity with asylum seekers at Woomera. The action was part of a co-ordinated national campaign to force the Federal Government to change its asylum seeker policies. The campaign is set to continue.