January 27, 2014
A retired senior Royal Australian Navy (RAN) officer has hit out at the Federal Government’s stop the boats policy as “morally corrupt and totally indefensible”.
“For our leaders to proclaim personal and religious ethics amazes me,” said retired RAN Captain John Ingram, recognised in yesterday’s Australia Day honours with an Order of Australia Medal for his decades of work supporting the Indo-Chinese community, and also for leading a naval rescue of 99 asylum seekers from a sinking boat.
“The concept of turning boats back is absolutely abhorrent. I have an issue with the hardline approach, the fact that RAN sailors are (now) being used for political purposes,” he said.
“And turning back boats on the open sea and pursuing towards Indonesia, which happened just recently, is not the naval way of doing things.”
Mr Ingram says growing anger and confusion within Navy ranks was further exacerbated last week byreports of alleged mistreatment of asylum seekers aboard a boat intercepted by the Navy.
Asylum seekers claimed they were beaten and burned while their vessel was being towed back to Indonesia – allegations rejected by the Navy.
“I think there has been a lot of unjust criticism of the way the Navy has handled it,” Mr Ingram said, speaking from his home in Port Macquarie, New South Wales.
“I realise the Chief of Navy issued a statement last week denying malfeasance.
“It’s my experience from 30 years in the Navy that sailors are extremely sympathetic towards all people in peril on the sea.”
In 1981, while serving on the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne, Mr Ingram led a dramatic rescue operation to recover 99 Vietnamese people from a fishing boat sinking in the South China Sea.
Those rescued became known as the Melbourne Group 99, or MG99.
The MG99 were put ashore in Singapore and sent to an overcrowded refugee transit camp.
Without waiting for approval from Canberra, Mr Ingram led Navy teams into the camp to ensure the welfare of the MG99.
There, he says, thousands of people were living under plastic sheeting and were forced to boil grass for food.
Seventy-five of the group ultimately resettled in Australia, mainly in Sydney’s Cabramatta area, and today second and third generations of the MG99 group maintain close links with Mr Ingram.
The MG99 story was featured in a 2012 Foreign Correspondent Online Special Report.
Parallels with Indonesia Confrontation
Last week there were warnings that Australia risks sea-going clashes with Indonesia and the admission that Australian ships have entered Indonesian waters without permission.
Mr Ingram sees parallels with the 1962-66 “Confrontation”, when Australia and other Commonwealth nations fought an undeclared, largely secretive, low-level war against Indonesia, while simultaneously engaging in a high-level diplomatic slanging match.
“I actually served in the Navy’s flagship during the Confrontation with Indonesia. I know what is involved,” he said.
“I don’t like the idea of creating mischief with our nearest neighbour, and a lot has been done since the East Timor situation and Confrontation with Indonesia back in the mid 1960s to restore harmony and goodwill between nations … the last thing we need to do is jeopardise that relationship.
“It is claimed that the boats have stopped, and that may well be the case … but that’s not the way to solve that particular problem.
“That problem is a diplomatic one and not one that should be corrected by force alone.”
Mr Ingram has four decades of experience in assisting refugees.
As the Vietnam War ended, he was a Navy logistics specialist on exchange in the United States, where he helped establish a refugee transit camp for 25,000 Indo-Chinese.
(Stopping the boats) is not the way to solve that particular problem. That problem is a diplomatic one, and not one that should be corrected by force alone.John Ingram
After returning to Navy headquarters in Canberra, Mr Ingram led a community group that successfully provided transit housing for newly arrived refugees.
“I’m not saying the system hasn’t been abused by some, it has, but in the main most are genuine in their desire to avoid persecution, political, economic, whatever, in their homeland,” he said.
“My immediate concern are the several thousand people currently incarcerated on Nauru, Manus and at Christmas Island, that they are brought to Australia as quickly as possible for orderly processing to occur and this plan that I’ve developed would enable that to occur.”
A solution in regional Australia?
Mr Ingram proposes the establishment of a “contract of obligations”, where asylum seekers are given the opportunity to live and work in regional Australia for five years, receive English lessons and skills training, and only be permitted to relocate to a major city on completion of the five-year period, when permanent residency would be awarded.
These folk, as with earlier generations of displaced persons, have made massive contributions to our country.John Ingram
He argues that Australia has a strong track record in responding humanely to international upheavals and cites the success of previous Coalition and Labor leaders.
“Prime minister (Malcolm) Fraser displayed that leadership when he opened the doors to boat folk from South-East Asian refugee camps,” he said.
“Prime minister (Bob) Hawke’s eyes welled with tears after Tiananmen Square when he proudly announced those Chinese students in Australia who feared persecution would be granted residency status.
“These folk, as with earlier generations of displaced persons, have made massive contributions to our country.
“We’ve painted ourselves into a corner. We need an honourable way out. And we need a way out very soon.”