Refugees’ plight in Australia: from compassion to ‘vicious and vindictive’

November 02, 2014 | the guardian

Asylum seekers arriving in Darwin in the 1970s and being held in Manus Island detention centre in PNG in 2014.

Asylum seekers Australian 1970s and 2014 Photograph: National Archives/AAP

Guy Goodwin-Gill, who represented the UN in Australia in the Fraser years, says today’s asylum policy is ‘wrong, and also very dangerous’

The first (post-colonial) boat person to arrive in Australia had a speech prepared, in English, when he docked his battered junk, the Kien Giang, in Darwin Harbour, on 26 April, 1976.

“Welcome to my boat,” he told the immigration official who boarded his vessel the next day.

“My name is Lam Binh and these are my friends from South Vietnam and we would like permission to stay in Australia.”

Binh and his four compatriots explained they had used a page torn from a school atlas to find Australia.

They were fleeing the North’s communist rule. They were granted refugee status.

Between 1978 and 1983 a Briton, Guy Goodwin-Gill, was the United Nations high commissioner for refugees’ lone legal representative in Australia.

He remembers watching a boat, another junk like the Kien Giang, drop anchor in Darwin harbour, another crowded boat of Vietnamese fleeing persecution.

Vietnamese refugees 1970s
Vietnamese refugees 1970s

“It was bloody hot, I said to the [immigration department] official, ‘Why don’t you let them in? They’re sitting there in the sun.’ The immediate answer was, ‘They weren’t invited.’ The irony was, in those days, that little boat was fully provisioned with water, fresh chicken, rice. There was a contradiction, a tension, between ‘We’re going to be tough; we’re going to make them sit in the middle of the harbour for 48 hours because they weren’t invited, but we are going to be sure they have enough to eat and drink.’ ”

That tension doesn’t exist any more, Goodwin-Gill argues.

“I worry that these days they wouldn’t be given anything to eat and drink. What happens to non-citizens in this country now is vicious and vindictive.”

Under the Liberal government of Malcolm Fraser, the desire to be “tough” on boat arrivals was tempered, in fact surpassed, Goodwin-Gill argues, by a humanitarian concern for the boat arrivals – what they’d fled from, and what they’d been through to reach Australia.

“The control mentality in immigration was still there, but it was very much overtaken by a deep humanitarian concern for the plight of the Indo-Chinese refugees that had captured the public imagination. This was a world problem, and that was understood.”

Vietnamese refugees crowded into a boat
North Vietnamese refugees crowded into a boat en route to Australia

But there was pragmatism, too, to the Australian position.

Boats were being refuelled and reprovisioned in the Philippines and Indonesia before heading south, and the Fraser government recognised the need for regional cooperation to deal with the flow of people fleeing.

“These issues are only ever properly addressed through cooperation, not with one country pursuing its supposed own interest.”

Before the Keating government introduced mandatory detention in 1992, asylum seekers had their claims assessed while they lived in the community. Typically it took weeks for refugee status to be formally granted.

Coming from Britain, where each refugee application was resisted “because it was another statistic”, Goodwin-Gill found an Australia that welcomed refugees.

“When I came here in 78, it was a shocking revelation, and a delight, to discover the immigration department didn’t give a damn; they did not care that it was one more refugee.”

Godwin Gill
Guy Goodwin-Gill

Goodwin-Gill, now emeritus professor of international refugee law at the University of Oxford, is back in Australia to speak on Monday at the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at UNSW, on the principle and pragmatism of refugees’ protection.

He says he is concerned by the direction of Australian asylum policy: by mandatory detention, which he regards as “undoubtedly unlawful”; by offshore processing and resettlement (“punitive … farcical”); and by boat tow-backs (“a violation of Indonesian sovereignty about which it has sound basis for complaint”). Indonesia’s new president, Joko Widodo, threatened Australia over naval incursions last week.

“When I worked here in Australia, this country became a major player in an international action to deal with what was a major humanitarian crisis. And it was, rightly, widely respected for the role that it played.

“Now Australia has adopted unilateralist, aggressive policies pursued without cooperation with any other country. This is contrary to what Australia as a founder member of the United Nations has committed to. It’s contrary to what we know from experience is needed if refugee issues are to be solved.”

The Australian government points to no boat arrivals – noting at least a dozen have been intercepted at sea – for nearly 11 months as evidence its policies are working, and are grounded in a humanitarian rationale.

Asylum seekers are searched after being intercepted by Australian customs officers at Christmas Islan, in July 2013.
Asylum seekers are searched after being intercepted by Australian customs officers at Christmas Islan, in July 2013. Photograph: Colin Murty/Newspix/REX/Colin Murty/Newspix/REX

“Since the 19th of December when the policy was introduced, not a life lost at sea,” the immigration minister, Scott Morrison, said on television last week.

“How do you know there are no lives lost at sea? I’d like to see the evidence,” Goodwin-Gill argues.

“Has the sum of protection increased for people who need it? Are people better off? Australia is focusing only on one aspect of this issue, and that may be satisfying a particular constituency, but what about Indonesia, or the other transit countries for those people who are still desperately in search of solutions.”

Goodwin-Gill says Australia’s commitment to “stopping the boats”, at a cost of$3bn a year, is “unsustainable short-termism”.

“How long are you going to keep them stopped? How much money are you going to spend over how many years? Experience tells us you may be able to manage a certain flow in a certain place at a certain time for a certain group of people. But what will happen in the future? It doesn’t solve the problem.”

A lifeboat that washed ashore in West Java
A lifeboat used in an Australian government turnback that washed ashore in West Java. Photograph: HKV / Barcroft Media/HKV / Barcroft Media

And the secrecy that surrounds Australia’s “on-water operations”, and its detention centres on Christmas Island, Nauru and PNG, is “anti-democratic”.

“The fact that you have to surround government policy and practice in secrecy suggests some wrongdoing. This is what totalitarian states do.”

There are bright spots to Australia’s asylum regime. Its resettlement program is one of the world’s best, Goodwin-Gill says, though its numbers have been cut by almost one-third this year, from 20,000 to 13,750.

Australia now resettles far fewer refugees than it has in previous generations. Between 1947 and 1954, Australia resettled 171,000 refugees, per capita nearly six times greater than the current rate.

And “third-country” resettlement will always be inadequate; fewer than 1% of recognised refugees are ever resettled, and demand increasingly outstrips supply.

Developing nations host 80% of the world’s refugees and these are countries usually poorly equipped to assist and protect people, and often wracked by violence or upheaval themselves.

“While Australia is right to congratulate itself on its resettlement program, the rest of the world has tended to forget that, because all it sees is this nasty country sending people off to this pseudo-state called Nauru, to difficult conditions in PNG, and negotiating this farcical arrangement with Cambodia.”

Nauru from the air – the island has few sources of income other than the detention centre operated by the federal government.
Nauru from the air – the island has few sources of income other than the detention centre operated by the federal government. Photograph: Torsten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images

Guardian Australia reported last week on the latest allegations of mistreatment and abuse of refugees on Nauru, the physical assault of four teenage refugees, one of whom was left in hospital.

The Australian government said it was “wholly a matter for Nauru” and authorities on the island, but Goodwin-Gill argues Australia remains legally responsible for the treatment of those on Nauru.

Nauru is a client state, Goodwin-Gill says, “bought 10 times over” and entirely beholden to Australia’s demands.

“From an international legal perspective, Australia remains responsible for what happens in those countries … Those countries are agents of Australia. And these events are foreseeable consequences of Australia’s aggressive policies, much as the violations of Indonesian territorial waters are foreseeable consequences. They are not accidents.”

Goodwin-Gill argues Australia has damaged its international reputation through policies regarded internationally as illegal.

At the United Nations’ universal periodic review, 11 countries separately condemned Australia’s asylum policy.

“Australia will say, ‘Everyone wants to do what we’re doing’, but it’s not true. I view these actions with contempt. I think it is pathetic what is going on here. It is wrong, and it is also very dangerous.”

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2014/nov/03/-sp-refugees-plight-australia-compassion-vicious-and-vindictive

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Filed under Asylum Policy, Australian Government and Opposition

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