DR TOM VOSMER is a maritime archaeologist from Fremantle who lived and worked in the Middle East for decades. This is part one of his two-part THINKING ALLOWED on the plight of refugees trying to enter Australia.
Grappling with a refugee crisis of boat people after the end of Vietnam War, the Fraser government was offered some options for dealing with it:
1.Reprovision and refuel all boats, tow them beyond the three-mile limit and encourage them to find some other country to land in.
2. Treat boat refugees almost as lepers, segregating them into special camps and giving them minimal standards of support.
3. Construct a major holding centre in some very remote area … and hold them in such a camp indefinitely.
The Fraser government rejected these and all similar suggestions, declaring
‘We will not risk action against genuine refugees just to get a message across. That would be an utterly inhuman course of action.’
That message was heeded, with immigration demanding procedures ‘consistent with Australia’s international obligations.’ The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees noted ‘a high degree of compassion, interest and preparedness to help the boat arrivals’.
How far we have fallen. Our current and previous governments have enthusiastically embraced all three of those odious suggestions.
Current asylum seeker policy amounts to deliberate punishment of vulnerable people and holding them in remote and inadequately equipped detention centres just to ‘send a message’.
Dispensing cruelty and uncertainty to the helpless is counter to everything Australia allegedly stands for. ‘Saving lives at sea’, the banner vigorously waved by government, is just an empty slogan; there are many ways to save the lives of refugees at sea other than by punishing the victims themselves.
The government may have a mandate to stop the boats, to put the people smugglers out of business, but must we enforce that mandate by inflicting long-term incarceration and distress on innocent people whose only act was to try to escape danger and persecution?
It is commendable that Australia has taken positive steps to reduce its number of refugees in detention, and that it has even increased its total refugee intake, but the issue of those people who arrived by boat remains, gnawing at the very humanitarian principles we supposedly defend.
There was a time when our government encouraged us to understand and sympathise with refugees and the situations in which they found themselves, and to understand our obligations in regard to refugees under international law.
But under John Howard’s leadership during the Tampa incident that all started to change.
These people, we were misleadingly told, ‘could be terrorists, these people throw their children into the sea, these people will take our jobs.
‘These are not the kind of people we want in Australia.’
Due to government secrecy and spin a great deal of misinformation still swirls around the issue of asylum seekers and refugees. First is the sticky tag of boat people being labelled ‘illegal maritime arrivals’.
There is nothing illegal about seeking asylum, by whatever means. The mode of transport should not be a determinant of refugee status.
Immigration minister Peter Dutton states that there are no children in detention.
That is disingenuous, a semantic trick, labelling the facilities on Nauru as ‘processing centres’, not detention centres.
There are still about 150 kids on this island nation, which is barely larger than Rottnest (some have ‘celebrated’ their fifth Christmas there).
There is a parallel on Manus: that detention centre has been closed and hundreds of refugees forcibly moved to ‘transitional accommodation’.
The government claims there are no refugees in detention on Manus, but where are the hundreds being held there being transitioned to exactly?
Being trapped on Manus or Nauru, whether confined to a processing centre or not, is anyone’s definition of detention.
As of October 2017, the number of children detained on Nauru was:
• OPC 3 Camp (the old tented detention camp on the white gravel) – 52
• EWA Camp – 22, aged 2 to 18 years
• Nibok Camp – 20, age 1 to 15 years
• Anibare Camp – 3, age 7 months, 2 years, 12 years
• Eloo Camp – 12, including four 2-year olds
• Anijo Camp – 51, aged 6 months to 18 years