BOTH JULIA Gillard and Tony Abbot went to the election with proposals to extend offshore processing—to East Timor (Gillard) or Nauru (Abbott).
Tony Abbott even met Nauru’s Prime Minister. Shadow Immigration Minister Scott Morrison went one better, flying to Nauru to inspect the derelict Howard-era detention camp and absurdly declaring that the camps could be operational within a week. But all that remains of the centre is 20 broken-down buildings with no power or water. Those not boarded up have broken windows and doors.
While we can expect any incoming government to push a version of Howard’s Pacific Solution, it is offshore processing on Christmas Island that provides the immediate focus of the refugee rights campaign.
Offshore processing challenged
Two days after the election, the High Court began hearing a challenge to the legality of the offshore refugee determination process on Christmas Island. Offshore processing is an administrative arrangement established by the Immigration department—until now, beyond the reach of Australian courts. The extent of political interference in the process has become increasingly obvious. Any idea that it is independent is a farce.
Shortly after Rudd’s visa freeze on Sri Lankan and Afghan refugee asylum seekers in April, the rate of rejections by the department-appointed refugee assessors dramatically increased—they had gotten the message from their political masters. Between 80-90 per cent of those rejected are overturned on appeal—that’s not good enough, but it shows the initial decisions are seriously shonky.
Hundreds of asylum seekers still face potential deportation to Sri Lanka, Iraq and Afghanistan, obviously unsafe countries. A Sinhalese asylum seeker deported from Australia in December 2009 was not only detained and beaten on his return, but has been beaten in front of his village as a warning to anyone thinking of fleeing Sri Lanka.
In June, ten Hazaras of the Afghan Shia minority (who constitute the majority of Afghan asylum seekers in Australian detention) were beheaded in Oruzgan province where Australian troops operate. A week before the election, 25 Hazaras were killed in Kabul, which Australian immigration authorities insisted was safe. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM), the same outfit that used to run Nauru under Howard, is now inside Christmas Island encouraging asylum seekers to agree to be “voluntarily” repatriated to these areas.
Fighting the detention regime
Meanwhile hundreds of Afghans who arrived after the April 9 visa freeze announcement are languishing in Curtin, Leonora and other detention centres.
Just as under Howard, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) has damned Australia’s treatment of refugees. The committee recommended that the government review mandatory detention and offshore processing, end the suspension of processing visa applications from Afghanistan; develop proper reception arrangements, especially for children; and ensure that asylum seekers are not forced back to their countries of origin when they are being returned.
But history tells us that the government will likely ignore the finding. And we could be waiting months for the High Court to hand down its decision on offshore processing. It is going to be up to the refugee campaign to undo the damage left behind by Gillard and Abbott’s election attack on refugees, and to fight the offshore processing policies of any incoming government.
The protests in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra and Perth in the lead up to the election were an encouraging sign. Dissident Labor councillors in the Blue Mountains sent Julia Gillard a message before the election, rejecting the idea that Western Sydney is racist and carrying a resolution demanding that the policies of all parties adhere to the UN Refugee Convention.
Refugee Action Coalition in Sydney has called a “Stand up for refugees” rally on Saturday October 23 on the anniversary of the SIEV X tragedy, calling for an end to offshore processing, to close Christmas Island, and for no deportations. Join us at 1pm at Town Hall.