After holding 157 Tamil asylum seekers on board the Ocean Protector for four weeks, and telling porkies about a deal with the Indian government, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison was finally being forced to bring them to mainland Australia. Their arrival on the mainland, the first this year, punched a hole in Operation Sovereign Borders.
It was too much for Morrison, who reneged on his undertaking to give 72 hours notice of any intention to move the asylum seekers to another country, and secretly removed them on the night of 1 August from Curtin to Nauru.
We also now know that at the same time the government was giving undertakings in the High Court that lawyers would be given notice, nine of the Tamils were isolated and forced to train on the use of the infamous orange life boats used to force asylum seekers back to Indonesia. They were told that they would be placed in the lifeboats and expected to make their way to the Indian coast.
Despite Morrison dumping the asylum seekers on Nauru, a High Court hearing (on a date to be set) will still test whether the government had the power to intercept and detain the asylum seekers on the high seas.
While Morrison plumbs the depths of cruelty in his efforts to hold Operation Sovereign Borders together, the campaign against it is growing slowly, but surely.
A Christian occupation of Joe Hockey’s office on 12 August was just the latest in a series of prayer vigils held in the offices of politicians from both major parties by Love Makes A Way, campaigning for the release of children from immigration detention, onshore and offshore.
The protest comes in the aftermath of the shocking revelations that came out of the Human Rights Commission enquiry into children in detention. Dr Peter Young, the former medical director of mental health services at IHMS, the medical service provider for healthcare in Australia’s detention centres, told The Guardian that the treatment of asylum seekers in detention was “torture”:
“If we take the definition of torture to be the deliberate harming of people in order to coerce them into a desired outcome, I think it does fulfil that definition,” he said.
He also reported that a third of people in detention suffered from mental health problems, and that between January 2013 and March 2014 there were 128 incidents of self-harm involving children in Australia.
In March, months before the Human Rights hearings, the Uniting Church offered to support and accommodate all the unaccompanied minors on Christmas Island to prevent them from being sent to Nauru.
In early August, after reports of mothers self-harming on Christmas Island, a group of Western Australian churches offered to “house and support” all the families on Christmas Island.
Just days after the Human Rights inquiry, a “J’Accuse” open letter to the government (and to Labor) signed by 190 doctors, academics and refugee advocates was published calling for an end to mandatory detention and offshore processing.
The statement accepts a 30 day cap on detention, as opposed to returning to the no detention policy that applied before 1992.
While Solidarity unequivocally advocates “no detention”, the statement is by far the strongest statement of its kind. Among its 13 points, it accuses the government of “implementing an inhumane policy of deterrence” and “tolerating and/or encouraging racist media coverage…” Hundreds more have already signed since it went live.
As Solidarity goes to press, the Cambodian media is reporting that Australia and Cambodia are about to sign a deal under which Cambodia will agree to resettle voluntary refugees from Nauru. Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, condemned the decision to push ahead with the deal, “At its core, the Australia refugee dumping deal is all about Canberra violating its rights [and] obligations and paying Phnom Penh to clean up the mess.”
While Morrison has denied that signing is imminent, resettlement tensions on Nauru are growing. A statement released by 50 Pakistani and Afghan “single men” found to be refugees describes their precarious situation and the terrible conditions that are inflicted on them in Fly Camp where they are supposed to be free.
Meanwhile five of the asylum seekers off the boat of 41 returned to Sri Lanka on 6 July remain in prison. And it is six months since Reza Barati was killed on Manus Island—we’re still waiting for justice.
Major refugee rallies are planned in Melbourne, “Stop the War on Refugees”, Sunday 21 September and in Sydney, Saturday 11 October.
By Ian Rintoul