Professor Pat McGorry shocked the establishment within minutes of being declared Australian of the Year when he used the award ceremony to label detention centres as “factories for producing mental illness and mental disorder”.
The next day, he qualified his comments to say the Rudd government was moving in the right direction.
But Julia Gillard and Chris Evans both took the opportunity to re-state the Labor government’s commitment to mandatory detention and to Christmas Island.
The Rudd government’s attempt to outdo the Liberals on who can be toughest on refugees has fuelled a race to the bottom on refugee policy. Public statements from government ministers constantly link refugees with people smuggling and border protection.
Instead of defending refugees’ right to claim asylum, Labor has left itself open to attack from the Liberals by claiming that it too wants to stop refugee boats.
Labor’s announcement of the Indonesian Solution has given space to the Liberals to re-commit to the disgraced polices of the Howard era. Abbott now embraces every facet of those policies—temporary protection visas, the Pacific Solution—that would deny Australian re-settlement to any refugees from intercepted boats. He even supports towing boats back to Indonesia.
The fear of being sent back was one factor behind the tragic explosion on the refugee boat that claimed five lives on 16 April 2009. The inquiry into the deaths has revealed that the navy had given the Afghan refugees a photocopied notice saying the boat would be returned to Indonesia.
Christmas Island protest
Liberal immigration spokesperson, Scott Morrison, on a visit to Christmas Island, claimed that it had “become a visa factory for people smugglers”. Yet it is refugees who get visas, and people smugglers are often the only choice for asylum seekers fleeing persecution.
But while Morrison was there, hundreds of Tamils were staging a protest and hunger strike with placards reading, “Oceanic Viking 6 weeks, Christmas Island 6 months”, “Why are we waiting so long”.
Processing time is getting longer as the numbers in detention grow. Tamils in particular are waiting longer and longer due, according to the Minister, to delays in obtaining security clearances, although he has not confirmed that the Sri Lankan government is actually involved in those assessments. More than 150 Tamils have been there longer than six months—some for over 10 months and an Iranian, now in Perth detention centre, has been captive for 11 months.
Yet there is still only one clinical psychologist for a detention population which has more than trebled over the last few months.
The stand-off in Merak
Meanwhile the stand-off with the Tamil asylum seekers at Merak in Indonesia is about to enter its fifth month. The are refusing to disembark until they have guarantees for their processing and re-settlement.
After insisting for weeks that the Merak boat was Indonesia’s problem, the pressure of an international campaign—on January 18, there were protests to mark 100 days on the boat in Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Toronto and London—has shifted the Australian government. Two government Ministers, Brendan O’Connor and Chris Evans have publicly said that Australia will play a role in re-settling refugees from Merak after UNHCR processing.
Now is the time to step up the pressure on the Australian government. Protests have been called in Australia on March 10 to mark 150 days since Kevin Rudd asked the Indonesian navy to intercept the asylum boat. The protest will also condemn the other wing of the Indonesian Solution—off shore processing—and call for the closure of the Christmas Island detention centre.
By Ian Rintoul