Anti-refugee hysteria reached new heights in early April as Christmas Island reached capacity. After the arrival of the 100th refugee boat since Rudd’s election, newspaper headlines boosted comments from opposition leader Tony Abbott declaring, “I’ll tow them back.”
The hysteria only grew when the government shifted two groups of asylum seekers to the mainland—59 minors and refugees in the last stages of processing along with 89 asylum seekers rejected at their initial interview were sent to Sydney’s Villawood detention centre.
It’s a long-standing practice to shift unaccompanied minors and families to the mainland, but that didn’t stop Brisbane’s Sunday Mail running a front page that screamed “THEY’RE HERE” underneath a photo of a refugee family shopping.
Abbott and Shadow Immigration Minister Scott Morrison will say anything to fan anti-refugee sentiment. It is now Coalition policy to reintroduce temporary protection visas. Asked on the ABC program Q&A, “What would Jesus do on the issue of asylum-seekers?” Abbott replied tellingly, “Don’t forget, Jesus drove the traders from the temple as well.” Morrison wants to re-introduce the Pacific Solution.
Early last month, Labor Immigration Minister Chris Evans told a meeting of the conservative think tank the Sydney Institute that, “the Rudd Government doesn’t intend to head down the path [Howard] took.”
But it’s Labor’s own policies that are adding fuel to the fire.
They are determined to compete with the Opposition to show they’re the toughest on refugees and border protection. They have added to the hysteria about people smuggling, demonising asylum seekers by association. Labor has maintained the essential elements of Howard’s anti-refugee policy, using Christmas Island in place of Nauru. The Rudd government, like the Liberals, wants to stop the boats.
In the same speech to the Sydney Institute, Evans boasted, “Despite claims that irregular maritime arrivals represent a failure of border security, the Rudd Labor Government has maintained and extended the Howard Government’s border security measures.
“We retain excision of offshore places, we continued offshore processing of irregular maritime arrivals on Christmas Island, and we maintain mandatory detention of those arrivals for health, identity and security checks.”
For the same reasons, the Rudd government has introduced a draconian “Anti-people smuggling” Bill. The new law will create the offence of providing material support for people smuggling—with a maximum penalty of ten years jail and/or a fine of $110,000. Another new offence of people smuggling involving exploitation or danger of death or serious harm, applying to ventures entering Australia, has a maximum penalty of 20 years and/or a fine of $220,000.
These are the harshest anti-people smuggling measures in the world. It is designed to show that the Rudd government is tough on border protection. The only people locked up for people smuggling offences in Australia are poor Indonesian fishermen who have crewed asylum boats. Already people can be convicted of people smuggling offences even if they do not receive any monetary benefit.
But “providing material support” will give the green light to ASIO and the Federal Police to potentially target and intimidate family members and refugee supporters assisting asylum seekers.
Christmas Island is overcrowded. Providing more demountable huts won’t change that. Services are stretched to the limit. Detainees have to give three days notice if they want to see medical staff. There are too few recreational facilities. One compound at Phosphate Hill has two TVs for 150 people. Mental health problem due to long-term detention are increasing, but there are too few counsellors.
Christmas Island stands as a monument to Labor’s commitment to Howard’s anti-refugee policies. If Labor wants to stand up to Abbott, Christmas Island must be closed.
By Ian Rintoul