As Solidarity goes to press, the Rudd government and the Opposition continue to play political football with refugees, and the lives of Tamil asylum seekers in particular.
Kevin Rudd is trying to offload two boats of Tamils in Indonesia, under his newly-declared “Indonesian solution” while the asylum seekers continue to resist.
The news that 12 Sri Lankan asylum seekers have drowned near Cocos Islands has dramatically revealed the greater danger of Rudd’s new refugee policy. Asylum seekers are being pushed to take longer journeys to avoid Indonesia (and Malaysia) for fear of detention and possible deportation from those countries. Asylum seekers have already been drowned off Indonesia as they flee increasing harassment and detention funded by the Australian government.
As the reality of his Indonesian solution becomes more obvious, Kevin Rudd’s tirelessly repeated mantra of being “tough on people smuggling, but humane with asylum seekers,” is revealed for what it is—a dog whistle to the racism and the demonisation of refugees that characterised the Howard years.
Rudd’s hypocrisy is also on display. Full of phony moral indignation, he slams the Opposition as the “party of children behind razor wire,” yet his policy will see children and families behind razor wire in Indonesian detention centres.
Labor government Ministers have condemned the Opposition’s Pacific Solution for the damage it inflicted on detainees, as if detention in Indonesia will be any less damaging.
Rudd’s Indonesian solution will leave refugees in limbo for years —just as Howard left them on Nauru. Some of the 78 Tamils on the Australian Customs ship, Oceanic Viking, have been in Indonesia for four or five years without being resettled by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). And asylum seekers in Indonesia are also at risk of deportation.
By leaning on Indonesia to intercept and detain asylum seekers, Rudd is embracing every element of Howard’s Pacific Solution—maintaining mandatory detention and off-shore processing. Until now the one difference was that people determined to be refugees on Christmas Island gained residency in Australia. But Rudd hopes to avoid taking any responsibility for asylum seekers.
Asylum seekers detained in Indonesia will rely on the UNHCR for processing and resettlement to third countries. In 2008-09, Australia took only 35 refugees from Indonesia.
There is a humanitarian emergency in Sri Lanka—more than 250,000 Tamils have been herded into internment camps since the government declared the end of the civil war there. The Sri Lankan government is guilty of the most horrendous human rights abuses (see opposite page) overseeing the killing of political opponents. But Rudd is not tough on the Sri Lankan government, only tough on the victims—personally intervening to request Indonesia to stop 255 Tamil asylum seekers on their way to Australia and trying to dump the Tamils on the Oceanic Viking, back in Indonesia.
With absurd Philip Ruddock-like sophistry, Stephen Smith has even tried to explain that the people on the Oceanic Viking are not actually asylum seekers because they were simply rescued when their boat was in distress.
But the asylum seekers are not going anywhere. There is no future for them in Indonesia. And the pressure is growing on Kevin Rudd. Their prize Patagonian tooth-fish anti-poaching vessel has been idle in Indonesia for weeks. Indonesia says they will not use force to remove the Tamils and what is needed is an Australian solution to the situation. The Western Australian Liberal Premier Colin Barnett is even calling on Rudd to end the stand off and bring the Tamils to Christmas Island.
Meanwhile the asylum seekers on the Oceanic Viking and at Merak are staying strong. Speaking from the boat at Merak, “Alex” a spokesperson for the asylum seekers, told a protest rally held at Sydney’s Department of Immigration offices, “The Indonesian government will not protect us. Our lives and our family members at home in Sri Lanka are at risk. We believe that Australia has signed the Refugee Convention and that we are Australia’s responsibility.”
Brindha, a nine year-old on the boat said, “Please take us to your country. Please help us.”
“Maybe the Rudd government at least could take the children,” Alex pleaded. Brindha’s relatives in Australia have already said they will support Brindha and her parents to come to settle in Australia.
Refugee groups around the country are reconvening to take up the fight against Rudd’s Indonesia solution and demand that the Tamils be brought to Australia.
By Ian Rintoul
Contact: Brisbane: Paul (07) 3392 3843 Sydney: Ian 0417 275 713 Melb: Marie 0409 252 673