The Tony Abbott government’s illegal “Turn Back the Boats” policy is under further scrutiny, following media revelations that in late May, Australian customs officials paid $US30,000 to six crew members on a boat carrying 65 asylum-seekers from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, which was heading to New Zealand, from Indonesia.
The asylum seekers were removed from the boat and detained at sea for several days on an Australian navy vessel, according to a letter they wrote petitioning the New Zealand government for asylum. After the payment was made, their original boat was deliberately destroyed by fire and they were sent back to Indonesia, in two smaller boats, with little fuel and supplies for the trip.
On return to the island of Rote in Indonesia, the crew were apprehended and charged with people smuggling. The 65 asylum-seekers are now being detained in Kupang, Indonesia.
Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton and Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop have both denied that the events occurred, while Prime Minister Tony Abbott has refused to comment on “operational” grounds.
The story was broken by Fairfax journalists Jewel Topfield, Sarah Whyte and Karuni Rompies in the Sydney Morning Herald on June 10 and the story has since been corroborated by the asylum-seekers, the crew and the local Indonesian Police Chief on Rote. The facts are compelling and indicate that the Abbott government will stop at nothing to defy its international obligations under the UN Refugee Convention and covenants.
For some desperate asylum-seekers, paying money for passage across the seas is their only option to reach the safety of countries like Australia and New Zealand. Despite the myths, no legal queue exists for refugees and only a tiny fraction of refugees are registered with the UNHCR.
In this context, an economy has developed in poor countries, where fishing and other vessels are used to transport asylum seekers. In situations where fisher folk struggle to eke out a living in our region — a direct consequence of the encroachment of Australian marine borders into their traditional fishing grounds — people have turned to transporting asylum-seekers despite the risk of losing their boats. The money earned by boat crews helps feed their families and supplement their incomes. This reality doesn’t fit the image of evil “people smugglers” talked about in the media by politicians — Coalition and ALP alike.
The Abbott government knows this, and that is why it is now conveniently exploiting this same poverty for its own political ends in the “stop the boats” pantomime.
This is just the latest act of barbarity in a bipartisan approach to asylum-seekers that exploits fear, uses lies and misinformation, ignores our obligations to protect human rights and is contributing to a humanitarian crisis in our region. This cruel policy seeks political cover from the rhetoric of “stopping people smugglers” and “border security”.
Australia is a wealthy country. It can easily take its share of the global responsibility to the 51 million people worldwide displaced by war, oppression, persecution, poverty or climate change. Over 700,000 refugees and displaced persons have settled in Australia since 1945, including immediately after World War 2. (Source: http://www.aph.gov.au/binaries/library/pubs/bn/sp/asylumfacts.pdf)
Rather than turning back boats, destroying vessels at sea and putting more lives in danger, the Australian navy and customs personnel should be deployed in a search and rescue role to bring asylum-seekers to safety on the Australian mainland, where they can be provided with immediate medical and social support.
We should support the right of all to enter and live in Australia. The government of Ecuador recently announced it will introduce a new law to make all migrants legal in the country. President Rafael Correa put it simply, when he said, “No human being will be considered illegal”.
As an immediate step to a humane approach to refugees in Australia, the Socialist Alliance calls for an increase in Australia’s annual refugee resettlement quota to at least 40,000, and for the Australian government to accept all asylum-seekers who are found to be refugees, regardless of how they arrived. All refugees must be immediately freed from detention centres (both on and off-shore), all detention centres closed and the mandatory detention system ended. The waiting period for access to social security payments for migrants must be abolished, and asylum seekers and refugees given equal access to the full range of social security, health, housing, transport, education and employment services available to other Australians.
[Susan Price is a refugee rights activist and national co-convenor of the Socialist Alliance.]