Refugees and politics

The John Howard government's decision to turn away a group of Afghan asylum-seekers, made with an eye on the coming elections, prompts criticism from all around.

Published : Oct 13, 2001 00:00 IST

August 2001: Afghan asylum-seekers clutch plastic bags containing their belongings as they wait in line to board buses after arriving in Nauru.-AP/RICK RYCROFT

August 2001: Afghan asylum-seekers clutch plastic bags containing their belongings as they wait in line to board buses after arriving in Nauru.-AP/RICK RYCROFT

JOHN HOWARD and his party should be eternally grateful to a bunch of ragtag refugees from Afghanistan. These asylum-seekers have enabled the Australian Prime Minister to reverse his falling political fortunes and come within striking distance of winning the elections, which are due to be called any time now.

Just before the Tampa crisis, as it has come to be known, broke in late August, Howard and his ruling alliance were trailing behind the Labour party. Now with Howard's "tough" stand on the refugee issue and his position in support of the United States in its war on terrorism, the Liberal alliance may just return to power.

In the last week of September, some 200 Iraqis and others were resisting being offloaded at Nauru, the world's tiniest nation. Nauru had agreed to take the 430-odd refugees from the Tampa, a Norwegian vessel, that had rescued the drowning Afghans from the sea off Christmas Island.

With Australia refusing to let the refugees in, the Tampa Captain brought the ship into Australian waters, only to have officials in Canberra order special forces to board the ship.

Finally, the governments of New Zealand and Nauru broke the impasse by deciding to accept the refugees for "processing". En route, Australia dumped some more refugees on the Tampa. Some of the refugees have got off to be processed at Nauru but the refugee saga is far from over. New Zealand is now processing the 150 refugees it had promised to take in.

In a sense, the coming elections are all about how Howard and his government have treated the Tampa refugees and others like them. With opinion polls showing strong support for the Prime Minister and his government, Labour found itself in a tight spot. Kim Beazley, the Labour leader, who was widely expected to become the next Prime Minister, found himself outmanoeuvred, and came close to backing almost every step the government took to keep the refugees out. Beazley, who is under attack from a section of his own supporters for backing the government, may be the loser at both ends of the political spectrum. Labour finally supported the Liberals in passing legislation removing distant Australian territories from the "migration" zone. So now, if you want to have a chance to be "processed" as a possible asylum-seeker, you will have to make it to the Australian mainland.

While there seems to be "popular" support for the hardline policies pursued by the Howard government, many Australians are aghast that their government (and the Opposition) have approached the refugee issue from a narrow, legalistic standpoint. In the run-up to the elections, issues like the imposition of the general sales tax by the government, and job losses in a year when budget surpluses have been plentiful, seem to have been forgotten.

On the refugee issue, some strong statements have been made by Australians. The latest to join the attack on the government is Chris Sidoti, the country's former Human Rights Commissioner.

"What they (Howard and Beazley) are doing is damaging us. It is destroying our hopes and aspirations, our self-esteem, our sense of honour, our compassion and our decency. Our leaders, from both major political groupings, are turning us into a nation of thugs... for the first time in my life I have been deeply ashamed to be an Australian," Sidoti said.

The Tampa refugee crisis, he said, had led to "arbitrary detention, kidnapping and people-trafficking" with Nauru, "a virtually bankrupt country", being bribed to take the refugees in. "People-trafficking is ironic: the excuse given for these human rights violations is the need to stop people-smuggling, but here we are engaging in it ourselves (a reference to carrying the refugees to Nauru)," Sidoti said.

Earlier this year a bipartisan parliamentary committee had launched a sharp attack on the government's policy of mandatory detention of refugees and the manner in which they were kept in privatised detention centres. However the committee's report, instead of prompting soul-searching, led to a further hardening of the Howard government's stand.

In a recent article, former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser said:

"There are two serious consequences of Australia's actions. Our capacity to argue internationally for a more humane policy will have been weakened...we will be carrying the burden of being a wealthy and selfish country for some time to come.

"More significantly, however, Australians have been led in the wrong direction. If Pauline Hanson (leader of the anti-immigration One Nation party) had never occurred, I suspect our policies would have been different.

"It is not irrelevant that One Nation is now considering giving (vote) preferences to the Liberal Party. There has been a competition to win the support of those who believe that, on these issues, Hanson is correct. There has unfortunately, and to our detriment, been no competition to win the support of fair-minded people who I will always believe make up the vast majority of Australians."

Referring to Australia's migration programme some years after the depression in the 1930s, Fraser said that the people were not polled by the governments then to find out if they wanted several hundred thousand Greeks or Italians. "If they had, people would have voted against it. After the Vietnam War, we did not ask the Australian people whether we should give a home to what became nearly 200,000 Vietnamese. We believed there was a moral and ethical obligation. The refugees and immigrants came; it was accepted."

Fraser has hit the nail on the head. Australia's decision to spend millions of dollars on keeping the refugees out is a moral and ethical matter and not an issue to play legal football with. If the Australian government does not want refugees and treats them like prisoners, then asylum-seekers would be well advised to keep away. Afghans, Iraqis and all prospective refuge-seekers should know that they will be detained, deprived of their liberty and kept away from their families, even if they manage finally to make it to Australia.

The tough talk emanating from Canberra following the September 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. may well have got mixed up with the refugee issue. So, if Afghanistan is a country that produces terrorists, might not the refugees contain Islamist terrorists?

Opinion polls show that Kim Beazley and Labour have lost ground to John Howard and the Liberals; Beazley has become the "underdog" in the coming electoral battle. With the cancellation of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting , which was to have been held from October 6 to 9 in Brisbane, Howard had no obstacles in the path to announcing early elections.

The issues of jobs and education have taken a back seat as the government actively campaigns to capitalise on anti-refugee, pro-American sentiment.

Riding on the refugee issue, by exacerbating the resentment among many Australians against these hapless people, Howard may well return to power.

On the other hand, there are also a large number of fair-minded, liberal Australians who have been writing to the newspapers and complaining bitterly about the government's policies. The Tampa refugees will recede from memory, but the issue will not.

With this issue, Australia's right to speak on human rights in East Timor, Indonesia and the rest of the world has been compromised. As Australians go to the polls, their country's international standing has been affected.

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