Imagine, if you can, that you have spent the last 30 or more years in an environment of war, where your security is at best not guaranteed and at worst you and your loved ones have been regularly exposed to physical attack. Some, or many, people you have known and loved have been killed and many more bear the physical scars of war. Everyone bears its psychological scars.
You are at best a political outcast and vulnerable to repression, physical abuse, or worse. You or your sons or daughters flee your once loved home, seeking respite, hoping you can find safety and acceptance elsewhere.
This is the situation facing Sri Lanka’s Tamils and many Afghanis, who in desperation seek refuge in one of the countries lucky enough to be able to offer it. What they find, however, is that they are treated as criminals.
The Australian government’s decision to suspend processing of Tamil and Afghani asylum seekers is saying to such people that you may have suffered for reasons no greater than your ethnicity, but if you come here we will imprison you without trial for at least three months.
This decision, which is to be reviewed after three months but which may continue, is intended to stop the increase in asylum seekers from these two countries. Sadly, it focuses on the most visible and usually the most desperate of ‘illegal immigrants’, who are but a tiny minority of people entering Australia seeking asylum.
The problems with this new policy, if it had the forward planning to be called that, are almost as numerous as they are disturbing. For a start, identifying two ethnic groups for differentiated treatment is implicitly racist and explicitly contravenes the Racial Discrimination Act. The government is breaking its own law.
By refusing to process refugee applications, the government is also in breach of the UN Refugee Convention, to which Australia is a signatory.
The current Labor government came to office in 2008 with a policy of more humane treatment of asylum seekers and made some initial steps in that direction. This change, then, contradicts ALP’s own policy and will alienate many Labor members and supporters.
The government is clearly hoping that by ‘getting tough’ on asylum seekers – a term of that implies beating up the most vulnerable – it will limit Coalition attacks on ‘border protection’. Just to clarify, by the way, Australia is not in imminent danger of foreign invasion. This is less a retreat to the policies of the previous Howard government and more a reversion to the type of racist paranoia that once informed the ‘white Australia policy’.
The response of Labor supporters who deeply opposed the former government’s immigration policies should be of concern to the government. Labor’s once safest seats, such as Melbourne, are now vulnerable to the Greens, who will pick up most Labor dissenters.
By playing to the lowest common denominator, Labor could actually lose, rather than secure, its electoral position. And of course, that is what this cheap and nasty ploy is about – this year’s federal elections.
Within the government’s new policy are the deeper questions related to the ‘suspension’ of due legal process. Assuming our laws are designed to protect fundamental human rights, this denial of access to due process is a denial of basic human rights. Human rights, by the way, also apply to Tamils and Afghanis – they are also human.
As we have learned from countries that regularly abrogate basic human rights, the denial of such rights is an end in itself. This then parallels the legal axiom, coined by the most famous 19th century British prime minister William Gladstone and which still echoes through Australian courts to this day, that ‘justice delayed is justice denied’.
The Immigration Minister, Chris Evans, has rationalised this suspension of due legal process on the unsustainable grounds that in three months the situation in both Sri Lanka and Afghanistan might have improved. Clearly he is receiving poor advice about the situation on the ground in both places, and perhaps does not even read daily newspaper.
In Afghanistan, following a fraudulent election, the ‘war on terror’ is at best at a stalemate, if not going backwards. Afghanistan remains a country mired in warfare and violent ethnic discrimination and will do so for years yet. In Sri Lanka, ethnic Tamils are now openly persecuted on the basis of their ethnicity, removed from their lands and made second class citizens, if that, in their own homes.
Just days ago, the recently re-elected President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, told a Tamil gathering that if they did not like the new situation in Sri Lanka, in which around 100,000 are still in concentration camps and hundreds of thousands more are homeless, they should leave. Yet just two days before the announcement of Australia’s new ‘processing suspension’ policy, Sri Lanka’s foreign minister told Australia not to accept Tamils fleeing persecution as they might harbour resentment against his government.
Australia has effectively sided with the Sri Lankan government, now universally known for its closure of a free media, curbing the judiciary and jailing its opposition leader.
When Australians voted for a new government in 2008, one of their greatest concerns was the previous government’s appeal to Australia’s racist minority through the persecution of asylum seekers. The Rudd government was thus elected with a mandate to act in a humane and rational manner towards the victims of war and discrimination.
Perhaps Australian voters were thinking that if they had been in the situation outlined at the beginning of this article, they might hope for some small amount of kindness and refuge. If the situation was reversed, who among us could accept that as victims we should then be treated as criminals?