In the dog-whistle competition between major political parties against asylum seekers and the war on alleged "terrorism", the Australian government has jailed legitimate refugees, without charge, for reasons -- extraordinarily -- we are not allowed to know about. Opposition Senator George Brandis claims refugees who are deemed a "security threat" should be jailed because they entered Australia "illegally", parroting the patently misleading line put by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott.
The government is more careful, simply saying a group of asylum seekers who have been granted refugee status have been found to be a security threat. Prime Minister Julia Gillard says we should not second-guess ASIO's security assessment of asylum seekers who are found to be genuine refugees but who have had an adverse security assessment:
"They know about things like the conflict in Sri Lanka. They use the best intelligence they can to give us the best advice they can. So any suggestion that these people are just naively ringing up governments around the world and saying 'What do you reckon?' is not fair to those intelligence analysts and you should not create that perception in people's minds."
This admonishment not to ask questions, however, runs contrary to what is known about the way in which the Australian government reached previous determinations on the issue. In terrorism trials against three Sri Lankan Tamil Australians in 2010, the Australian Federal Police relied on evidence provided directly by the Sri Lankan government. That case failed on the grounds that the Tamil Tigers, with which the defendents were allegedly connected, was not actually proscribed as a terrorist organisation in Australia.
While ASIO is not just naively ringing up governments around the world, at least one government is "ringing up" Australian security agencies and providing information. That information, from a government that is under scrutiny for war crimes and continuing human rights violations, has been deeply biased, hence flawed and quite often wrong.
The ASIO finding that some Tamil refugees remain committed to achieving a separate state for Tamils in Sri Lanka coincides with the Sri Lankan government's own assessment of their continuing, and self-serving, threat to that state. The Tamil Tigers were destroyed in 2009, along with the deaths of some 40,000 civilians, and they no longer exist.
But in Sri Lanka, Tamils are still persecuted and "disappeared", Tamil women are r-ped, and even non-Tamil Sri Lankans are increasingly living under the Rajapaksa government's jackboot. Journalists are targeted for assassination, the high court has been emasculated, and President Mahinda Rajapaksa has removed restraints on his personalised rule.
But, having fled this environment in fear of their lives, as found by the Refugee Tribunal, former combatants or or pro-independence sympathisers are now being jailed, under secret terms that, on the face of it, fit neatly with Sri Lanka’s authoritarian regime.
At a time of bipartisan support for renewing the Pacific Solution, it is deeply disturbing to see the asylum seeker issue taking a turn for the more extreme. In a world of dog-whistle politics, it appears that further punishing victims is acceptable if it can score domestic political points.
Despite the opposition’s success in the government adopting its Pacific Solution, Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop’s call to return Sri Lankan asylum seekers to Sri Lanka without processing their claims reduces policy debate to moral abandonment. Backing her, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has displayed either ignorance or denial of the facts on the ground in Sri Lanka and Australia’s legal obligations.
Not since Malcolm Fraser was prime minister has the federal Coalition understood, much less had an engaged relationship with, South-East Asia. This lack of understanding and engagement was reflected again yesterday when the Opposition foreign affairs spokesperson, Julie Bishop, made a ‘courtesy call’ on the chair and deputy chair of Indonesia’s legislature (DPR).
What should have been a brief exchange of pleasantries turned into a diplomatic disaster when Ms Bishop outlined the Opposition’s policy on ‘sending back’ asylum seeker boats to Indonesia. Indonesia’s DPR Deputy Chairman, Hajriyanto Thohari, described the policy as unfair on Indonesia and said that Ms Bishop was arrogant in her expression of the policy.
While in Barcelona for a scoping conference to set up a new research institute for the UN 'Alliance of Civilisations', I was asked how it is that culture should be looked at and taken more seriously in economic debates.
My take on this complex question is not a simple one. In fact, we can argue easily that a lack of appreciation for cultural specificities can easily derail the best development programs even those with the best of intentions. This is a no brainer!
But we can also argue that the prevalence of 'intercultural tensions' and conflicts can damage a country's efforts to improve its lot economically. We can look at countries in Africa, the Middle East and South/West Asia to realise this.
The movement of people from their countries of origin to another country seeking a more secure and better life is not a new phenomenon and is not likely to diminish any time soon.
The prevailing wisdom in migration scholarship and policy circles is that people move either in a voluntary or un-voluntary capacity. In other words, there are waves of migration driven by purely pull factors in the form of better living standards in economically more prosperous countries.
Forced migrants, on the other hand, are represented as those who usually leave their countries of origin because of push factors relating to insecurity, oppression, sometimes even environmental concerns.
But this distinction does not change the fact that migrants, either forced or voluntary, undergo similar challenges during the actual time of movement as well as when trying to adapt and settle in a new country.
As the new consolation prize Foreign Affairs Minister, Kevin Rudd’s first job will be to try to implement the government’s ‘East Timor solution’ for asylum seekers. The issue whether this policy has any chance of success.
The first hurdle to be overcome was the unanimous vote by East Timor’s parliament, if with an incomplete sitting of members, opposing the idea. As a wealthy developed country, many East Timorese ask, why does Australia want to off-load its problems onto its impoverished neighbour? Why does Australia not properly shoulder its responsibilities under the Refugee Convention?
The vote by East Timor’s parliament yesterday to oppose the establishment of an Australian off-shore asylum seeker processing centre should not have come as a surprise. Parliamentarians from the government and opposition have been saying they were against the idea since it was announced last week.
The Australian government has certainly acted unperturbed by the vote, with Foreign Minister Stephen Smith saying the vote from the parliament did not necessarily reflect the position of the government. The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has similarly said that the process is "going forward".
The arrival of Foreign Affairs officials in East Timor this week to discuss a regional asylum seeker processing centre comes as the East Timorese parliament rejects the proposal. While East Timorese Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao has not closed the door on the idea, he has been, at best, polite about it. As an election issue, it will remain alive and kicking.
The government's policy of seeking talks with East Timor about establishing an offshore centre got off to a bungled start last week. Prime Minister Julia Gillard confirmed, denied and finally confirmed again that East Timor was the government's preferred site.
The announcement by the Gillard government that it intends to use East Timor as a processing stop-over for asylum seekers is either a very clever political ploy or a blunder that has the potential to derail her run for a second term for her government. At its heart appears to be a qualified endorsement from a man who has no capacity to offer it – East Timor’s President Jose Ramos-Horta.
The asylum seeker issues will no doubt be a central election issue and the Gillard government is looking to neutralize it. Using East Timor as a point of processing asylum seekers is smart because it keeps asylum seekers off-shore and hence satisfies voters who believed the ‘Pacific solution’ was a good idea.