Fear and loathing in the Land Down Under
One of my all time favourite arguments against allowing asylum seekers into this country is ‘this is a Christian nation.’ To which I say, What Would Jesus Do my Christian friend?
As the full scope of Australia’s fear and loathing is on display after Indonesian authorities opened fire on a boat full of Afghan asylum seekers and Courier Mail readers responded with applause, I think it’s time we reflect on what was done to asylum seekers in our name in the years between 2000 and 2008.
I doubt this will have any effect whatsoever on those who cheer the shooting of Afghans who have fled the tyranny in their homelands, but that’s because there are two types of people in this world - those on the side of human rights and those who would pick up a gun against their fellow humans and carry out acts of cruelty.
If Australia was anything like Afghanistan, those who congratulate Indonesian authorities for their corruption and cruelty would no doubt be on the side of the Taliban and warlords.
Now, let’s take a little trip back in time. Labor introduced the system of mandatory detention in 1992. However, it was the Howard Government who abused this system and took it to its most extreme.
The report from the People’s Inquiry into Detention, published under the title Human Rights Overboard, contains probably the most holistic view of the cruelty unleashed on asylum seekers by the Howard Government.
Around 200 people testified to the inquiry, including ex-detainees, nurses, psychiatrists, doctors, refugee advocates, immigration staff and others employed by the companies contracted to run the detention centres.
Deaths in detention increased by 1700 per cent under the Howard Government. A lot of those were due to inadequate medical care.
The report states: “Between the introduction of mandatory detention (in 1992) and 1999 only one death occurred in detention. On 10 May 1998, an American who had been in Australia for one day died of liver disease in Villawood. Between 2000 and 2008, 18 people died under the care of the Immigration Department, a 1700 percent increase.”
Malcolm Turnbull’s recycled policy plank of reintroducing Temporary Protection Visas is backward looking and counterproductive. Under the Howard Government there was a huge increase in women and children taking the dangerous boat journey to Australia after the introduction of TPVs in 1999.
The father of a family used to take the trip alone and after being granted protection, his family would often follow legally. However, under the TPV system there was no family reunion program and a TPV holder was not allowed to leave the country. This means families were separated indefinitely unless the family followed the father across the sea.
Between 1997 and October 1999, when TPVs were introduced, the proportion of children who were passengers on boats was about eight per cent. That doubled in November and December of ‘99 and got up to 20 per cent during 2000 and 2001. In October of 2001, a boat dubbed the SIEV X sunk killing 146 children, 142 women and 65 men. TPVs did nothing but create a new market for people smugglers.
Violence was regularly committed against detainees, both children and adults, in the centres. A migration agent who visited Woomera told the inquiry, “On one occasion I was stunned to see a tall young female guard kick a small boy aged about four because he was having fun near the compound gate.”
A nurse who witnessed a riot told a public meeting:
The riot of August 2000 was a horror I never expected to see in my country. Water cannons and guards with body armour, burning buildings, smoke and stones. The day after I watched the shell-shocked families come wandering out of the rubble, their children skirting around the debris, the tears … and the guards’ recriminations started … I watched in disbelief as a loud roar shook the earth and an air force bomber flew low over the camp, practising manoeuvres, terrifying those war shattered people. I could have been anywhere except Australia.
Another nurse Mark Huxstep told HREOC:
During rioting at the centre I was in the company of an ACM officer when he was told by one of his superiors that minister Ruddock had authorised the use of firearms if detainees breached the perimeter of the centre. The guard … subsequently said, ‘We’ll shoot over their head to scare them should they breach the perimeter, but we’ll aim very low’.
The report also details the use of solitary confinement without any form of judicial review, redress or regulation, the splitting up of families, where people were found to be refugees but other members of their immediate families were not and thus deported, the use of interpreters who spoke a completely different language to the asylum seekers in question and the resulting immigration department claims that their stories had changed.
One man was placed in solitary confinement and his seven year old daughter was deported to Iran without his knowledge. Centre management told him they were going to take her shopping for the day.
A good indication of the type of people asylum seekers are - which category of human they fall into - despite all the adversity they faced before and after coming to Australia, in January of 2004 detainees of Baxter detention centre raised $2895 in donations to the Red Cross to assist victims of the earthquake in the city of Bam, Iran.
They also donated money to victims of the 2004 tsunami by converting their ‘points’ (a system of reward for labour in the centre) to dollars for the tsunami appeal.
Which category do you fall in to?
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