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Stephen Keim
30 June, 2010  
Let me count the ways

Turning back to the dark side on asylum seekers … Ramping up the rhetoric … Gillard unwilling to articulate a just policy … “Turn back the boats” is the chant that echos down the generations … Stephen Keim and Eve Lester comment

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem on love commences: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”

The decision of the Rudd government to suspend the processing of claims for asylum in Australia made by people from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, and the Opposition’s response, call for a similar numerical exercise.

We could recast EBB’s words in this way: “Why do we find your policies despicable? Let us count the ways.”

imageThe government’s policy, in whatever sugar coating it is wrapped, amounts to a reaffirmation of the resoundingly condemned policy of mandatory detention.

The decision to reopen the Curtin “hell hole” (pic) and to resurrect disused miners’ accommodation in Leonora, a dusty 832 km drive east of Perth, is a cynical response to political not logistical requirements.

Meanwhile, the Opposition insists that boatloads of “huddled masses” are arriving in unmanageable numbers. Initial indications are that the Gillard government risks committing itself to a similar political response.

However, the numbers just don’t add up; indeed, they are underwhelming.

Put in global perspective, Australia is a minor contributor to refugee protection. The UNHCR’s most up-to-date figures indicate that Australia is host to 0.6 percent of all asylum seekers with cases pending.

Australia’s resettlement program meets the protection needs of just 0.07 percent of the world’s refugees.

Yet, the policy perpetuates a deliberately constructed illusion that, somehow, Australia is full when our most remote detention centres are overcrowded.

The perpetuation of this myth shows that the government’s failure to repeal the excision of parts of Australia from our so-called migration zone is cynical.

The most recent policy shift was based on the proposition that conditions in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka have changed for the better.

imageThe Edmund Rice Centre has documented human rights violations perpetrated against rejected asylum seekers who have been returned from Australia to both these countries.

This represents the most fundamental breach of Australia’s international protection obligations.

Credible independent reports suggest that the security situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated over the last year.

In “port-war” Sri Lanka, the fate of Tamils (and anyone who dissents) in “post-war” is clear.

A recent report by the International Crisis Group documents how events in that country have been marked by widespread unlawful detentions with no outside access, soaring disappearances, attacks on journalists, threats to politicians, extra-judicial executions including of those who were trying to surrender, attacks on NGOs and intimidation of the UN.

The ICG has called on countries, including Australia, to take positive steps to ensure proper international investigation of war crimes by Sri Lankan government forces during the closing months of the civil war.

This includes granting asylum or other protected status to witnesses and acting to preserve evidence of war crimes.

Instead, the Australian Government has ensured that possible victims and witnesses are locked up indefinitely to discourage other victims and witnesses from “sullying” our shores.

Although the Immigration Minister has since urged caution in returning asylum seekers connected to the LTTE, this does not embrace all those at risk; and the recently announced Opposition policy spares not even a moment’s reflection on conditions in Sri Lanka or Afghanistan.

Kevin Rudd’s government enabled the cruellest excesses of the Howard era to inveigle their way seamlessly back into the debate through Tony Abbott’s “turn back the boats” policy.

Under Rudd the field of argument was largely vacated, allowing the worst of the populist tabloids and shock jocks to ramp up the rhetoric.

Julia Gillard has indicated that although she understands people’s anxiety about boats arriving, she will not be a fearmonger and exploit that anxiety for political advantage.

imageThis is her opportunity to reclaim protection and principle and lay to rest any legitimacy bestowed on the alarmists by Kim Beazley’s famous backdown in 2001 and to quash the coalition’s triumphant renaissance of Hansonism.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s (seen here) poem ends with a declaration that her love will continue for the whole of her life and “if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death”.

The poet’s love is one that certainly endures. The shame that flows from Australia’s mainstream parties’ latest turn to the dark side in their attitudes to asylum seekers may well endure in a similar way.

Stephen Keim
President, Australian Lawyers for Human Rights

Eve Lester
Treasurer, Australian Lawyers for Human Rights