Thursday, April 28, 2005

Wayne’s warning to Tony Blair

Wayne Swan has written to Tony Blair (as reported in The Independent), warning of the campaign tactics of Lynton Crosby. Following is an excerpt:

“Just listen to the words of Michael Howard on asylum and immigration over the last two weeks, and it is clear how closely the British Conservatives have been copying the Australian Prime Minister John Howard's 2001 campaign tactic of exploiting fear and race as a substitute for a longer-term policy debate about the future of your country. I feel an overwhelming sense of déjà vu…

Mr Crosby's 2001 Australian election campaign was perhaps the most despicable waged in Australian political history. It set out deliberately to vilify asylum-seekers, to imply that they were possible terrorists, and to signal a crack-down on immigration. Most of the asylum-seekers exiled in the "Pacific Solution" (in which "boat people" from Indonesia were held in camps on two ocean islands) were subsequently granted entry to Australia.

Again, Mr Crosby did not let the facts get in the way of the campaign. While in the UK recently, I saw coverage of the Tories' adverts in the local press in which they claimed that money spent on asylum and immigration could have been used to lower council tax. This is exactly the sort of thing we have seen in Australia.”

Whilst I applaud the sentiments, the ground was well fertilized by Labor through ‘mandatory detention’.

Supporters of Labor for Refugees have tried to change the ALP platform but the amendment they took to the 2004 ALP National Conference was narrowly defeated.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Kiwi migration zone

From the nib of Fiona Katauskas (thanks Tim)

Behind closed doors – SBS's INSIGHT transcript and video (26 April)

The full transcript of Jenny Brockie’s program last night is worth reading. The apologists for mandatory detention were out in strength, but I think the ‘Nays’ had the better of the discussion. The INSIGHT poll would suggest that SBS viewers disagree overwhelmingly with asylum seeker detention (currently running at 85%). The line on 'illegals' was trotted out ad nauseum by Pyne et al, but it was exposed for the lie that it is.

Both the Coalition and the ALP are starting to look caught in the spotlight on this issue. It will be interesting to see how Labor, in particular, responds to mounting criticism of mandatory detention (an ALP policy that has mutated into an ugly monster under the Libs).

Laurie Ferguson's proffered solution was $25m for UNHCR to make sure refugees in other places don't miss their turn in the 'queue'.

Hopefully the ALP will review its position and get back to core values on this issue.

If you missed it, following is video footage of the INSIGHT program:

Pt 1
14:53 secs
Pt 2
13:54 secs

Pt 3
11:05 secs
Pt 4
11:45 secs

Monday, April 25, 2005

Immigration wedge divides Tories

Steve Bell in the Guardian

Happily the Crosby experiment in wedge politics appears to be going a little pear shaped in the Old Dart. It appears the Scots in particularly are underwhelmed – and they know something of forced migration.

Following is an excerpt from an article in today’s Scotsman:

‘The assault against Howard had been triggered by a ‘ring-round’ among members of the shadow cabinet, apparently to cobble together a united front against his strident stance on immigration. Irritated senior Tories last night confirmed that traditional moderate Tories including Tim Yeo and David Willets, as well as the harder-line shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley, were in the frame.

"They have chosen now to complain," one close Howard ally said. "They did not utter so much as a murmur about what we were saying when it looked like it was chipping away at the Labour rating. In fact, most of them would have been very happy."

The emergence of such problems left the Tory campaign badly tarnished. It is now focusing growing scrutiny on the men who lead it - and in particular Lynton Crosby, the Australian campaign chief who has now gained almost mythic status within the party. Crosby has occupied a remarkable position of trust and authority within the Tories’ higher echelons. No official statement - no speech, response, interview - made on the campaign trail is delivered without first being cleared with Crosby, who remains back at the Tories’ election command centre in London.

"They have fully bought into his campaign plan," confirmed one of those who has been at Howard’s side for the full two weeks of the campaign. "Everyone, even [Howard’s media chief] Guy Black, has to run everything past Crosby. You get the sense that he decided what was going to happen on every day of the campaign before the election was even called, and we won’t be allowed to deviate from it."

The trust placed in him has been due to his record Down Under, where he was generally credited with masterminding two election victories for Australian Premier John Howard. Hired by Michael Howard, he set out a battle plan for the Conservative campaign at the start of last month during a two-day summit. His pared-down agenda focused on provocative issues, designed to mobilise the electorate. Alongside crime, hospitals and school discipline, immigration was top of the list.

The clipped messages, backed by the spare language of manifesto and advertising campaigns, had early impact but have begun to falter amid the pressure of increased scrutiny and more robust government counter-attacking.

At the end of the week, Blair felt emboldened enough to step into the minefield of immigration himself and grapple with an issue previously regarded as a weak point - by the Tories and his own advisers alike. During a symbolic set-piece speech in Dover on Friday, the Prime Minister declared: "The Tory Party have gone from being a One Nation party to being a one-issue party in this campaign."

Such boldness was a clear indication that the Tories had lost ground on their flagship issue. As a result, Crosby’s previously God-like status is being questioned. “

God-like he ain’t! This news gives me hope that the blinkers are coming off - ‘wedge politics’ exposed for the nasty propaganda tool it really is.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

BBC correspondent

Click to hear Phil Mercer’s (BBC's man in Australia) report on UNHCR urging an end to Australia's refugee detention policy

Phil Mercer's radio report

Thursday, April 21, 2005

The worm is turning

Spooner in The Age

Reports today that Liberal Party members of the Parliament's Migration Committee have visited Baxter and are now talking about a visit to Nauru. The Scotty Government (Scotty and Rene have been playing musical chairs with the Presidency) is questioning aspects of Nauru's ongoing role in this costly fiasco.

The Family First crew are making representations to the PM on the need to ensure the security imperative does not compromise compassion and humanity.

The ALP's spokesperson, Laurie Ferguson, finally said something constructive - he supports consideration of the sensible approach to the Nauru54 advocated by UNHCR (see earlier post).

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Amnesty report on indefinite detention in Australia

Link here to access Amnesty’s preliminary report in March 2005, making the case to change Australia’s mandatory detention regime.

Coalition spin doctor having an impact on Brit politics

Australian political commentators have been keeping an eye on this one because of the role of Lynton Crosby, erstwhile Liberal Party spin supremo.

Leader of the UK Tories, Michael Howard, has been accused by the UNHCR of indulging in ‘political opportunism’ and encouraging hatred of foreigners by dragging asylum-seekers into party politics. The stinging rebuke came ahead of Howard’s first speech since the official start of the election campaign, in which he will again put immigration at the centre of the political arena by accusing Tony Blair of wanting to ‘pussyfoot around’ the issue. Howard was to assert that ‘it’s not racist to talk about immigration’.

His words fly in the face of a sharply worded warning from the British representative of the UNHCR, Anne Dawson-Shepherd, who has accused the Conservatives of making false claims about asylum-seekers and has pleaded with them to ‘stick to the facts’.

“UNHCR is terribly worried as among some quarters the crisis rhetoric and lumping of asylum with immigration issues continues, often fuelled by thinly disguised xenophobia and political opportunism,” she said.

Her statement was provoked by a false claim put out by the Conservatives in defence of their much ridiculed promise to set up offshore centres where asylum-seekers can be held while their claims are processed. The Tories issued a press release claiming that the policy would cut the cost of immigration by £897mn a year.

It added: “The EU and the UNHCR have set up five pilot schemes for overseas processing centres in Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya.”

But that claim has been flatly contradicted by Dawson-Shepherd. “It is not correct that overseas processing centres have been established,” she said. “Certainly this would not happen in countries with poor human rights records, which are also non-signatories of the 1951 Refugee Convention.”

Howard and his aides have vehemently rejected the suggestions that they are being ‘racist’ by raising issues such as immigration, asylum, and gypsy camps in an election campaign. They claim that the racism charge is being used by opponents to forestall criticism of government policy.

But that claim came under attack from an unexpected quarter. Charles Wardle, a former Tory immigration minister, made a guest appearance at Labour headquarters to denounce Tory immigration policy as ‘unworkable’.

In his speech at the Telford International Centre, Howard was to say: “For too many years immigration has been a no-go area for political debate. If you said you thought that too many people were coming here, you were branded a racist. Let’s be clear: it’s not racist to criticise the system. It’s just common sense.

“If we don’t speak up now and have a proper debate about immigration we’ll only help the bigots who preach racial hatred and the people-smugglers who profit from other people’s misery. Blair may want to pussyfoot around this issue, but I don’t.”

However, Wardle countered by saying: “I am not aware of anyone who has called me racist. This is just his attempt to try to stir the issue rather than deal with it. Instead of hiring an Australian spin doctor, he should hire some serious people who could work up a serious policy.” - The Independent

It seems Mr Crosby is rolling out the wedge he helped hone into a political winner back home. Not one of our finest exports methinks. Thankfully the other Mr Howard is not having it all his own way.

Tandberg in The Age

State-sponsored cruelty – review of an important book

The Guardian Weekly has recently reviewed a new book subtitled Journeys Among Refugees. Following is an excerpt from the review by Mike Phillips, which can be read in full on the Guardian’s bookshop site, and where the book can be purchased at a discount:

“Perhaps the element which makes Moorehead's story so urgent and terrifying is her description of a history in which governments' perception of refugees altered with the end of the cold war, when the "good" refugees fleeing communism, suddenly transformed into "bad" refugees threatening our civilisation. In fact, the vast bulk of refugees remain in their own region, or are accommodated in the world's poorest countries, which are least able to carry the burden.

Australia provides the most extreme example of a state's anxiety to barricade its borders by its policy of stopping boats on the high seas and dumping refugees on its poorer neighbours. Imprisoned behind razor wire, Australia's asylum-seekers protested by sewing their lips together, an act of self mutilation reflecting the desperation to which they had been driven by their treatment.”

Shocking accounts like this help fill in the picture for us…

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The Age remembers a more welcoming Australia

The Age Editorial on Sunday drew comparisons with our response to the Vietnamese 'boat people'and today's asylum seekers:

“When the Kein Giang, a rickety wooden fishing boat chugged into sight of the northern coast of Australia on April 26, 1976, it signaled a fundamental change in Australian society. It was just four days short of a year since the fall of Saigon ended 30 years of civil war. Lam Binh, the 25-year-old captain, his 17-year-old brother Lam Tac Tam and their three friends were the first of 2000 refugees who made it all the way to Australia by boat from Vietnam. Most of the 55,000 refugees who were eventually settled here came via detention centres in Asia. They were joined in time by a further 95,000 who arrived under the family reunion program.

It was a perilous journey. Aside from the deprivations of the long sea voyage, often with insufficient food, in overcrowded and dilapidated craft, there was the additional threat of piracy on the high seas. It is estimated that between 10 and 15 per cent of those who fled Vietnam in boats perished at sea.

Thirty years after the fall of Saigon, Australia is a different place again. Australians in the 1970s were generous in their acceptance of the newcomers, even though their arrival represented the most significant shift in the acceptance of non-European migration since Federation. The policy of taking the refugees was nurtured by the conservative government of Malcolm Fraser. Australia in time became one of the key centres of the Vietnamese diaspora.”

Australians mobilized in huge numbers in opposition to the Vietnam War. It was a lightening rod for my generation, having a huge influence on political responses to this day. We were ready to take Vietnamese boat people because they were on the ‘right’ side (through the ‘optics’ of the time), escaping detention, property confiscation, ‘retraining’ and other forms of repression.

Are people escaping repressive fundamentalist regimes and violent upheaval today no longer worthy of our compassion? In the current political construct I am at lost as to why, for instance, an Afghani escaping the Taliban is not seen as being on the ‘right’ side? Many parts of Afghanistan remain under threat of a Taliban revival.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Faces on Nauru

Picture by Michael Gordon of The Age

UN plea for Nauru internees

Do we have an island for you!!! (see the Hinze archives)

Michael Gordon of The Age reports that the Howard Government will be asked this week to find a humanitarian solution for more than 50 asylum seekers who have spent "long enough" in detention on the tiny, cash-strapped island of Nauru. The request will come from Neill Wright, regional representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, who spent several days on the island last week and found the asylum seekers in a desperate state.

"They are isolated. They are very desperate. They don't know what will happen in their future and it is probably the uncertainty, more than anything else, that is damaging for their mental health," Mr Wright, who returned to Australia on Friday, told The Age. Mr Wright said the five children, in two Afghan families, and two Iraqi women were of particular concern. "This is not a place to bring up your children and it is not a place where you can plan for any future," he said.

He suggested a good solution would be for the asylum seekers, whose claims for refugee status have been rejected, to be accepted as migrants by Australia or other countries, with the numbers having no impact on refugee quotas.

The Age is the first newspaper to be given unfettered access to the camp. It interviewed more than half the asylum seekers the day before Mr Wright's visit. The common thread in all interviews was that these people were running on empty, their reserves of hope and resilience long gone.

Several inmates claimed to have new information supporting their claims. All said they could not return to their country of origin. Many said they could not sleep without medication. Referring to the Age reports, Mr Wright said: "The situation there, as you quite clearly said in your articles, is not an acceptable one in humanitarian terms."

The 54 are the last of more than 1200 asylum seekers who have been held on Nauru since 2001. More than 700 have been resettled and some 470 more have voluntarily returned to their country of origin. Mr Wright said the 54 left were "between a rock and a hard place".

They genuinely believed they could not return to their country, but many were clinging to the hope that another round of adjudications would result in their being accepted as refugees. While Mr Wright said a "small percentage" of the cases might qualify for refugee status, his assessment was that the majority were migrants, given that the claims of most had been rejected more than once.

"My gut reaction is that there are one or two cases that need to be re-examined, but on the whole these people are migrants and need a humanitarian solution," he said. "You can't expect them to stay another three or four years there. They've been there long enough as it is."

Mr Wright said he believed Australia, Nauru, the UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration, which runs the Nauru camp, had a "moral responsibility" to work together to find a solution.

"Let's work together to find a solution that is going to get these people out of this situation," he said.

Asked about the urgency of finding a solution, Mr Wright said: "There are clearly some who in my untrained, non-medical opinion are stressed, very unhappy and very depressed."

Migration agent Marion Le, who has reviewed the Nauru cases, strongly endorsed Mr Wright's call for a humanitarian solution, but said most cases would be found to be refugees if they were re-examined.

While the Kiwis are busy modeling how a civilized country welcomes sanctuary seekers, thankfully Australia’s egregious ‘pacific solution’ is continuing to attract scrutiny. Sometimes I find it hard to believe so many Australians have stood by while this human rights travesty has been perpetrated in their name.

A Nobel Peace Laureate speaks out

The SMH and Catholic News reports that Nobel peace prize laureate, Shirin Ebadi, has called for Australia to accept all asylum seekers and not attempt to remake Aborigines in the image of modern society, in a lecture at the Australian Catholic University.

A media release from the University says Dr Ebadi attracted "massive attention from the general public" - and a standing ovation - when she presented the public lecture at its North Sydney Campus (MacKillop) on Friday evening.

Dr Ebadi won the Nobel Prize for peace in 2003, ahead of Pope John Paul II, for human rights advocacy in Iran.

"Australia is a country that God has given many blessings; one way of being grateful and thankful for this blessing is to give to others, help others and be more compassionate," said Dr Ebadi.

No one would leave their homeland without compelling reasons, she said, in a quote from the lecture.

Tolerating minorities was the hallmark of an enlightened democracy, so rather than pushing assimilation onto Aborigines, the Federal Government should provide social services, yet allow indigenous people to "maintain their civilisation and their traditions", she said.

Dr Ebadi was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Australian Catholic University in Brisbane last week.

“Dr Ebadi has devoted herself to the service of justice, freedom, and particularly the rights of women and children,” said ACU Vice-chancellor Professor Peter Sheehan. “As co-founder of the Association for Support of Children’s Rights and the Human Rights Defence Centre, and in all her work for social justice, Dr Ebadi is an inspiring role model.”

“ACU National was delighted to award Dr Ebadi the University’s highest honour, Doctor of the University (honoris causa), at the University’s Brisbane Campus (McAuley at Banyo) graduation ceremony on 14 April,” said Professor Sheehan.

“Dr Ebadi has overcome countless hurdles in her own life, not only for her own survival, but to improve the lives of others, she is indeed an inspiration to us. We are grateful for the time which she, in her characteristically generous way, has given to us this evening,” said Professor Sheehan.

In 1969, she became the first female judge to be appointed in Iran, a position she lost following the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Dr Ebadi currently has her own legal practice, is a University teacher, writes books, and conducts human rights training courses which attract students across the Globe.

Dr Ebadi's work led to her being summonsed before Iran's Revolutionary Court this year - a summons she has defied along with numerous threats to her safety. She is adamant that her homeland will become democratic.

Friday, April 15, 2005

The truth is out there...

Hinze again...

ABC Radio Australia reports that a group of academics in Australia has launched its own inquiry into the detention of asylum seekers in Australia.

The Australian Council of Heads of Social Work Schools will begin the inquiry this month in the South Australian city of Port Augusta. The group hopes to publicly release its findings by the end of the year. Linda Briskman from the School of Social Science at Melbourne's RMIT University says the evidence will be broad-based.

"I think the comparison is the stolen generation inquiry into indigenous children who were removed from their families," Ms Briskman said.

"There'll be a lot of oral testimony, confidential oral testimony, and research-based evidence that people will be able to refer to for a long time," she said.

And in the home of Princess Mary…

Reuters reported yesterday that Denmark's Queen Margrethe urged Muslim immigrants to learn Danish to help them feel more at home and said in an official biography published on Thursday society should show limited tolerance of radical Islam.

"We are being challenged by Islam these years. Globally as well as locally," said the 64-year-old queen, who was interviewed by journalist Annelise Bistrup for her book "Margrethe."

"We must take this challenge seriously. We have simply left it flapping around for far too long, because we are tolerant and rather lazy," she is quoted as saying.

About 8 percent of Denmark's 5.4 million people are immigrants -- about a third of those come from other European Union countries or North America and only 150,000 are Muslims.

Among the immigrants is Margrethe's daughter-in-law, the very popular Crown Princess Mary, who is from Australia.

But Denmark has cracked down on migration in the past three years and the anti-immigrant Danish People's Party, an ally of the center-right government, has pushed through laws making it harder to bring in foreign spouses or qualify for asylum. The monarch said people who dedicated their lives to religion were fascinating and felt she had gained insight into Islam from her studies of archaeology.

She went on to say "there is also something frightening about such a totality which is also a part of Islam. A certain response must be shown and sometimes one must run the risk of being labeled in a less flattering way. Because there are certain things with which one should not be tolerant."

Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen won a second term in February thanks to the popularity of new rules which have cut the number of asylum-seekers by 80 percent. Human rights organizations have criticized such measures.

Many newcomers to the Nordic country do not learn Danish and the unemployment rate among immigrants -- particularly from developing countries -- is still much higher than among Danes, as are crime rates.

"We could have handled this challenge a bit better, if we had realized what we were up against," Margrethe said.

Muslims should learn the language properly to prevent them feeling excluded and seeking security in radical Islam. "Therefore it is wise to make demands on the language. We should not be content with living next to each other. We should rather live together," she said.

Danes know a thing or two about uninvited migrating themselves…

In ‘Crusader country’ they welcome Tampa asylum seekers!

Christchurch (home of the mighty Crusader Super 12 RU team) City Council has put out a press release today welcoming 50 new Tampa citizens.

Next week Christchurch Mayor Garry Moore will confer citizenship on about 50 people, all connected to the group of Afghani asylum seekers rescued from drowning in 2001 by the crew of Norwegian ship Tampa.

Among those who will become New Zealand citizens at Tuesday afternoon's ceremony are several of the so-called Tampa boys - minors who embarked on the rickety Indonesian boat without parents or other relatives. The vessel was making for Australia before foundering off Christmas Island.

New Zealand took 150 of the Tampa asylum seekers as refugees after Australia refused entry to the ship. Similar citizenship ceremonies have been held this month in other New Zealand centres.

The land of the long white cloud, running All Blacks and short summer is modeling what it is to be a good international citizen. Not for the first time those Tasman outlanders have put us to shame.!

"Safer in Red 1 Compound”

Following is an excerpt from Mike Head’s insightful article on the plight of Cornelia Rau and the arc light it shines on the ‘culture’ of detention:

“On “Four Corners”, barrister Claire O’Connor, who now acts for Rau, ascribed her maltreatment to a “mindset” in the detention centres and mental health services that detainees fake psychiatric problems for “some ulterior motive”. This “mindset,” however, does not originate in these facilities. It is the inevitable product of the detention regime itself.

In order to enforce the system and poison public opinion, both the previous Labor government and the current Liberal-National Coalition government of Prime Minister John Howard have systematically demonised asylum seekers. They have labelled them “queue jumpers”—as if those fleeing persecution should wait in an orderly line. Howard and his ministers have falsely accused refugees of throwing their children into the ocean to try to coerce the government into allowing them entry. When desperate detainees have staged protest hunger strikes, Howard’s ministers have contemptuously dismissed them as publicity-seekers and refused to discuss their complaints.

If Rau had been a genuine asylum seeker, rather than an Australian resident, she would almost certainly have remained in detention, denied elementary care. Countless detainees are still suffering as Rau did. Dr Howard Gorton, a former Baxter psychiatrist, told “Four Corners”: “The people I saw and treated at Baxter were the most damaged people I’ve seen in my whole psychiatric career. Up until that time, I’d never met an adult-onset bedwetter. I’d never met someone with psychological blindness. And there were also a few physically crippled people who believed they were unable to walk, and this was probably psychological too.”

Amir Javan, a refugee who met Rau in Baxter, said: “Cornelia Rau has been discovered at least. She’s got a family in Australia to look after her. But we should think about the rest of the girls that are still there and they haven’t got anyone. They haven’t got anyone, and no-one comes to find out what’s going on about them.”
Immigration minister Vanstone has issued a series of chilling responses to the Rau revelations. While claiming that she cannot comment because of Palmer’s inquiry, she has flatly defended Rau’s confinement in Baxter Red 1 compound, telling “Four Corners” that “I think that’s where she would frankly be safer”.”

Isn’t it comforting to know that Senator Vanstone takes her ‘duty of care’ responsibilities so seriously!

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Telling his story

Iranian refugee Shahin Shafaei

"Behind the Wire" goes to Orange

Janice Harris, reporting in the Central Western Daily, tells the story of Iranian refugee Shahin Shafaei, who brought the human face of the Australian Government's refugee policy to the people of Orange this week.

Shahin, who told his story and played himself in the Ros Horn play "Behind the Wire" at Orange Civic Theatre, is an high-profile Muslim-born refugee who has taken his story to the Australian people through the media and theatre. He believes he is playing a part in changing community attitudes to refugees behind bars.

As a playwrite in Iran he risked jail by challenging the oppression in Iranian society, including attitudes to women, in his work. Many of his friends suffered that fate.

"I went into hiding for two days while a friend arranged to get me out of the country. When they realised I had gone, my parents' house was raided and my father was taken away for interrogation.

"I know if I go back I will be sent to prison."

Shahin made his way to Malaysia and bought a ticket to Australia through a people smuggler.

"I knew nothing about Australia but time had run out for me," he said.

He told of his 11-day journey in 2003, aboard a tiny vessel crowded with 112 men, women and children, and the events that led to his 22-month internment in Curtin Detention Centre.

"When I look back it was like a dream - almost surreal and I think that was my way of dealing with what was happening to me at the time," he said.

Shahin criticised the Australian Government's slow processing of asylum seekers saying there was no excuse for long delays.

"For the first 11 months in Curtin nothing happened and when I was finally told I would be released it took another four months after my application was lodged to be accepted as a genuine refugee.

"Then it took another five months for me to be released."

There are so many stories like this. It is vital to be able to put a face to injustice. Hopefully the efforts of Shahin and his collaborators will help counterbalance the dehumanising consequences of branding people 'illegals'.

Highest honour to defender of rights

On 12 April the Ballarat Courier reported that Julian Burnside QC, a leader of the Victorian Bar, a prolific writer and speaker and patron of the arts, was presented with the honorary doctorate, Doctor of the University, by the Australian Catholic University.

The Vice-Chancellor, Prof Sheehan, said Mr Burnside was considered an outstanding voice for justice and freedom in Australian public life, particularly with his advocacy work for refugees and asylum seekers.

"I think the embodiment of that social concern in the position of influence and expressiveness is Julian Burnside," Prof Sheehan said.

"It's a plea to students stepping out to the world never to lose their awareness of caring about the issues of today."

Morally opposed

Battle of wills: (from left) Garry McDonald, Caroline Brazier and Nicholas Eadie.
Garry McDonald is James (Eggs) Benedict, the Minister for Home Security, with lofty ambitions for the prime ministership.

This is a man who believes that protecting Australia's borders takes precedence over protecting human rights. His brother Tom (Nicholas Eadie) is a left-wing community lawyer and activist. He also happens to represent Hazem (Rodney Afif), the only Iraqi survivor of a refugee boat that sinks in the Indian Ocean on its way to Australia.

Robin Usher of The Age reported yesterday that the Costello brothers were a part of playwright Hannie Rayson’'s inspiration for her latest work about human rights.

Two Brothers is unsettling theatre that takes recent border protection events (Tampa, SIEVX) and sets them in the mould of melodrama and thriller. Partly inspired by the political contrasts in the positions of federal Treasurer Peter Costello and his brother Tim, Rayson stretches family loyalties to their limits in this exploration of clashing ideologies.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Why nonviolence?

The Easter protests at Baxter brought another wave of confrontations with police and security staff. The 'us' and 'them' construct deliberately sets up possibilities for violent protest. This plays into a wedge 'sand trap' managed by spin doctors - angry crowds are 'extremists' or 'radicals' disrupting the business of government and inciting civil unrest. The age old strategem of 'divide and rule' continues to succeed as it did in the time of Jesus.
AumAnother famous nonviolent protester, Mahatma Gandhi (see my book Gandhi and his Ashrams), saw politically motivated violence and exploitation as a failure to recognise the truly organic nature of existence. He proffered an alternative to the tendency of the modern centralist state to over regulate people's lives and to resist public accountability. Rather than tolerate abuse of authority, he orchestrated a series of nonviolent civil disobedience campaigns in South Africa and India against unjust laws and repressive government.

Gandhi encouraged his followers to see humanity as a whole, not a collection of individuals with narrow loyalties. Spirituality and politics don't mix I hear you say. Gandhi disagreed and spoke of satyagraha or 'truthforce' in politics as the pursuit of a humanism transcending clan, class, national and racial barriers. His ideal of a nonviolent polity that affords equal opportunity to all, based on mutual rights and responsibilities and respect for the individual, is resonant with the ideas of Jesus and other great spiritual teachers. Gandhi in turn influenced nonviolent activists such as Martin Luther King.

Gandhi recognised that means adopted today will determine the nature of ends. He demonstrated there are effective ways to protest actively without falling into the violence trap.

To be or not to be!

The brilliant Nicholson again!

Friday, April 08, 2005

Fortress Oz doesn’t care what the UN thinks but they keep telling us anyway!

In the next episode of our government’s joust with the UN committee process Paul Osborne (from AAP) reported yesterday that Australia has told the UN it stands by the country's mandatory detention system for asylum seekers, saying it is just and fair.

Attorney-General Philip Ruddock today tabled in Parliament Australia's latest official response to the UN convention against torture and other cruel treatment. Every UN member that has signed the convention is obliged to report every few years on the fairness of its legal system and treatment of citizens, prisoners and asylum seekers.

Article 3 of the convention says no country should expel, return or extradite a person to another country "where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture" or which shows a "consistent pattern of gross, flagrant or mass violations of human rights".

The UN Committee against Torture asked Australia in 2000 to address a number of concerns including independent review of ministerial decisions on cases under Article 3. But the Government said in its report released today that it stood by its asylum seeker policy.

"Given existing review mechanisms and processes, the government does not consider an additional level of review, such as that suggested by the committee, either necessary or appropriate," the report said.

"Furthermore, the Government maintains that current policy and practice is not inconsistent with Australia's obligations under the convention."

And so this tragic farce continues to be played out under the gaze of key watchdog bodies. I expect UN interventions will continue to be little more than an irritant to Howard & co whilst they strut the world stage with their Texan buddy.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

The hidden toll of the tsunami

Associated Press reported on April 5 that UNICEF alleges Tamil Tiger rebels have recruited 106 children into their ranks since the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami, in some cases taking young recruits directly from relief camps. UNICEF said some of the new recruits had been taken from tsunami relief camps in the Tamil- majority north and east of Sri Lanka - parts of which are under guerrilla control.

UNICEF considers those under 18 to be children. "We have been in touch with the LTT (Liberation Tigers of Tamileelam) about the release of the children but we have not received any firm guarantees as yet," the UNICEF representative (Vergara) said.

There was no immediate response from the rebels, but the Tigers have repeatedly denied actively recruiting children, saying that any minor who joins their forces does so because of poverty or the loss of parents.

In 2003 the rebels agreed with both UNICEF and the Sri Lankan government to discharge all child fighters to rehabilitation centers, where they could receive care and counseling to help them rejoin society.

But the U.N. agency has accused the insurgents of reneging on their promise. Since the agreement the rebels have recruited 1,892 children, Vergara said. Since the rebels signed a truce with the Sri Lankan government in 2002, more than 3,500 children have been enlisted by the insurgents, according to human rights groups.

Children accounted for a staggering 40 percent, or 12,000, of Sri Lanka 's tsunami death toll of at least 31,000. Nearly 1 million people have been left homeless.

A key indicator of social dysfunction is child abuse. Our humanity is diminished and our future threatened by the brutalisation of children. The next generation of terrorists are nurtured in the process. If international human rights instruments (eg. UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child and Universal Declaration of Human Rights) are ignored by rich and powerful countries in the name of national security, what chance do poor countries under stress have?

Our leader

The following excerpt from Gavin Mooney’s review of God Under Howard by Marion Maddox (posted to On Line Opinion) suggests the book throws a timely arclight on the pathology of “us” and “them”.

“Maddox documents superbly how right-wing Christianity has captured Howard and several of his government ministers. She shows how he has used and abused the Christian Church to foster his political ends. She details how he has manipulated power since his blundering days of yore, when his comments expressing racism were interpreted, diagnosed and explicitly named for what they were (i.e. racist), and which in 1989 led him to lose the leadership of the party to Peacock.

Since then he has learned. His minders have got him to adopt a new tack. His fighting style has changed. He himself no longer leads with his (racist) right. He has learned to “feint”, coming in behind someone else who has made an extreme right-wing statement (perhaps at Howard’s behest) with an “I understand” comment. “I understand where Jim is coming from but …” or “I understand what Jo is driving at but …” But the “but”, seemingly disagreeing with Jim or Jo and sounding like the voice of reason, is but a shade less extreme than the original. This strategy, leading to that “softer” tone, as Maddox reveals, leaves Howard seeming to be more moderate, less extreme. This is very clever - and very scary.

Howard’s style of divide-and-rule is fascinating. It is the separation of “us” and “them”. I suppose most of us are already aware of this in respect of Aboriginal people and asylum seekers. Maddox outlines how, at different times, “Howard’s ‘Us’ has excluded same-sex couples, mothers in the paid workforce, single parents, step parents, stay-at-home fathers, feminists, migrants, Aborigines, churches, Muslims, other non-Christians, unions, ABC listeners, the tertiary-educated and more”. Divide “us” from them; keep “us” apart from the other."

PM's gentle side!

Nicholson of "The Australian" newspaper

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

It all helps

The ABC reported today that there are renewed calls for asylum seekers suffering from mental illness to be taken out of South Australia's Baxter Detention Centre near Port Augusta.

The Federal Court in Adelaide yesterday heard that some Baxter detainees who are suffering from mental illness are being denied access to psychiatric treatment. Lawyers for a number of asylum seekers want their clients moved to Glenside Psychiatric Hospital in Adelaide.

Justice for Refugees' chairman Don McMaster says the Government must face its responsibilities. "I think, you know, really it's time that Baxter was closed down and that detainees are placed out in the community on some sort of community system and people who are suffering some sort of mental illness are placed in the appropriate place," he said

The basic decency of Aussies, and respect for our institutions and laws, will see mandatory detention come under increasing scrutiny by those same institutions.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

A place in Sri Lanka

We have people detained in Baxter from the Vasavilan and the Vanni areas of Sri Lanka.

Vanni has been a key battleground in the struggle between the LTTE and a succession of Sri Lankan governments. These areas remain volatile, as with many other parts of Sri Lanka. People have suffered and continue to suffer deprivations (incl shortages of basic supplies). Serious allegations of mass executions and other human rights abuses remain uninvestigated.

People who have escaped from these areas for political and ethnic reasons would be at especial risk if returned.

Sitting in our lounge rooms we would be hard pressed to imagine the fears of Sri Lankans locked up at Baxter and elsewhere. I recommend the attached 2004 report by key human rights agencies to the UN Human Rights Committee on State violence in Sri Lanka to get a clearer picture of a frigthening aspect of the situation they left.

Rural Australians for Refugees Media Release

The refugee advocacy group Rural Australians for Refugees yesterday called for an independent judicial review into the assessment and treatment of mental health problems of people in immigration detention.

"We are appalled by the latest information aired on ABC's 4 Corners program about the lack of adequate assessment and treatment of Cornelia Rau by the Department of Immigration and Global Solutions Limited, which runs Baxter Detention Centre." said Mira Wroblewski, spokesperson for RAR. "The department has clearly breached its own guidelines in many ways, as well as breaching medical standards in its assessment and treatment of Ms Rau. Advice from a number of psychiatric professionals was ignored, and she was subjected to treatment that was degrading and inhumane".

"The program also raised the larger question about how asylum seekers and detainees in Baxter are treated. I was sickened to hear psychiatrist Howard Gorton say that the people he had seen in detention centres were the most damaged people he had seen in his entire career. The worst thing is that these people did not come to Australia with these problems- they have been damaged by the system of mandatory detention." said Ms Wroblewski. "There is no reason why Australia cannot implement the system which is used in countries like Sweden, of releasing people to live in the community while their claims are being processed. It is cheaper, more humane, and it works very well".

Commenting about this week's Federal Court case in Adelaide by two Iranian detainees from Baxter, Ms Wroblewski said "It is shameful that in a first world country like Australia asylum seekers should have to resort to legal action for the right to basic medical and psychiatric care."

Rural Australians for Refugees is calling for the abolition of mandatory detention of asylum seekers, and release of all asylum seekers to live in the community while their cases are being processed. They are demanding a full independent judicial review into the way mental health is assessed and treated for those currently in detention.

A picker queue!

Nicholson of "The Australian" newspaper

Sound familiar?

This story from the UK caught my attention.

The Financial Times (3 March 2005) reported on a BBC film showing asylum seekers being assaulted, racially abused and sexually humiliated by guards. The film has prompted demands for a public debate into how government policy is fuelling human rights abuses and miscarriages of justice.

The film has generated adverse publicity for Global Solutions (the company that manages Baxter), one of the UK government's largest contractors, which runs Oakington detention centre near Cambridge and the in-country escorting contract featured in the undercover documentary.

Public exposure is the antidote for hubris in government. The hyperlink takes you to the UK Parliament debate on the issues raised by the film.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Life in limbo

The Canberra Times ran a story last week on the situation of an Iranian mother and her two daughters, who are amongst a small group of asylum seekers that have not been granted refugee status but have been invited to apply for permanent visas because they are unable to return to their homeland.

This group and those that have already been released from Nauru and Baxter on TPVs, continue to live a twilight existence of uncertainty and fear that they will be returned forcefully to their home countries. Responding to pressure brought by backbenchers, the Government has opened a small window of hope for those that have failed in their bid to be designated refugees, but can not return home because of the risk of persecution, which would appear to indicate they are in fact genuine refugees.

Refugee advocates have rightly highlighted the bloody mindedness of this latest Catch 22 scenario hatched by Vanstone and chums. I have never seen a government so practised in the art of pettiness.

I have been fortunate to become friends with an Afghani man in this predicament. I will refer to him has Hamid (not his real name). After Australia kept Hamid on Nauru for almost three years, he was released on a TPV to live in Canberra, where he has been assisted by the ACT Government and refugee advocates. Hamid is an agricultural scientist, a musician and a progressive thinker, an obvious target for the Taliban.

Hamid fled Afghanistan, leaving his family in his home province, and only survived to tell his tale by chance. His journey is truly amazing, transiting many countries, running the gauntlet of pirates, ending up in the sea twice after boats sank, falling prey to criminal boat smugglers and detained on Nauru for three years with little chance of reprieve. Lobbying by refugee advocates and a revised UNHCR situation report on Afghanistan led to Afghani detainees being released on TPVs, but the fear of rejection and further persecution is a constant for these people.

When some of their stories come to be written in detail, Australians will be shocked at the brutal treatment meted out by a government with a manic determination to manage the boat people phenomenon as a political wedge issue.

What happened to that freedom loving social democracy built on universal human rights; a nation at ease with itself and welcoming to those who face persecution on political, religious or ethnicity grounds? Do Australians remember how we welcomed Vietnamese boat people in their many thousands?

Now we are looking more and more like a xenophobic client state of the US, an uncompassionate society ready to disbelieve the legitimate claims of asylum seekers who didn’t stand in a non-existent queue of orderly people waiting for whichever repressive regime they are escaping to allow them to migrate. The silliness of this position overwhelms me at times.

The history of propaganda reveals that you can package lies very successfully if they play to irrational fears – it is especially difficult to counter when cloaked in the garb of national security. Are Australians prepared to allow their government to continue to ignore human rights and refugee conventions – to sit by while basic rights are suspended, or as Noam Chomsky put it, ‘democracy is deterred”?

Forgotten on Nauru

My interest in asylum seeker issues gathered pace as Director of the aid program put in place to leverage Nauru’s part in the policy to keep boat people outside Australia’s immigration zone, otherwise known as the ‘pacific solution’ (a term attracting growing infamy).

From a paltry few scholarships per annum, post Tampa the Australian taxpayers have been footing a huge bill to keep Nauru on side. Nauru is a failed state. It was a failed state prior to the AusAID and DIMIA funding that forms the ongoing ‘bribe’ to keep the detention camps open on Nauru. The plight of asylum seekers detained on this benighted speck of guano continues in our name, paid for by our taxes.

Prominent refugee advocate, Julian Burnside QC, reminded Australians of the grave implications of these actions on Nauru The Age (27 March 2005):

"Julian Burnside QC said it was not an offence to arrive in Australia without a visa and ask for asylum. Yet the government was locking up asylum seekers and their children without charge for years, ostensibly to send a message to people smugglers, he said.

"None of these people have committed an offence, so by definition we've got innocent people held in jail for three years plus," Mr Burnside told the Ten Network's Meet The Press program."We're jailing innocent human beings and we're jailing them in order to send a message to other people. Now the mistreatment of innocent human beings to mould the behaviour of others is seriously bad conduct and it's conduct which most people would not approve of.”

"It's the sort of thing that hostage takers do. It's the sort of thing that terrorists do."

Mr Burnside said the message seemed to have got through to the people smugglers, with no new arrivals recently. “From now on, the cruelty seems to be quite pointless," he said. "We know that the people who are held in immigration detention have not committed any offence. Quite frankly, if they had committed an offence, do you think that any court would sentence children to three years imprisonment for coming along with their parents without a visa? Of course they wouldn't. It is not an offence to arrive in Australia without a visa and ask for asylum."

Mr Burnside said the only place the laws could be tested would be in the International Criminal Court."But more importantly I think this has got to be exposed in the court of public opinion," he said. "What we're doing to innocent asylum seekers fails every test of democratic principle."

UN attention on detention – a state of disgrace

On the Easter weekend David Marr ran a story in the SMH (26 March 2005) on UN unease over the Howard Government's record on race. The government has not responded on this occasion, perhaps having learnt a lesson from the last time Australia locked horns with the Committee on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination. Marr writes, “The committee's verdict last time round, in 2000, produced one of the great dummy spits of the Howard years, with the Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, roaring: "We won't cop it any longer. We are a democratically elected government in one of the most liberal and democratic countries you will find on Earth. And if a United Nations committee wants to play domestic politics here in Australia, then it will end up with a bloody nose."

Marr goes on:

“Australia was facing the committee's scrutiny for the first time in five years. The event went unreported back home and the verdict - handed down on March 12 - was the subject of only a few, scattered reports in the press. Australia was rebuked for its treatment of migrants, Muslims, asylum seekers, refugees and Aborigines. In the eyes of the Geneva committee, the list of this country's failures on the human rights front has only grown longer since the Howard Government came to office.”

David Marr has not lost sight of or interest in the human rights performance of the Howard Government. As a government official I found solace in the work of journalists unafraid to make governments accountable. Marr continues a fine tradition of Australian journalists reporting back fearlessly from ‘the barricades’.

The Australian Government has reacted badly to UN and NGO scrutiny of its human rights record. I am sure many Australians would be amazed to see Australia rebuked in this way. This kind of criticism is typically targeted at third world dictatorships!

Why another blog?

Well, I hope it is a constructive outlet for the frustration and anger that has been mounting in me since Tampa. The more we shed light on our government’s treatment of asylum seekers, the better equipped we are to raise awareness of the violations perpetrated in our name. Of late, the mainstream media has been revisiting asylum seeker issues because of the wrongful detention on an Australian resident. This is encouraging as the majority of journalists appeared to swallow the government’s line in the wake of Howard’s ‘boat people’ election, despite the revelations on ‘children overboard’. Few commentators drilled down to unearth the human rights abuses underlying Australia’s detention of asylum seekers. I think this is changing.

The blog will provide opinion and information on these issues. I will try to maintain a record of commentary from refugee and human rights advocates and encourage readers to post comment and share information.