Saturday, June 30, 2007

Refugees in Australia - Q & A (ix) - Why shouldn't Australia detain children seeking asylum?

Children are vulnerable - that's why international laws are designed to protect them.

Australia's ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) obliges it to maintain standards to protect children's rights and to provide them with humanitarian assistance.

Detaining children is strongly discouraged under the CRC. It provides that children should be detained only as a last resort, and then only for the shortest appropriate period of time. Any detention of children must be subject to periodic judicial review.

Australia's system of mandatory detention of undocumented asylum seekers is a serious breach of the CRC. Far from being used as a last resort, children are automatically detained - and for an indefinite period.

Children seeking asylum in Australia have no opportunity to challenge their deprivation of liberty in a fair hearing, nor are there periodic reviews of their detention as required by CRC.

Most Australian detention centres do not have the capacity to separate families from the general adult detainee group - a specification in international guidelines on refugees.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Refugees in Australia - Q & A (viii) - What are alternatives to detention?

Australia is the only Western country that has mandatory detention for all asylum seekers that arrive in Australia without valid documentation. Ongoing and prolonged detention of asylum seekers places many detainees at risk of mental anguish. There are better, economically viable and humane ways of responsibly handling onshore asylum-seekers. Mandatory, ongoing detention of asylum seekers in Australia, many of who are fleeing grave human rights abuses, is one of the most controversial issues for Australians today. Almost every day, we are bombarded with images in the media of detainees suffering from depression, mental anguish, trauma and psychological damage - yet despite this, a public debate on how to install a new regime has not fully commenced whilst the current government states there is simply no alternate option. So, realistically, is there a viable alternative to detention?

Since the introduction of mandatory detention in Australia in 1992, an array of alternative schemes has been proposed. In 1994 the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) headed a Detention Reform Coordinating Committee, who presented an alternative detention model to the minister for immigration in 1996. This model proposes a four-stage refugee determination process taking into account government and public concerns on border protection and national security. In the 1998 HREOC report, Those who've come across the seas, this alternative model was promoted as a solution to a detention system that puts many men, women and children's human rights at risk.

The Refugee Council of Australia has also put forward an alternative detention model. Their model proposes a simple three-stage administration, from closed to open detention, then on to community release. Under the community release stage, family members or community organisations would take some responsibility for the care of individual asylum seekers. Justice for Asylum Seekers (JAS) has also outlined their position on alternatives to detention. They have examined a Reception and Transitional Processing System as an alternative approach to holding asylum seekers in prolonged and ongoing detention.

In posing alternative schemes and models to mandatory detention, comparison to arrangements for asylum seekers arriving in countries overseas demonstrate schemes that provide the balance between maintaining border security and protecting the fundamental human right to flee persecution. Many European countries, such as Germany, Spain and Austria, have a limit on the period of time asylum seekers are held in detention. Other countries, including Finland, Denmark and Belgium, only detain asylum seekers in exceptional circumstances when they feel there is a high risk of absconding.

Presenting the different models for housing and caring for asylum seekers in Australia is the first step in taking forward in the debate on Alternatives to Detention forward. Actually delivering on a humane solution to mandatory detention is the ultimate goal. What's needed is lobbying and dialogue as well as calling for political will to introduce a new system of accommodating asylum seekers in Australia.

Members of Parliament, responsible to their electorate, need to be made aware of alternate options to detention for asylum seekers. Politicians need to be encouraged to represent the views of their local electorate on Alternatives to Detention both in parliament and in the party room. You can write to your local member of parliament and let them know there is an answer to mandatory detention.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Australians All - "Evidence or panic in making Indigenous affairs policy?"

Gregory Phillips, a Waanyi and Jaru medical anthropologist at The University of Melbourne, community healing worker and author of 'Addictions and Healing in Aboriginal Country' (Aboriginal Studies Press, 2003), is critical of the policy-on-the-run approach of Brough and Howard. In his article for Australians All he does'nt let Noel Pearson off the hook either:

"As usual, Noel Pearson and his dodgy brother mate Mal Brough have gotten things half right and half wrong when it comes to dealing with alcohol-fuelled dysfunction in Indigenous communities. Their latest hair-brained idea to forcibly link welfare payments to food, housing and education costs is at best admirable but very poorly thought out, and at worst, a convenient front for a right-wing ideological battle to disband Indigenous communal ownership to land under the guise of Indigenous people all being abusers, crooks and totally helpless.

Perhaps they have got a touch of the white knight syndrome, where Indigenous and non-Indigenous visitors alike to some Indigenous communities are so confronted by what they see in the midst of alcohol-fuelled nightmares that they panic, and set out on a moral self-righteous crusade to change the situation all by themselves?

There is no doubting the dire state of some Indigenous communities that are ticking time bombs of dysfunctional despair. I and many other Indigenous and non-Indigenous health workers have long spoken out and advocated for the safety and treatment issues concerned with family violence and sexual abuse. It is admirable that someone with Pearson’s media profile and cachet among politicians is bringing much needed attention to the issues, but it’s not like he is our first born saviour. Pearson and Brough’s half baked analysis of the situation, coupled with their apparent missionary zeal and knee jerk policy reactions, is how Indigenous policy often gets done in this country, and it’s just not good enough any more. Their attempt may do more damage than its worth for the following important reasons.

My empirical analysis of addictions and healing and in a remote north Queensland community shows that there were problematic levels of use of alcohol, marijuana and gambling, that intergenerational trauma was one of many significant explanations, and critically, that panicking about what to do is the reason why public interventions for the last twenty years have failed to adequately address the situation. The trauma experienced in the community I worked with relates to the current generation’s parents and grandparents being moved to a sedentary lifestyle, being forcibly removed from relatives, being forced to marry against customary kinship laws, and having the power to make basic decisions about one’s life taken away. They all were the reasons why people were using at problematic levels, and help explain the violence and self-destructive behaviour we see today. Some Aboriginal people have taken this pain inwards and sadly, have started to believe some white people’s message that all Aborigines will ever be is “drunken dirty blacks.”

But all is not lost or hopeless. Intergenerational trauma is an explanation, not an excuse.

Pearson makes the critical mistake of thinking the trauma explanation is a front for left-wing ideologues to endlessly make excuses for Aborigines under the guise of poor-bugger-me stories of colonialism’s effects. While some may use it that way, the reality is that Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people alike need access to the full range of treatment interventions for their addictions. Most of the policing, prohibition and harm reduction public health interventions in Indigenous Australia have failed because while some of them might be important, they do so in the absence of complementary programs that heal the trauma, the source of the malaise.

In Canada, where First Nations communities have chosen alcohol bans and voucher systems in exchange for food and amenities, they have also ensured drug and alcohol users go to culturally appropriate addictions treatment centres to mend their ways and heal their shame. When they return, then they are offered after-care support until they are ready to handle a job and stick with it. Critically, they are also encouraged to take part in spiritual ceremonies and cultural renewal activities, where they can be strongly connected with their true identity again.

Consider this example. Soon after the new alcohol bans on Cape York Indigenous communities came into effect, I visited the community I worked with, and while Pearson’s mates in the State Government were loudly proclaiming the success of prohibition because there were fewer people visiting local clinics for alcohol-related injury, they did not measure or were painfully unable to assess the level of anger and frustration in the community’s drinkers. Take the grog away without also providing healing services for that person to deal with why they were drinking in the first place, and you might end up with a dry drunk. In these cases, even though the physical drinking is gone, the mental, emotional and spiritual sickness remains and simply gets played out in other more internally self destructive ways.

Thus, Pearson and Brough’s answer is na├»ve. Far from being radical, they are doing what every other public intervention has tried to do and failed: use control alone, and use it in a morally panicked way. With Australia’s alcohol problem increasingly being made public for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people alike, we may well need to be prohibit it’s availability in some communities, but to do so with no regard for the evidence, or without assisting people to heal the original source of their self-destructive behaviour, is only to intensify the extreme self-hate and dysfunctional behaviour they are trying to remedy.

The second reason why Pearson and Brough’s solutions are dangerous is because they are willing to allow the problems of alcohol and sexual abuse in all Australian homes to be confined to pointing the finger at Indigenous communities alone. As I have alluded, these issues are of national significance and are in epidemic proportions. There is no doubt we have a particular epidemic in Indigenous Australia made worse by the small size of some Indigenous communities and the public denial despite tireless health worker efforts and media hype. But denial, shame and secrecy are hallmarks of the way these issues have until recently been dealt with in the national mainstream arena too. It doesn’t make it OK in Aboriginal communities, it just makes me question why there is a white knight moral panic obsession with some to point the finger and demonise all Aboriginal people, particularly Aboriginal men?

Perhaps it’s because if the government can encourage the public to believe that all Aborigines are violent abusers and crooks, then it allows them to slip through the back door and take away our communal rights to land under the guise of us not being able to manage our own affairs, or because we haven’t assimilated into the mainstream economy yet? Perhaps Pearson thinks that by giving someone who may not be at a level of full social functioning (an alcoholic for example), an opportunity to start a small business or buy their own home (with what money in what real estate market I’m not sure), then they’ll suddenly become the fine upstanding socially responsible 1950s citizens that John Howard so desperately wants us all to be?

If some people can’t turn up to a work for the dole scheme, how will they run a small business? With what social and personal support and healing services other than family income management, does he expect people to suddenly take part in a mainstream economy? Don’t we need a new national view of the welfare debate, where people who are not at full social functioning are encouraged to deal with their personal issues and find something they love as work, rather than by treating them as social scum and beggars? Don’t we all need an education and training system that helps us find where possible a career that we absolutely love, thereby increasing the likelihood of productivity as a happy by-product rather than a forced social engineering exercise?

Maybe Pearson and Brough just really genuinely care, and are admirably trying to do something to fix the situation? The problem is, they apparently have got the bull by the horns, and have allowed their seeming white knight syndrome to throw out the evidence and with it a well thought out national response. Dangerously, their posturing and shouting is being used politically to de-stabilise Indigenous communal ownership (under the guise of economic development) and thereby spiritual connections to land, yet again.

Thirdly, Pearson’s arrogant ‘tacking to the political right’ without first engaging his own mob, is the reason why many other Aboriginal people disagree with his approach. It is not so much what he does, but how arrogantly and disrespectfully he does it that gets people’s backs up. Remember, Aboriginal people are used to be ignored and controlled and told what the answer is for them. Pearson risks being just one of a long line of others who want to change the world without talking with Aboriginal people or without grounding his interventions in the evidence. Does he want to be a hero to the mainstream middle class elite who love the “pull yourselves up by your own boot straps” message? Or does he want to do the harder but more rewarding work of engaging with and bringing his own people along with him? In any case, how dare some in the mainstream elite ignore what other Indigenous leaders say, just because they don’t subscribe to the Pearson saviour game. Pearson naively characterises many of those who disagree with his approach as the “rights agenda” only – apparently they ignore responsibilities too. He likes to pigeon-hole those who disagree with him as coming from a citified, academic-only, uppity worldview with no grounding. Again, this is poorly thought out and incorrect analysis.

To Pearson I say this, I am of a well-grounded and well-educated generation of Indigenous community workers who will not put up with Indigenous policy-on-the-run any more. We need evidence based, well thought out national Indigenous policy, target setting and performance measures for every sector of the Australian nation to take their responsibility in the challenges ahead. I expected more from Pearson than to seize a political moment for his own individual policy-on-the-run objectives. I expected it from Brough.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

ABC 's Insiders on Howard's punitive solution to indigenous child abuse in the NT

I frequently listen in to the ABC's Insiders, a weekly take on federal politics. It is an interesting dynamic with sun-tanned Barry orchestrating a panel of ' journos' from the right wing columnist set (mostly paid by Murdoch), the Fairfax stable and from the public broadcasters. The entertainment is mainly generated by an exposure of the abject silliness of the right-wing set, turning themselves inside out to support Howard and attack Rudd, and the fun the panel has sending up the latest bloopers from our political representatives. All pretty light weight really.

Today we had a serious discussion of Howard's strategy to punish social dysfunction and hardship, as manifested in child sexual abuse in the Northern Territory. I sent the Insiders website the following comment:

"I can't believe that seasoned journalists can be so naive as to believe Howard is not playing politics with this issue. Fran Kelly sounded like Alice through the looking glass. Gerry sounded his usual pained apologetic self ('no one understands just how clever I am!')

It is not difficult to work out the politics. If its not asylum seekers its the weakest minority in our society under the hammer. The fact that child welfare problems are a function of decades of paternalistic repression and neglect that has robbed traditional communities of their dignity and cultural pride, and the resources they need to enable local solutions, does'nt figure in the Howard/Brough punitive stance.

Aboriginal community leaders and advocates have been crying out for self-determined solutions to problems of social and economic disadvantage for decades and getting 'white fella' rule in response. This crisis cries out for a multi-layered strategy that focuses on education and other forms of prevention, not punishment (except where criminality is proved). The compulsory medical checks component is draconian and offensive.

This has 'Tampa' written all over it. Can anyone sniff an election in the wind? I would not be surprised if Aboriginal land rights are threatened down the track under this backward looking power grab."

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Refugees in Australia - Q & A (vii) - What is the problem with mandatory detention?

It is the issue of mandatory, prolonged detention of asylum seekers arriving in Australia without authorisation, that has polarised many opinions in the community. Amnesty International recognises the need to maintain national security and where initial detention may be necessary for health, security and identification checks. However, the debate must remained focused on the effects of long-term, prolonged detention, and why this is a violation of fundamental human rights.

Since 1 September 1992 all people arriving in Australia without proper travel documents are immediately detained. They remain in detention from a few hours to up to a few years until they are either granted a visa or deported. This includes all people seeking protection as refugees. By contrast, people who enter Australia on a valid visa and who then claim protection as a refugee are not usually detained.

Detention of asylum seekers without proper travel documents is automatic. There are no charges laid, and no appearance before a magistrate or court to decide if detention is absolutely necessary or appropriate. Except for rare situations, Australian law prohibits the release of detained asylum seekers while their refugee claim is being assessed.

Amnesty International does not oppose all detention for people arriving in Australia without valid documentation. There are instances where initial detention may be necessary, for example to establish a person's identity or perform health and security checks. However, international human rights law requires that governments do not detain people automatically or beyond what is a reasonable length of time. In Amnesty International's view, delays in a refugee determination process, whether caused by appeals or other factors, are not sufficient justifications to continue an asylum seeker's detention.

Detention of all asylum seekers without charge or judicial review amounts to arbitrary detention. It this aspect of detention - ongoing and prolonged with no notification of release - that amounts to a serious violation of the rights to liberty and freedom from arbitrary detention.

Any person arriving in Australia, regardless of their modes of transport or lack of documentation has a right to seek protection from persecution or torture. Amnesty International urges the Australia government not to discriminate against people seeking refuge and protection from torture because they arrive in Australia without valid documentation. The 1951 Convention on the Rights of Refugees (Refugee Convention), a human rights treaty that Australia has ratified and thus agreed to adhere to, clearly outlines that a refugee seeking protection from persecution shall not be penalised for entering a country without valid documentation. This applies to Australia. Currently, Australia is punishing those who deserve our compassion.

Amnesty International has grave concerns about the effects of arbitrary, ongoing detention on detainees, particularly on children. Many people kept behind razor wire fences of detention centres have survived torture and ill-treatment, escaping from situations of violence and abuse. Many have lost loved ones and have been forced to leave their homes suddenly. Having survived traumatic experiences, the effects of being isolated in sometimes remote, harsh environments further accentuate their mental despair and anguish.

Up to 80 per cent of detainees are granted refugee status and provided with visas to remain in Australia. This very high rate heightens concerns that those kept in detention have experienced grave human rights violations and are not economic migrants whose illegal entry into Australia the policy aims to prevent.

Amnesty International is one of many organisations expressing concerns regarding the conditions and effects of detention.

In May 2002, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) sent delegations to investigate conditions of detention and the legal regime governing the detention of asylum-seekers without trial or judicial oversight. In July 2002, the OHCHR delegate described the detention regime as "offensive to human dignity" and reported "serious concern" about the human rights situation of people in immigration detention, particularly children and unaccompanied minors. In December 2002, a WGAD report expressed similar concerns about "the psychological impact" of the detention regime, its "automatic and indiscriminate character, its potentially indefinite duration and the absence of juridical control of the legality of detention". The Australian government rejected the findings of both reports.

In November 2002, the national Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) found that Australia had breached its international human rights obligations by transferring six asylum-seekers from immigration detention to prisons, where they were arbitrarily detained without charge alongside convicted felons. One man had been held without judicial oversight in prison and immigration detention since December 1997.

In December 2002, the HREOC found that five asylum-seekers in Port Hedland detention centre had been arbitrarily detained for more than six days in isolation in dim or dark rooms before an immigration official became aware of their treatment. During the six days, they were allowed outdoors only twice for 10 to 15 minutes, and only one was given a change of clothes after five days. Despite reports by the official, the government took no action until alerted by AI Australia.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Refugees in Australia - Q & A (vi) - What about mandatory and arbitrary detention? What are the alternatives?

There are alternatives: Under Australian Law anybody who arrives undocumented is not only detained, but must remain in detention until they are either accepted as a refugee or deported. There is no access to judicial review. It is claimed that this model of mandatory detention without review is designed to deter and control onshore arrivals of asylum-seekers, and ensure that people are available for deportation if necessary.

Most Western countries recognise that a process must be in place for all entrants to a country to verify identity and to undertake health and security checks. Yet once these initial procedures have taken place there are alternatives to keeping asylum seekers in detention while the refugee assessment is carried out.

Ongoing, arbitrary detention with no recourse to judicial review is a violation of human rights. Asylum seekers have been detained for up to four years and children have been born into detention. There are better, more economically viable and more humane ways of responsibly handling onshore asylum-seekers.

For example, Sweden receives similar numbers of asylum seekers to Australia, despite having less than half the population. Detention is only used to establish a person's identity and to conduct criminal screening. Most detainees are released within a very short time, particularly if they have relatives or friends living in Sweden. Of the 17,000 asylum seekers currently in Sweden 10,000 reside outside the detention centres. Children are only detained for the minimum possible time (a maximum of six days). Detention is one way of receiving refugees, but it is not the humane or just way. It doesn't have to be like this.

Howard adopts punitive approach to social dysfunction in remote Aboriginal communities

With his usual lack of sensitivity and bully boy style, Howard has swept aside the rights of indigenous communities in the Northern Territory to come down hard on child abuse. It is not difficult to work out the politics. If its not asylum seekers its the weakest minority in our society under the hammer. The fact that child welfare problems are a function of decades of paternalistic repression and neglect that has robbed traditional communities of their dignity and cultural pride, and the resources they need to enable local solutions, does'nt figure in the Howard/Brough macho stance. Aboriginal community leaders and advocates have been crying out for self-determined solutions to problems of disadvantage for decades and getting 'white fella' rule in response. Brough is another in a long line of bully boy politicians who think they know the answers - when, in fact, all they know is how to whip up antipathy and hate.

Can anyone sniff an election in the wind? I would not be surprised if Aboriginal land rights are threatened down the track under this backward looking regime.

David Marr has an excellent piece on how the great centraliser has attacked Aboriginal policy in the NT under the guise of a 'national emergency'.

"But why stop with the Northern Territory? The Prime Minister spoke yesterday of a national emergency but did not offer a national solution. Noel Pearson has clearly inspired much of this tough response but his stamping ground on Cape York won't be touched by Canberra's dramatic intervention.

Yet the whole point of the 1967 referendum - the anniversary of which we've been making a song and dance about lately - was to allow Canberra to assume the national leadership role with respect to Aborigines.

The really brave course in 2007 would be to tackle the problems of Aboriginal communities everywhere - in the Kimberley, in the Pitjantjatjara Lands and out in western NSW. But Howard is only picking off the Northern Territory.

Lawyers are puzzling over the rushed prose of yesterday's announcement. It's not a blueprint for change. It's barely a sketch. To make the new regime work, the national parliament will have to pass legislation. Only then will the devils in the detail be apparent.

Howard is handing a victory to white hardliners who have claimed for years that Aboriginal customary law encourages domestic violence and sexual assaults by letting blacks off lightly. The Howard plan will see customary law disappear as a "mitigating factor" in sentencing and bail conditions in the territory.

Canberra scrubbed customary law from the Commonwealth Crimes Act late last year. At that time the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission pleaded with the Government to think again: "The bill is not based on, or supported, by any evidenced research. It is in conflict with every major inquiry into the role of cultural background and customary law in the Australian legal system."

Now Howard is proposing the same outcome up north - despite instructions from the territory's Attorney-General, Syd Stirling, that prosecutors must never allow customary law to be used "to curtail an Aboriginal woman's or child's right to individual safety and freedom from violence."

The conservative constitutional commentator Professor Greg Craven, of Curtin University, urges caution. "When I was Crown counsel in Victoria I did everything I could to stop recognition of customary law, and then I came to Western Australia and I realised it is a much more complex position than one thinks.

"I'm not saying every aspect of customary law is a good thing and should be recognised. But it is a real issue. That is one of the very few occasions in my life where I have been comprehensively wrong."

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Refugees in Australia - Q & A (v) - If someone can pay people smugglers, can they be a refugee?

It has been alleged that people who have the resources to pay people smugglers could not possibly be genuine refugees. The UNHCR disputes claims about 'cashed up' refugees saying that payments made to people smugglers in fact range from AUD $4000 - $5000. In reality, many families and communities pool their resources in an attempt to send their relatives to safety, so great is the desperation to escape certain persecution.

Amnesty International acknowledges and upholds the right of nation states to maintain border integrity, and recognises that organised people smuggling undermines policing who may or may not enter Australia.

However, punitive policies imposed by the Australian government in an effort to stop people smuggling deliberately punish the refugees who entered Australia without documents for the crimes of the people smugglers.

People smuggling is a crime that the international community needs to combat. Yet at all times this must not undermine the legitimate right of those fleeing persecution to seek refuge. The international community, in eradicating people smuggling, is also required to address the growing numbers of asylum seekers throughout the world. Australia has a role to play in this.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

World Refugee Day - "It takes courage to be a refugee"

In marking World Refugee Day the UNHCR has articulated the courage it takes to become a refugee:

"As ordinary people living peaceful lives, we rarely have to put our courage to the test. Refugees are ordinary people, too, except that through no fault of their own, they find themselves in extraordinary circumstances. As such, they are often required to dig deep into their own inner sources of strength in order, as another dictionary puts it, to find “the ability to overcome fear.”

Initially, that fear may be the immediate one of trying to escape the horrors of war and persecution, the pain of losing homes and loved ones, and the ordeal of flight. Later comes the deeper anxiety of uncertainty —the worry of how to rebuild their lives, either in completely new circumstances, or back home where they now may not be welcome.

Yes, it certainly does take courage to be a refugee. It takes courage not to give up hope. Courage to make the most of the hand that has been dealt. Courage to start a new life against daunting odds, eventually to become contributing and enriching members of society once more.

There is no typical refugee. Every story is different, every loss is a personal one. But around the world different crises affect different groups. Some are almost settled. Other conflicts are new, with fresh refugee problems."

Oh yes, Mr Howard, these are the same people you have vilified, demonized and terrified to shore up your 'tough on boat people' image. One of the lowest acts of a leader is to whip up fear within a community for political gain. It goes to the character of the man and his capacity to provide moral leadership. We have been badly served on this front for the last eleven years and in the process the nation has lost its moral compass. A cursory trawl through some of the virtual cesspits masquerading as political blogs will confirm who let the junkyard dogs of racism out. Who knows what'll it take to get them chained up again, and pinned under a large spotlight!

Refugees in Australia - Q & A (iv) - Don't we already take our fair share of refugees?

Something to think about: 381 623 refugees applied for asylum in the European Union in 2002. 117 005 applications had been lodged in Europe during the first five months of 2003. In contrast, 5 645 reached Australia by boat or plane during the period of 2000-01; 1 523 applications had been lodged in Australia during the first five months of 2003. UNHCR estimates there were 1.1 million Afghan refugees in Iran and 1.2 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan at the start of the year 2003.

The burden of assisting refugees is borne mostly by the world's poorest nations, with Asian countries hosting 45 percent of all refugees, followed by Africa (30 percent), Europe (19 percent) and North America (5 percent).

Per capita, according to the Immigration Department Australia is the "second most generous" country after Canada with the Humanitarian Program taking 12,000 refugees every year. But this refers to a program in which only nine countries participate. Second out of nine is commendable (and more countries might consider similar programs) but second in the world is a misleading assumption.

Using per capita ratios, the US Committee for Refugee figures tell yet another story, listing the Gaza Strip (1:2) as having the most significant refugee population within its territory, followed by Jordan and the West Bank (both 1:3), then Lebanon (1:11) followed by a number of African countries. Australia, at about 1:1200, hasn't been ranked, but might be unfavourably compared with countries such as Germany (1:456) and Canada (1:566) who are much further up the list. Australia receives relatively few refugees by world standards. The Humanitarian Program allows for a maximum of 12 000 refugees per year - a number that has remained static for five years, despite the fluctuating numbers of refugees worldwide.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Refugees in Australia - Q & A (iii) - What about refugees arriving without visas - are they Illegal entrants?

Think about this: Under International, as well as Australian, law a person is entitled to make an application for refugee asylum in another country when they claim they are fleeing persecution. This is a basic human right that all people are granted.

According to DIMIA, people are identified as arriving illegally in Australia if they "arrive with no travel documents or present documentation which is found to be fraudulent, but which they might have used for check-in at overseas airports".

It is important to remember that people who arrive on our shores seeking refugee status are not illegal. They are asylum seekers - a legal status under International Law. Many must leave their countries in haste and are thus unable to access appropriate documentation. In many cases oppressive authorities, such as those in Iran and Iraq, actively prevent normal exit from their countries. They hold 'blacklists' of those speaking out against the government in the name of freedom and prevent them from freely leaving their country. Given the chaotic nature of those fleeing human rights abuses, refugees often have no real choice but to arrive in Australian without proper documentation in order to seek safety.

If asylum seekers in detention are illegal, they should be formerly charged with an offence, appear before a judge and be found guilty before a jury of committing an offence. This process never occurs, asylum seekers are detained without the right to have a judicial body review their incarceration.

New film on Australian asylum seeker policy

I have just become aware of a new film on Australia's detention of asylum seekers:

"In 2006, a group of young people of different nationalities, backgrounds, attitudes and political views took a trip to the Baxter Detention Centre. The stories of the people they met behind the razor wire surprised, moved and challenged them.

WE WILL BE REMEMBERED FOR THIS” documents their journey. It is a film for everyone. It is a clear, rational and nonpoliticised look at the human issues of Australia’s mandatory immigration detention policy. This film poses the essential questions surrounding Australia’s refugee policy. Who are the people behind the fences? How did they come to be there? What are the psychological and legal battles they now face? How much do average Australians know about this policy, and if they knew the truth, would they want it to change?

The Justice Project is proud to sponsor the world premiere of “We Will be Remembered for This”, a film about Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers in recent years."

For further details see

Monday, June 18, 2007

Refugees in Australia - Q & A (ii) - Aren't Boat People Queue Jumpers?

Doubts: Australia has a permanent Humanitarian Immigration program for placement of refugees split into an 'Offshore' and 'Onshore' component. The Offshore program refers to people overseas, many of whom have already been determined by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to be refugees. They are granted official permission and assistance to enter Australia prior to arrival. The Onshore component consists of people who apply for protection in Australia, subsequently are determined by the Department of Immigration or the Refugee Review Tribunal (RRT) to meet the criteria of a refugee.

The Offshore resettlement program is a positive and welcome initiative, one that Australia can be proud of. However, the Offshore program has created the impression that there is a 'queue' for asylum seekers to join. In countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, two countries from which millions of people are fleeing persecution, Australia has no diplomatic representation. Refugee flows from these countries - and others - are chaotic. Few countries between the Middle East and Australia are signatories to the Refugee Convention, the human rights treaty that outlines the duty of care that countries must provide refugees, and so refugees are forced to continue to other countries to find secure and sustained protection.

There is no standard refugee process for these people to wait in line and have their applications considered. They must often flee suddenly without proper documentation or visas to a safe country, and those forced to flee this way must not be penalised for doing so.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Refugees in Australia - Q & A (i) - Who are the Real Refugees?

Consider this: Refugees are people outside their country of origin fleeing a fear of persecution - regardless of the means by which they flee. They are survivors of fear, torture or persecution. They may be doctors, lawyers, teachers, journalists, artists, mothers, fathers, children: they are simply ordinary people, forced to flee their homes to escape human rights abuses. If deported home, refugees possibly face persecution, torture - or death. Refugees may have been threatened - but they are not a threat.

Iraqis and Afghans in 1999 and in 2003.
97% of applicants from Iraq and 93% of applicants from Afghanistan seeking asylum without valid visas in Australia in 1999 were recognised as genuine refugees. They were provided with visas and allowed to stay in Australia. During the year 2002-2003, the recognition rate had declined to 79% for Iraqis and 77% for Afghans.

Generally, 84% of all asylum seekers arriving without proper documentation are found to be legitimate refugees and are able to stay in Australia

Friday, June 15, 2007

Howard Government continues to banish asylum seekers to Nauru at great cost to the tax payer

HANDS-OFF APPROACH: A sick Sri Lankan asylum seeker will be sent to Nauru this week after federal Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews refused to intervene.

Media reports "the 31-year-old Tamil was one of 83 Sri Lankan asylum seekers intercepted by Australian authorities earlier this year and taken to Christmas Island.

In February he was assessed as needing medical attention and taken to Perth for treatment. But doctors say he is now fit to travel.

Mr Andrews has refused to intervene on the case so the man will be transported to Nauru.

"As I understand, he applied to be assessed here as opposed to the other members of the group and there was no reason other than he was needing medical attention as to why he wasn't with the group that went to Nauru and now that he's fit to fly he can join his compatriots,'' a spokeswoman for Mr Andrews said today.

It is understood the man has mental health problems and has shrapnel embedded in his brain from a bomb.

But Mr Andrews's spokeswoman said the man was fit to fly.

"As to the nature of what his current condition is, I'm not too sure, but we relied heavily on medical advice in that instance and he's been assessed as medically fit so he'll be transported to Nauru later this week,'' she said."

It has been reported that transferring and detaining the 83 Sri Lankan asylum seekers already on Nauru will cost at least $60 million of taxpayer dollars. Not only is the ongoing Pacific Solution strategy a brutal human rights violation but it is completely unnecessary. The Greens assert:

"Departmental figures show the cost of keeping asylum seekers on Nauru was $30 million per year in 2003-04 when the Nauru camp last had a significant number of detainees. The average length of stay on Nauru has been over two years. If the Sri Lankans are there for two years it will have cost taxpayers at least $60 million.

"It was revealed at that the recent Senate Estimates that the aeroplane used to transfer just eight Burmese asylum seekers from Christmas Island to Nauru cost $225,000.

"It is a long way from Christmas Island to Nauru and 83 people plus new staff and resources will need multiple jet flights. The cost may approach a million dollars.

"Christmas Island detention centre is also irresponsibly expensive at $1830 per detainee per day. That means keeping the Sri Lankans on Christmas Island is costing over $1 million a week.

"It is strange that the government will squander huge sums on the failed Nauru policy when thousands of other asylum seekers are living in the community while their cases are assessed."

Not so strange when you get the point that the punitive approach to asylum seekers pitched by Howard to attract lurking One Nation sentiments in the electorate remains a winning strategy in his mind.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Australia fails in basic human rights obligation

Radio Australia reports "The Australian Council of Social Service has supported a United Nations report which strongly criticises the country's human rights record.

The report, tabled to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, says Australia has failed in its basic human rights obligation to provide adequate housing for all.

Wendy Morton from the Australian Council of Social Service says the problem is that help is only offered by governments when people hit absolute rock bottom.

"That it tends to be people who are most in crisis at the time that are getting access to public housing and a whole range of people, single people with children and families are needing public housing," she said.

"So we need to be looking at ways to address those needs and to be providing different models of housing."

On 11 June the Human Rights Council discussed the reports of the Special Rapporteurs on the right to food, toxic and dangerous products and wastes, adequate housing and human rights and extreme poverty. In the context of Australia's performance they heard:

"A second addendum contains the report of the Special Rapporteur's mission to Australia. While noting some good practices to address some of the problems related to the implementation of the right to adequate housing, the Special Rapporteur has come to believe that there is a serious national housing crisis in Australia, affecting many sections of the population, with a critical and direct impact on the most vulnerable groups. Australia lacks a clear consistent, long-term and holistic housing strategy. The Special Rapporteur concludes that Australia has failed to implement the human right to adequate housing, and encourages the Government to make housing a national priority. Among his recommendations is the need to establish a national housing ministry."

Yet again, the Howard Government has been named in a UN report on human rights failings. The pattern continues....

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

China condemns Howard & Rudd meeting the Dalai Lama, but condones child labour and other sweat shop practices...

The ABC reports: "Although the Chinese Government is known for frowning upon national leaders who greet the visiting Dalai Lama, it seems a public opinion backlash was the push in the Prime Minister and Kevin Rudd's decisions to meet him."

The usual bullying tactic of the Chinese Government comes in a week that saw media reports that global trade union and labor group investigators found that backpacks, caps and other licensed products for the Beijing games are being made in Chinese factories that employ children as young as 12 and force employees to work long hours for less than minimum wage.

An alliance of global trade unions and labor groups also said they found forced overtime for no pay and hazardous working conditions in four factories in southern China.

It is about time Australian political leaders stopped toadying up to this regime as a benign 'cash cow' and acknowledged that much of the terms of trade advantage China enjoys is a result of child labour, sweat shop exploitation and sundry other human rights violations. This requires a coordinated international response to leave China in no doubt that labour exploitation and economic imperialism is not acceptable.

The Olympics should not have been awarded to China on the grounds of its Tibetan policies alone.

The colonisation and brutalisation of the Tibetan people is a crime against humanity. Countries that persist in persecution and exploitation of minorities (putting aside the question of Tibetan political self-determination) should be condemned. Politicians that duck and weave on Tibet to placate China for trade purposes choose not to face up to their responsibilities to represent their constituents on fundamental human rights issues. It is a sad state of affairs.

The child labour Olympics - something for which the IOC can be truly proud!

Monday, June 11, 2007

Howard on the nose - hold that thought..!

Hugh Mackay, social researcher extraordinaire, is starting to think Howard is on the nose. I can't imagine why, but Hugh thinks:

"Gradually, we got the hang of Howard. The core/non-core promises episode and his hastily revised code of ministerial conduct suggested he was slippery. We saw the poorest and most vulnerable members of the community hit hardest by his two big "reforms" — the never-ever GST and the unfortunately named WorkChoices — and wondered if he cared.

When he declared he could have brought David Hicks home sooner if he had wanted to, we wondered if there was a streak of cruelty in this government — especially when we pondered its treatment of asylum seekers and its extraordinary attempt to chisel poor little East Timor out of its rightful share of royalties from the oilfields in the Timor Sea.

He plunged our defence force into a morally dubious pre-emptive strike and he's sticking by George Bush in the face of incontrovertible evidence that the Iraq invasion was both folly and catastrophe."

This is a cursory overview of Howard's report card but you get the point. I would hold him accountable for turning a blind eye to Indonesia's ongoing rape of West Papua and the AWB kickbacks scandal in Iraq, compliance with rendition and torture of an Australian citizen, using official aid to coerce smaller, poorer countries to do Australia's bidding and much, much more. Roll on election day.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Amnesty's report card on Howard upsets some commentators

I noticed the recent furore in virtual circles and in some media over Amnesty's inclusion of the Howard government in the company of world leaders thriving on fear and division.

The worry was that AI had over egged the cake by lumping Howard in with Mugabe and Omar al-Bashir. Whilst Howard cannot be compared with these leaders in terms of the misery and repression they have wrought in their own countries, it should be remembered that Australia's involvement in the invasion of Iraq has resulted in terrible loss of civilian life and massive upheaval for countless thousands of Iraqi refugees and IDPs. There is a strong legal argument that the Iraq military actions and associated human rights violations will be condemned as war crimes.

The cost of the human tragedy for those impacted directly, the further destabilization of the Middle East and the ongoing threat to world security emanating from the botched occupation puts Howard in the current pantheon of leaders responsible for gross human rights violations. His appalling record on treatment of refugees and indigenous people at home is just part of the picture when it comes to this Prime Minister's human rights record.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Refugee Action Committee Canberra - message to Howard Govt for election year 2007 - Enough is enough!


You continue to deny justice to asylum seekers and refugees.
You deny human rights to Australian citizens.


You have taken Australia backwards in the area of human rights.

You create fear, distrust and division.
You speak of Australian values and you lack the core values of respect for the individual, freedom, justice and compassion.

You fail to give moral leadership.

You have robbed thousands of refugee men, women and children of health and happiness and years of their lives.

You have been forced by a few courageous members of your own party to make some concessions but you use your wealth and power to continue to fight any real change.

You leave many once proud Australians with a sense of shame and a grief for where you are leading our nation.

Your leadership is a danger to the future of Australia.

An additional sentiment from yours truly:

Make your vote count for human rights!

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Fear & propaganda - Howard's pitch for re-election cranks up

Only those disciplined enough to stay away from television sets are not being bombarded by a Howard government propaganda blitz reminiscent of periods of nationalistic fervour during the last century. Now we are getting the 'terrorism' adds again, just to ensure the right dollop of fear is mixed in with the masala of Howard Government self-promotion.

The Wikipedia has quite a bit to say on propaganda methods. Take this excerpt for instance:

"Propaganda also has much in common with public information campaigns by governments, which are intended to encourage or discourage certain forms of behavior (such as wearing seat belts, not smoking, not littering and so forth). Again, the emphasis is more political in propaganda. Propaganda can take the form of leaflets, posters, TV and radio broadcasts and can also extend to any other medium. In the case of the United States, there is also an important legal (imposed by law) distinction between advertising (a type of overt propaganda) and what the Government Accountability Office (GAO), an arm of the United States Congress, refers to as "covert propaganda."

Journalistic theory generally holds that news items should be objective, giving the reader an accurate background and analysis of the subject at hand. On the other hand, advertisements evolved from the traditional commercial advertisements to include also a new type in the form of paid articles or broadcasts disguised as news. These generally present an issue in a very subjective and often misleading light, primarily meant to persuade rather than inform. Normally they use only subtle propaganda techniques and not the more obvious ones used in traditional commercial advertisements. If the reader believes that a paid advertisement is in fact a news item, the message the advertiser is trying to communicate will be more easily "believed" or "internalized."

Such advertisements are considered obvious examples of "covert" propaganda because they take on the appearance of objective information rather than the appearance of propaganda, which is misleading. Federal law specifically mandates that any advertisement appearing in the format of a news item must state that the item is in fact a paid advertisement...

Propaganda, in a narrower use of the term, connotates deliberately false or misleading information that supports or furthers a political (but not only) cause or the interests of those with power. The propagandist seeks to change the way people understand an issue or situation for the purpose of changing their actions and expectations in ways that are desirable to the interest group. Propaganda, in this sense, serves as a corollary to censorship in which the same purpose is achieved, not by filling people's minds with approved information, but by preventing people from being confronted with opposing points of view. What sets propaganda apart from other forms of advocacy is the willingness of the propagandist to change people's understanding through deception and confusion rather than persuasion and understanding."

Sound familiar? Countless millions of tax payer's dollars are pouring into the coffers of advertising companies selling the Howard government to credulous voters. Just in case you miss one of the ads you can be sure it will be repeated ad nauseum. The question to be asked is why is this bald-faced electoral propaganda being funded from the public purse? How does this stack up in the pantheon of bad governance that has become a hallmark of Howard's government?

'Man of the people' - all trackkied up and ready to lead (up several more dead ends)