Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Tampa disgrace remembered

Australians All has posted the following talking point by Julian Burnside:

"The Australian government recently decided to adopt a tougher stance in relation to refugees who arrive here informally. In adopting that stance, the government has exposed Australia to international censure. It has put us in breach of our obligations under international conventions, and it has betrayed a deeply unattractive element in the Australian character. It did this for electoral advantage, at a time when Australia receives a minimal number of refugees, and treats appallingly those who arrive here.

The government’s handling of the Tampa “crisis” was a triumph of electoral cynicism over humanitarian need. It exposed the difficulty Australians have in acknowledging the conflict of need and advantage. The refugee problem involves a choice between minor self-sacrifice and major betrayal of humanitarian standards."

My own recollection follows:

In August 2001 news reports began filtering through that the Australian Government led by John Howard as Prime Minister had detained a boatload of mainly Afghani refugees on the high seas. The cargo vessel was the Tampa, a word that has become etched indelibly into my consciousness. The ‘boat people’ saga had begun.

Ten weeks later the Australian people returned the Howard Government to office in a general election and the ignominious strategy to label offshore asylum seekers ‘illegals’ and detain them in third countries had been labeled the Pacific Solution.

I am haunted by this epithet as it is resonant with sinister echoes found elsewhere in the twentieth century in the name of national security and identity. The cover notes to David Marr and Marian Wilkinson’s chilling account of events that “shattered many of the myths Australia has about itself and changed profoundly the way it is seen in the eyes of the world” summarise events concisely:

"They put lives at risk. They twisted the law. They drew the military into the heart of an election campaign. They muzzled the press. They misused intelligence services, defied the United Nations, antagonised Indonesia and bribed poverty stricken Pacific states. They closed Australia to refugees – and won a mighty election victory."

At the time I was well into the second year of a diplomatic posting to Papua New Guinea. I worked for Australia’s overseas aid agency, AusAID. My career had involved me in human rights and refugee activities in several countries, including Southern African states on the front line against apartheid, Nepal, India and PNG. During my working life Australia had held out a helping hand to refugees from various conflicts, including Tibet, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Cambodia and Sri Lanka.

Now we were turning our back on Afghanis fleeing the most repressive and murderous regime to emerge out of the ruins of the Soviet invasion, the Taliban.

The Tampa affair and the crushing reality of the punitive policies it spawned saw me withdraw iteratively from a state machine that was imprisoning refugees in desert gulags, endangering lives of desperate people at sea, engineering and re-engineering the Pacific Solution and the cruel regime of temporary protection visas.

I had been involved on the margins of the Pacific Solution in PNG but the crunch came in an ironic twist. On return from PNG I was thrust into the midst of a whole-of-government stratagem to punish refugees. I was put in charge of aid to Nauru.

This ill-begotten program was a bribe to a failed state to accept complicity in our politically motivated violation of the rights of the people dumped on Nauru. It ran contrary to the various manifestos of sustainable development and good governance we belaboured in our dealings with other Pacific states dependent on Australian aid.

By default I became a member of the Prime Minister’s task force on offshore asylum seekers or ‘illegal migrants’ or ‘boat people’, depending on the agenda of the day. The core business of this group of senior public service, police and defence assets is to construct and re-engineer the legal, logistical and administrative underpinnings of boat arrivals policy and to spin the official line for their political masters. Lawyers are central to the exercise to test and tweak the legal ramifications and inner workings of excising chunks of Australia from the migration zone.

The most extreme construct involved excision of the total Australian landmass from the migration zone. It would be ‘pythonesque’ if the consequences were not so tragic for the victims.

I became a member of the Immigration Department’s coordination committee on the Nauru detention facilities, which regularly and perfunctorily discussed how to manage detainees who had self-harmed, or adopted other forms of protest or were experiencing varying degrees of physical and emotional trauma. It was a dehumanising, soul-destroying experience.

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