Thursday, July 07, 2011

Asylum seekers in Australia: Memories of Tampa, a leaky boat and a dodgy government

ABC Online is reporting this morning that "former Defence Force personnel have spoken out about the Tampa and children overboard affair, accusing the Howard government of manipulating events for political purposes".

I was in harness in PNG when the Tampa situation arose. My heart sank and my stomach churned as I knew Howard was the type of politician to twist these circumstances to his political benefit. Little did I know to what extent I would be dragged into the disgusting quagmire that became known as the Pacific Solution.

I have mused on the experience as 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 labelled the Pacific Solution.

I am haunted by this epithet as it is resonates with sinister ‘solutions’ 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” summarize 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, antagonized 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 (PNG). 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.

I traveled to Afghanistan in the early 1970s as part of a wave of adventurous backpackers criss-crossing the Middle East and South Asia during those halcyon years. A Russian military presence was evident in Kabul but the hell of military invasion was yet to unfold. Young Afghani students in western dress gathered in coffee shops, tourists mixed with locals in cheap eating houses and live music could be heard in the evenings, emanating from a myriad small guest houses and hotels.

Kabul was a welcoming, relaxed haven for travelers en route to exotic destinations in this ancient tribal fiefdom, and Iran or Pakistan. Later as a doctoral student in India I had the great fortune to form deep friendships with both Afghanis and Iranians. Some were escaping the strictures of the Khomeini regime in Iran and the terrors of war in Afghanistan. India provided a safe sanctuary and a place to study.

The brutalization of Afghanis and others under Australia’s refugee policies was not only an affront to ideals that drew me into the arena of overseas aid, but hurt at a more subtle emotional level as I projected what it would mean for my erstwhile friends.

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. As part of what I perceived to be an orchestrated marginalization process by senior managers, 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 was to construct, deconstruct and re-engineer the legal, logistical and administrative underpinnings of boat arrivals policy and to shape (spin) the official line for their political masters. Lawyers were 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. It was a dehumanizing, soul-destroying experience."

This is a short excerpt from a memoir I have tried to pen on these unsavoury events.

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