Take a Stance on: Asylum Seekers (by request)

October 2012 Update…

It’s now two months since the Manus Island / Nauru solution was reinvented (see August update at the bottom of this post) and 3421 people have floated on over in 56 boats, including a record 2295 people seeking asylum last month. A total of 10,528 have arrived in Australia since January.

It has been reported that numbers from Pakistan have decreased, while numbers of Iranians have remained steady. The Afghan Ambassador to Australia says that life in Nauru is depicted to Iranian asylum seekers as preferable to life on the Indonesian fringe. 

Also of note is that the Government’s decision to increase humanitarian migration from (approx) 14,000 to 20,000 (nice one Jules) has lead to a spike in Afghans inquiring about legal migration options.

Meantime in a tent city on Nauru, 120 people (Sri Lankans and Iranians) are awaiting some indication of how they will be processed. The Sri Lankans are mostly Tamils, the most persecuted group in their homeland.  None of them know how many days, months or years they will await decision on their fate. As a lawyer for the refugee and immigration centre, David Mann, said last month, “…the stark reality is this: that if a refugee is wrongly refused under a flawed process, they could well face the risk of being sent back to torture or execution.”

Oh lordy, there is one certainty in all this – it’s a tough one. 

Anyway, if like me you need a dum-dum’s guide to the ins and outs of the asylum seeker issue, here’s some context I prepared earlier….

As I write these words, federal Parliament is hearing Julia Gillard’s bill to change the current Migration Legislation in a bid to alleviate asylum seeker issues, particularly the boat people, who keep floating into everyone’s conscience and generally causing grievance.

The issue of asylum seekers is ongoing  and all over the planet – 39 countries in Europe, North America, Oceania (Pacific Islands) and Asia received 9.9 million applications for asylum between 1980 and 2004. According to Amnesty International (in 2001), 1 in every 115 people on Earth are refugees, and a new refugee is created every 21 seconds (I can’t find any more recent global stats of this kind sorry, but we get the picture).

It is particularly topical here in Tasmania as well because the first residents of the new Pontville Immigration Detention Centre (near Hobart) arrived and bunked down on September the 2nd. But before I get into all the current news, I need a few questions answered…

1st Asylum Seekers Arrive in Pontville, Tas

What is a refugee? Well according to the 1951 Status of Refugees Convention, a refugee is someone who, “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country…” And as a result, the Government of another country agrees to protect them as a legally recognised refugee under a Permanent Protection Visa (PPV).

What is an Asylum Seeker? They are the ones who have got the hell out of their countries – again due to violence or persecution and risky stuff – and are waiting for their refugee application to be processed and approved by another country’s Government. Asylum seekers may be authorised – arriving on a student or tourist visa, or unauthorised. Unauthorised asylum seekers (usually boat people) are detained and assessed for PPV eligibility. These are the ones making all the waves – in and out of their boats.

Imagine what they must have left behind

What about boat people? Boat people are most often still asylum seekers as opposed to illegal immigrants – around 95% in the years since the late 90’s have been granted asylum). So (most) “boat people” are – under the Refugee Convention – not breaking any Australian laws by turning up unannounced on our shores. Boat people usually find their way onto their miserable excuses for boats and to our shores (if they don’t sink or bash into reefs) thanks to people smugglers, who are small or large scale operations taking vast amounts of money in exchange for getting people across borders. Asylum seeking by boat first began in the 70s as desperate Vietnamese fled communist-led Vietnam after the war. There was an increase in boat arrivals in 2009-2010 – 2700 people arrived by boat in 2009. This is most likely because of increased violence in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan and Sri Lanka, as well as the changes in processing policy.

What rights do asylum seekers have? In 1951, Australia signed the UN’s “Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees”. This means that anyone who falls within the definition of refugee (above) cannot be sent back home to the wolves – or as the convention puts it so aptly, ‘refouled’. Authorised asylum seekers are often given a ‘bridging visa’ which allows them to live in the community. They can be granted refugee status and a PPV if they pass medical and security tests. Unauthorised asylum seekers (God I’m sick of writing that, I’ll abbreviate it to AS’s if that’s ok), are detained while they are assessed for refugee status.  Hence the use of those notorious Detention Centres. (I always picture them with huge blackboards and loads of chalk – “I will not board a rickety boat again, I will not…).

What rights do refugees have? Once through the process and assigned refugee status, those given a PPV are allowed access to a range of specific resettlement services and a full range of social security benefits. They can come and go as they please and bring family members over to join them.

How many people are granted asylum in Australia per year? In the early 1980’s (perhaps to the tunes of  Bros), Australia accepted 20,000 refugees per year. These days, we accept about 13,000 per year. In 2010, 6,879 AS’s arrived in Australia.

What is The Process? Ok so just say I’m Lilli, a Bosnian circa 1994 (pre Bosnian-Serb resettlement program)…

I need to get the hell out of here before I get chucked in a camp and raped by Serbian soldiers. I decide I want to get myself and my two small children to Australia because I’ve heard it’s friendly, free (as in liberty), with lots of space – and maybe I can find my children a bronzed, cheery lifeguard as a father figure. I manage to buy myself some forged documents that allow us to exit the country via air. Too easy? This is just the beginning. In Australia the customs officials are onto us and we are marched into immigration and fronted by two scary looking officials (neither are hot or remotely life-guardy, one turns out to be female). I need to convince them that we are under threat and do need their protection. I must also remember not to say the words “refugee” or “asylum” as I’m told this will see us sent packing back to the Serbs without so much as a sniff of official application papers. One of the officials took a few notes but no one offered to help me with legal advice or language issues (luckily I can speak a little English). Also luckily, I have a whopping great bruise on my left arm where I was grabbed by a fuckwit Serbian merchant. And the children are pretty skinny and scared. We all looked desperate (and are).

So we don’t get marched back to the Bosnia-Air office to buy return tickets. Instead I am given a wad of papers which I understand to be an application for a protection visa – yipee! Not so yipee when we are sent off to a place called Villawood Immigration Detention Centre, which they tell me is temporary housing while we wait for the wad of papers to be read and assessed. It’s about an hour out of Sydney and housing my arse. Looks more like a prison with all the barbed wire.

But Villawood is home for a while. The worst thing is being ‘detained’ without knowing when we might get out. But I don’t like to complain because there’s no-one banging on the door threatening rape and my children are safe. Because we are ‘women and children’ we get slightly better quarters, even a television. I watch a show called the seven thirty report every night because sometimes they talk about the status of refugees and I am so hungry to know just anything. We have a library where I take the children for schooling, and a playground.

Many people are unhappy here. Many are bitter that they know nothing of their progress toward permanent visas. One man hanged himself in his room and some others started a fire on their roof as a protest against their rejected applications. It was all over the news. Some have been here for years and some have appealed rejection at great expense. I can’t afford to appeal. I am frightened because no one has asked to speak to me. It seems our future hangs on what I wrote in the application and I’m not sure it was very eloquent. I keep as quiet as I can because I can’t bear them to threaten to send us back.

Eventually, finally, after twenty months, we are granted asylum and a PPV. Hooray! I have been assigned a project manager to help us ‘assimilate’ into our new community – which is a really nice suburb of Sydney called Marayong. I have met others who have had a similar experience to me, and made some friends. The children are at school and I have a job. I work very hard because I want to give back to the country that has saved us. I still have nightmares but not so many now.

So this is just one possible story – of on-shore processing. Some refugees are processed in their neighbouring countries. For instance, many Afghan refugees have spent years and years in camps in Pakistan while their applications to a variety of countries are processed. Other refugees arrive with legitimate visas and find the process easier.

There is also off-shore processing, which is precisely what is being bandied about in Parliament right now. You see, John Howard thought he had it all sorted with his Pacific Solution, Kevin Rudd threw it out and now, as the boat people increase, Gillard is looking again at something along the same lines. Let’s break that down a bit because it’s a bit over my head…

Where and what are the on-shore processing facilities? There are numerous types of facilities used to detain ASs on-shore under Australia’s mandatory detention laws:

1) Immigration Detention Centres (IDC’s), which are mainly used to house over-stayers, people in breach of visa conditions, or those who are refused entry at airports. They are at Villawood in Sydney, Maribyrnong in Melbourne, Perth and Christmas Island (an Australian territory south of Indonesia).

2) Immigration Reception and Processing Centres (IRPC’s), which are mostly used for unauthorised boat arrivals. Most of them (Baxter, Port Hedland and Woomera) have closed, with one remaining at Curtin in the Kimberley

3) Residential Housing Projects (RHPs) in Port Augusta, Port Hedland and Woomera provided family style homes for women and children. Thse are no longer used.

4) Immigration Residential Housing Centres are now used in Perth and Sydney to house families within community settings whilst still in formal detention.

5) Immigration Transit Accommodation Centres in Brisbane and Melbourne are used to accommodate ‘low risk’, short term AS’s (I’m guessing that means they’re not Muslim blokes)

6) Temporary Facilities Given there was an influx of boat people in 2009 and 2010, the Christmas Island facility became crowded and Kevin Rudd saw to it that some AS’s were relocated to a disused mining camp in Leonora in remote WA. The Pontville facility in Tasmania is one of these temporary places; the Government says it will stay open for 6 months. It cost $14.4 million – for 6 Months???!!! Leave it open I say.

What is the Pacific Solution? This was John Howard and Philip Ruddock (2001 – 2007) flexing their border security muscles in response to a rise in boat arrivals around 1999 (97% of whom were Iraqis and Afghans). As a first deterrent, they officially excluded many islands targeted by boat people from the Australian migration zone, which meant that ASs who didn’t reach the mainland couldn’t apply for refugee status.  Then they recruited the defence forces to intercept boats and transport them to detention camps on Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. These ‘third world’ islands agreed to the idea in exchange for increased aid. This solution was formed in response to the Tampa affair and was seen as Australia being seriously tough about border security. The pacific solution ended in 2008 when Kevin Rudd came into power and brought processing back on-shore (including Christmas Island).

What was the Tampa affair? Just over ten years ago, 369 men, 26 women and 43 children aboard a 20m wooden boat became stranded in international waters about 140 km north of Christmas Is. Coastwatch Australia called for all vessels in the area to respond the the boat’s distress. A Norwegian freighter on its way from Fremantle to Singapore, the Tampa, was closest and went to the rescue. When they arrived, around 12 of the boat people were unconscious and the boat was clearly falling apart. The Tampa – on advice from the Australian Government – took the boat people toward an Indonesian port about 12 hours away instead of Christmas Is, about half the distance. But deterred by an aggressive and distressed group of boat people, the Tampa then turned for Christmas Is. The government refused the Tampa’s entry into Australian waters and threatened the Norwegian skipper with prosecution as a people smuggler if he proceeded. The skipper declared a state of emergency and moved into Australian waters regardless. Eventually, Nauru agreed to take the refugees and they were transported to detention camps by the Royal Australian Navy. And presto! The Pacific Solution began.

What was the Children Overboard thing?  

Help, you dickheads pulled our boat apart.

This turned out to be one great big porky pie on John Howard’s part to get him over the line in the 2001 Federal election. He claimed that sea-faring asylum seekers just south of Christmas Is were chucking their children into the drink as a ploy to be rescued and taken into Australia. Photos of children overboard accompanied Howard’s public announcements and outrage. Turns out (after a senate inquiry) that the children were in the water because the HMAS Adelaide towed it and under the strain it broke apart and sank.

See!

So what’s this Malaysian Solution? It is Julia Gillard’s latest boat deterrent. The ‘boat people problem’ reared up again following the death of at least 30 people when an AS boat was shipwrecked on Christmas Is in 2010, and because more than 240 boats have arrived since Rudd’s changes. Under the plan, Australia would ‘trade’ 800 AS’s arriving by boat to Malaysia in exchange for 8000 UN certified refugees – a “people swap”. The deal was scuttled by the High Court – unsatisfied that AS human rights will be protected in Malaysia, as it is not a signatory to the 1951 convention for the treatment of refugees. This has lead the Gillard Government to bring to parliament a bill to change the human rights legislation in order to make the Malaysia solution legal and do-able. But it looks like the opposition (and probably the Labor lefties) will pretty much shit all over that idea anyway. So all in all it seems the Malaysia solution is altogether irrelevant – perhaps officially by the time you read these words.

What is the alternative? The Minister for Immigration, Chris Bowen, says there is no plan B. Watch this space. Tony Abbott has some ideas for processing – again off-shore, primarily using Nauru or other signatories to the 1951 convention.

What do I think? I’ve just gone head to head with my husband over this, and discovered I feel a bit passionate about it (I’ve been wondering how I can get into Pontville to make some new friends and show them how accepting Tasmanians really are – this could be a disastrous repeat of when I anxiously overemphasised my pro-gay beliefs by asking  my mate – in a horrifyingly giggly fashion – if he was the giver or receiver). Despite another bee in bonnet, I will try to be sensible.

I don’t at all think that Australia should opens its doors to anyone and everyone, but I do think we absolutely should open our doors and hearts to those fleeing war-torn places, persecution and fear – all those who truly fall into the definition of refugee. So I don’t agree in turning boats around, nor do I believe in deterring ASs by making it impossible to get here. Because, for fuck’s sake, these people  are people, many of them (and I’m not naive enough to believe that none of them are shysters) are in the sort of danger Australians could only vaguely imagine; some of them are unaccompanied children. I mean who would pay a seedy smuggler and risk life and family to get on board a rickety boat to leave their homeland and sail the high seas unless they were running from something pretty bloody awful? Ok maybe there’s the odd bad egg escaping a well deserved bad end, but that’s where the assessment process comes in – and yep, this means wading through the red tape of official processing, which will inevitably take time. Asylum seekers must accept that we must look closely at each case before PPVs are granted.

But do we really need to chuck them behind razor wire without regular progress reports while they wait? Australia is the only convention signatory to have such harsh detention conditions. I don’t advocate AS’s burning down detention centres, but I do think a huge effort needs to be made to accommodate these people into our communities while they wait, with a view to closing all the detention centres altogether. Educating everyone – AS’s and our communities – and working on acceptance will have to come into this.  And I think the turnaround time of applications should be looked at – or at least communication with the applicants on their progress. If we can’t bring them all into community settings, then reopen the detention centres within Australia and forget the off-shore processing business. Do we really need to increase suffering by suspending these people in Pacific limbo?

Aren’t we supposed to be multicultural and proud? There are horrid remnant wafts of the White Australia Policy / Pauline fuckwit Pantsdown codswallop in all this off-shore processing business. Off-shore processing may ‘stop the boats’, and yes, may avert some seaward disasters, but you can bet your arse it won’t stop (and many claim it will only increase) the suffering.

Thems my thoughts, I will shut up now.

August 2012 Update…

So it looks like we’re headed back to the days of John Howard’s Pacific Solution (it is explained below), because today the House of Reps passed a bill that will reinvent asylum seeker processing on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island. Julia green lit the legislation and the coalition supported it. Andrew Wilkie voted against it. The bill, which will go to the Senate tomorrow, will among other things, take away an asylum seeker with a protection visa’s right to apply for sponsorship for their family to join them in Australia. It was based on an expert report commissioned by the Government. If it passes tomorrow, preparations on the islands will begin immediately and detainees could start arriving in the next few months. 

 My opinion? I need to do more homework but on the face of it I think I’m sticking with my Indonesia solution (see below). 

June 2012 Update…

I wrote the below post in September 2011. Today, the Australian Maritime Authority is searching for 90 people missing after their boat capsized in Indonesian waters en route from Indonesia to Australia. 

Julia Gillard’s bilateral agreement with Malaysia (the reason for my post below) was scuttled by the High Court, and negotiations with the opposition to amend the Migration Act to allow for offshore processing broke down in November last year.

Since then, an average of 733 asylum-seekers have arrived each month – 57 asylum seeker boats carrying a total of 4006 passengers and 82 crew have arrived in Australia. 

In December 2010, more than 50 asylum seekers died when a boat crashed against rocks off Christmas Island. Last December, as many as 200 people drowned when an overloaded boat sank off the coast of East Java on its way to Australia.

Of course, the political argy bargy continues. The Government blames the coalition  for voting against offshore processing last year. Abbott says (somewhat conveniently but correctly) that it is not a time for political point scoring but for human sympathy.  But once it’s all over and the casualties counted, isn’t it time to ACT?? 

I still don’t, despite the risk of rickety boats and the some 340 lives lost, think we should turn the boats around. I still think Tasmania’s Pontville Detention centre should remain open, for various reasons, but it closed in February this year. What do you think – I’d really like to know. If you need some background then please read on…

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8 replies

  1. Great job Meg, I am yet again enlightened 🙂

  2. Here, here Meg! If I was in Tasmania, I would come out to the Centre with you :o). Thanks again for all the effort put into researching this topic and the others.

  3. Write more, thats all I have to say. Literally, it seems
    as though you relied on the video to make your point. You obviously know what youre talking about,
    why throw away your intelligence on just posting videos
    to your weblog when you could be giving us something informative to read?

  4. We’re a gaggle of volunteers and starting a new scheme in our community. Your site provided us with useful information to work on. You’ve performed an
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