Australia ignoring criticism of stance on asylum seekers
Human rights fears surround return of boatload of people to Sri Lanka
Sri Lankan asylum seekers who were sent back by Australia cover their faces as they wait to enter a magistrate’s court in the southern port district of Galle. Photograph: Reuters
Australian prime minister Tony Abbott’s campaign for election last year was largely based on three-word slogans such as “Axe the tax” (a promise to get rid of the then Labor government’s carbon tax) and “Stop the boats” (a promise that no more boats containing asylum seekers would arrive in Australia).
The carbon tax promise was dealt a blow when it was defeated in the Senate for a second time last Thursday. But the hardline immigration stance is largely intact, with a boatload of mostly Tamil asylum seekers being handed over to the Sri Lankan navy at sea, while another group is being held on a customs vessel, pending a High Court case.
Not that the Australian government cares to give much away on what it refers to as “on-water matters”. Immigration minister Scott Morrison is a master of giving tortuous, Kafkaesque answers to simple questions. Asked if there was a boat in trouble off Australia’s Christmas Island, he answered: “It is our standard practice, as you know, under Operation Sovereign Borders, to report on any significant events regarding maritime operations at sea, particularly where there are safety of life at sea issues associated, and I am advised I have no such reports to provide.”
“Is there a boat?” he was pressed. “I have answered the question,” he said, adding: “You are a bright journalist. I’m sure you can work it out.”
“Today is a symbol of the strong partnership that exists between Australia and Sri Lanka in dealing with people smuggling,” Morrison said, standing beside Sri Lankan president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, in Colombo. “The message for anyone who is thinking that they can get to Australia illegally by boat is that the way is closed.”
High Court judge Susan Crennan is less convinced the government is merely enacting its electoral mandate. She has granted an interim injunction preventing the transfer to Sri Lanka of 153 asylum seekers, which includes children as young as two.
At the hearing in Melbourne, counsel for the government said the boat was intercepted outside Australian territorial waters and therefore not subject to Australia’s migration laws. This was the first time the government had even admitted the boat existed.
Despite the High Court intervention, there is a veil of secrecy over what will become of the Sri Lankans. Human rights lawyer Julian Burnside compared the situation to piracy.
“It looks for all the world like piracy,” he told ABC radio. “If they went on to the Australian vessel because they had asked for help and they were offered help, then they seem to have been taken under false pretences because the government not only publicly denied their existence, it also seemed distinctly uninclined to offer them any help.”
The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper wrote this week that the issue was making international headlines “highlighting criticism of the controversial policy”, specifically mentioning coverage in The Irish Times, the New York Times, BBC and elsewhere.
But the Australian government is not for turning. Former conservative prime minister John Howard’s popularity went up when he followed a hard line against asylum seekers in 2001. There is no reason to expect the current conservative government will act any differently.
Last Tuesday nine asylum seekers’ mothers being detained on Christmas Island reportedly attempted suicide in the hope their orphaned children would then be settled in Australia.
“They are saying, ‘the babies have better chance at life if I am dead’,” said Christmas Island shire council president Gordon Thomson. “It’s a shocking conclusion to come to, but that’s the state of helplessness in the centre at the moment.”
The prime minister said this was “blackmail”. “This is not going to be a government which has our policy driven by people who are attempting to hold us over a moral barrel,” said Abbott.
“Now, I don’t believe that people ought to be able to say to us, ‘Unless you accept me as a permanent resident, I am going to commit self-harm’. I don’t believe any Australian would want us to capitulate to moral blackmail.”