As one of its first acts, the new federal Labor government could have granted permanent protection to Priya, Nades, Kopica and Tharunicca, the Biloela family snatched from their home four years ago by Border Force and placed in the prison-like conditions of immigration detention by the Liberal government.
Instead, its first act concerning refugees was to return to the Sri Lankan government—one run by war criminals who have carried out a genocide against the Tamil minority on the island—a boatload of people who had sought safety in Australia.
“I think it’s important to say up-front that what this shows is that there is absolutely no change in terms of Australia’s border settings under this government”, acting prime minister Richard Marles said in a press conference on 24 May.
The United Nations high commissioner for refugees last week reported that a record 100 million people globally are forcibly displaced. There are many more who suffer permanent persecution in their homelands, such as Tamils, Uyghurs, West Papuans, Kurds, Hazaras and more, including political dissidents and journalists.
In the same week, the ALP bragged that if any attempt to come by boat to seek safety in Australia, they will be returned to the place from which they fled. It is a fascistic policy, and the broader suite making up the “border protection” regime are inconsistent with a number of articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, such as the right “to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution”, the right not to “be subjected to arbitrary arrest [or] detention”, and the right not to “be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”.
Priya, Nades and their children will, however, be allowed to return home to Biloela on bridging visas while they continue to fight for their security through the courts and “in accordance with Australian law”, according to new Treasurer and interim home affairs minister Jim Chalmers.
But we should be clear: if the family ultimately is successful in gaining protection, it will by and large be despite Australian law, not because of it. Thousands of Tamils like Priya and Nades have been in Australia for a decade or more and are languishing on bridging visas, either because they are denied protection because of the mode of transport they used to enter the country or because they have been deemed not to be genuine refugees.
Yet the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade country report on Sri Lanka used by the Department of Home Affairs, the Immigration Assessment Authority and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal to deny Tamil asylum claims makes it almost impossible for refugees to win their case.
Basically, in the face of all evidence to the contrary—documented evidence from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and others—the Australian government maintains that there is no state-sponsored oppression of Tamils in Sri Lanka.
So discredited is the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade document that the UK Upper Tribunal (a court of review of comparable status to the High Court) last year deemed it, and the equivalent report used by the UK Home Office, as unreliable. The Home Office was forced to repudiate its country report. But Australia never has.
The entire system of assessment is stacked against genuine refugees. Exactly how stacked is shown by the case of Priya and Nades. The Tamil Refugee Council and friends of the family in Biloela initiated the campaign to bring them home four years ago. It has been probably the biggest and most prominent refugee rights campaign in Australian history.
Close to 600,000 people signed the petition demanding that they be returned to Biloela. There have been countless segments in the media—prime time TV panel discussions, 6pm news reports, sympathetic profiles in magazines. Twice we have prevented deportation attempts through the courts. Prominent conservatives such as Allan Jones, Tony Abbott and Barnaby Joyce spoke out for “common sense”. So loud were the calls for decency and so great was the sympathy for the family, that the ALP even made their plight a conspicuous part of the federal election campaign.
Yet Priya, Nades, Kopica and Tharunicca still do not have permanent protection. When even this family’s future remains uncertain after everything that has transpired, how on earth can others on bridging visas, not to mention those languishing in Indonesia and other non-signatory countries to the Refugee Convention, ever hope to secure safety? Certainly not “in accordance with Australian law” while the laws and processes remain as they are.
We have a change in government, but we need a change in law so that refugees are not denied their right to seek and obtain safety in Australia. We need a change in law so that people arriving here are not treated like convicted hardcore criminals. We need a system of permanent protection and equal rights for refugees, not boat turnbacks and militarised borders.
The ALP jumped on the Biloela campaign, using the family’s plight to whitewash its own appalling refugee policies, while at the same time making clear to the political right that there will be no entertaining of humanity by changing the laws that condemn thousands of others.
We can’t let the new government off the hook. We must continue the fight to end “fortress Australia”.
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