The Australian navy welcomed the New Year by trashing asylum seekers’ hopes for a better life.
A boat carrying more than 40 people from the Middle East and Africa had Darwin in their sights. Entering Australian waters should have been a cause for celebration. Instead it was the beginning of an encounter with base cruelty.
The Navy forcibly towed their fragile fishing boat for six days and dumped them in the middle of the night near the remote Rote Island, part of the Indonesian archipelago.
They are lucky to be alive. During the Howard years, three asylum seekers drowned trying to get to shore after their boat ran aground 300 metres off Rote Island. They too had been turned around by the Navy.
While they still have their lives, asylum seekers on board talk about experiencing abuse and mistreatment at the hands of the Australian Navy.
They are now being held in an immigration centre in Kupang, their futures bleak.
This is Abbott’s “war” on asylum seekers. This is not my bombastic description, this is his word. The repressive arms of the Australian state have been mobilised to prowl the coastline to protect us all from an armada of leaky boats carrying desperate people who are merely exercising their rights.
Extraordinary secrecy shrouds this militaristic policy. Morrison quips in response to journalist’s questions that “we don’t comment on on-water operations as you know”. Now even these farcical weekly press conferences are to be replaced by weekly statements.
Morrison did crow about one detail. Since “Operation Sovereign Borders” was launched in September, 133 asylum seekers have opted to return home. That’s 133 people that have been broken by the barbaric conditions in offshore camps and succumbed to despair.
Medical professionals on Christmas Island, fed up with breaching ethical norms, have helped draw a fuller picture of the unrelenting cruelty in these offshore prisons. In a letter of complaint to their employer IHMS, they reveal that asylum seeker assessments are conducted while they are still in clothing “soiled by urine and faeces” because there are no toilets on board the boats. Heartbreakingly, they say “the arrivals frequently express their embarrassment at their state. They apologise for the smell and filth they are covered in”.
Medical records are thrown away. Medication, hearing aids and prosthetic limbs are confiscated. A man suffering tuberculosis was undetected for 44 days, putting the entire camp at risk.
Under Abbott’s “no exceptions” rule, pregnant women – including those with high-risk pregnancies – are being sent to Nauru with its primitive prenatal facilities to live in tents located on an old phosphate mine where temperatures soar to over 50 degrees. This is Abbott “setting an example”.
Unsurprisingly, many women have miscarried on Nauru or Christmas Island, often after being denied repeated requests for ultrasounds. One woman was told to lower her expectations, “they told me I am in detention centre and should not expect a lot”.
There’s no relief for the tens of thousands of asylum seekers and refugees in the community. For those on bridging visas, right of appeal is to be denied which will see thousands deported. Those that are miraculously recognised as refugees face Temporary Protection Visas instead of permanent protection when the new Senate, with a more right wing composition, starts sitting in July.
Forever at risk of deportation, denied family reunion, it will be next to impossible to rebuild their lives. Anxiety and mental anguish will be their companions.
Even those with permanent visas living in the community for years have been served more heartache, with immigration officials told to afford their family reunion claims the lowest priority, potentially separating refugees from their families for a lifetime. This will ensure that women and children will find no alternative to getting on a boat.
The Labor government preferred to sell their disgusting refugee policies through feigned paternalistic concerns to save lives. People smugglers were labelled “scum of the earth” preying on naïve asylum seekers. Abbott has thrown any humanitarian pretence to the wind. Openly anti-refugee politics is now the name of the game. Abbott has even resorted to calling asylum seekers who arrived by boat “unchristian”. After all, being predominantly Muslims, the story of the Good Samaritan doesn’t apply to them, right?
Many refugee rights supporters have rightfully been appalled by the latest opinion poll which shows that 60 percent of Australians want the Abbott government to “increase the severity of the treatment of asylum seekers”. How could the government possibly be crueller? Gas chambers?
Far from being a natural human response, this racist and sadistic attitude is the product of more than a decade of dehumanisation. Both major parties have competed in the sick game of who can kick refugees the hardest. Not only does bashing refugees help distract us all from our real enemies sitting in Canberra, Toorak and the North Shore, it reinforces the dog eat dog modus operandi of capitalism in the neoliberal age, where collective responsibility and human solidarity have no place.
[Major rallies for refugee rights are being organised across the country for Palm Sunday, 13 April. Further details will be forthcoming.]