Thursday, August 10, 2006

Howard gets ready to send the kids to prison

The controversial new Australian asylum seeker legislation passed its House of Representatives vote today 78 votes to 62. This was despite three Liberal MPs (Petro Georgiou, Russell Broadbent and Judi Moylan) voting against the bill and one other abstaining. The effect of the new legislation will be to automatically lock up the children of refugees who try to enter Australia illegally. The bill was gagged and guillotined through the House of Representatives will little time for debate but will receive a tougher time in the Senate next.

The new laws would mean Australia would send all boat people to islands like Nauru and Christmas Island for processing, even if they reach the Australian mainland. The laws were proposed in April to heal a diplomatic rift with Indonesia, sparked by Australia's decision to grant protection visas to a group of boat people from the troubled Indonesian province of Papua. The bill means that all people who arrived on the mainland (backdated by 13 April 2006) will be treated as if they arrived in so-called ‘excised’ places. This means that regardless of where refugees arrived, they would have no access to the Refugee Review Tribunal or Australian courts for judicial review.
43 asylum seekers left Papua in January and landed at Cape York peninsula. They alleged Indonesian human rights abuses and sought refugee status in Australia. The Indonesian government applied pressure on Australia to send them back. However the Australian did not intervene with the legal process and they were granted Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) allowing them to stay for three years. This decision was seen as a snub by Indonesia and President Yudhoyono called it “incorrect, not realistic and unilateral”.

As well as a suspicion that Australia is being “dictated to” by Indonesia, the strongest concern over the bill domestically is about the detention of women and children in offshore centres. The community action group GetUp have conducted a media campaign against this provision. Jurists are also worried that Australia will not be fulfilling its obligations under international law. Barrister Julian Burnside QC said “There are going to legalise kidnapping….removing them from the protection of the Australian legal system and taking them to a place where they have virtually no rights at all”.

The ALP supported the original 2001 excise bill in the wake of the Tampa incident. Their position now is that if asylum seekers land in Australia, they should be assessed under Australian law. They, the Democrats and the Greens will vote against the new measure in the Senate. With National senator Barnaby yet to make up his mind, right wing Family First senator Steve Fielding becomes the crucial vote. Today, he meets the Prime Minister one-on-one to discuss the issue. Though Family First have stated they will not do a deal over the matter, it would be very tempting for Fielding to vote for the legislation if Howard makes concessions in Fielding’s key social constituencies.

Ironically, the legislation is being pushed through on the same day as the UNPFII (UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues) proclaimed International Day of the World’s Indigenous People August 9 (US time). The tradition dates back to 1994 and the aim of the day is to further the "strengthening of international cooperation for the solution of problems faced by indigenous people in such areas as culture, education, health, human rights, the environment, and social and economic development, by means of action-oriented programs and specific projects, increase technical assistance, and relevant standard-setting activities".

It is unlikely that Howard’s “Pacific Solution” is quite the action-oriented program the UN had in mind. Howard is simply following his political instincts, thinking he can bring a “scared” population along with him. This is why in 2004 former UN High Commissioner on refugees Ruud Lubbers stated: “in the past few years, the politicisation of immigration, confusion between refugees and economic migrants, and fears of criminal and terrorist networks have combined to erode asylum legislation in many States. Paradoxically this has taken place against a backdrop of declining numbers of refugees and asylum seekers.”

Ultimately this bill is more about elections than immigrants.

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