Playing politics with people's lives

Jessie Taylor

Since Liberty’s last newsletter, there has been a significant escalation in the game of asylum seeker policy. Perhaps it all started with a phone call from Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to his Indonesian counterpart, asking that Indonesian authorities intervene to prevent a boatload of Sri Lankan Tamils from approaching Australian waters.

In November, Indonesian coastguard, in a state-of-the-art Australian boat, opened fire on a boatload of asylum seekers, shooting two, including a 17-year-old boy who has been in solitary confinement at Kupang jail since he fell under suspicion of talking to the media. The rules of this game have changed.

Regardless of your politics, there is no denying that in recent weeks the Rudd government has edged dangerously close to reinstating the Howard-era policy of ‘deter and deny’, the architecture of which it had worked so hard to dismantle earlier on in its term. There are some who think that Howard had it right, and there are some who think he had it wrong.

There are very few people who would consider that the Rudd government has handled this issue well in recent times. It has been a catastrophe. My own determination to give this government the benefit of the doubt is dwindling fast. Many of the Sri Lankan Tamils on the Oceanic Viking and at Merak port were in possession of UNHCR refugee certificates.

Many had been in Indonesia for months or years before appearing on our televisions. They were waiting and waiting, and — like so many others — they took their lives into their own hands and took proactive steps to force a result for themselves and their families.

This may be imperfect behaviour. We can all see the moral flaw in it. Perhaps they should wait in the magical queue that so many people enjoy talking about! But before getting too judgmental, let’s have a closer look at that queue.

Around October 27 this year, some Department of Immigration and Citizenship figures emerged that I’m betting the government would have preferred to keep quiet. Australian resettlement from Indonesia was 35 people in 2008–09, 89 people in 2007–08 and 32 people in 2006–07. Total resettlement from 2001 to 2009 was 460 people — an average of 50 per year. If there are 2000 asylum seekers in Indonesia, the ‘queue’ that our morality dictates that they should stand in is, on current figures, 40 years long.

Perhaps this would be bearable if the opportunity existed to work, or to send their children to school. To move freely in the country without fear of arrest and detention. But Indonesia is not, and never has been, a signatory to the Refugees Convention. It has no obligations to asylum seekers, and it behaves accordingly.

I often get the impression that when Australian people talk about refugees, we tend to start upside-down. We start with border protection, security control and managed migration flows. All of these are fundamentally important issues, and must be considered at the highest level. But if we talk about them in the context of a faceless, nameless, godless horde of boat people, devoid of humanity, then we dismiss the fundamental point of what it is to be a refugee.

Many of you will be familiar with the plight of the Hazara people, and how difficult it is to make a life when you are the Taliban’s public enemy number one. In Indonesia I met a nine-year-old girl who described to me the Taliban’s practice of hammering nails into the skulls of Shi’a people, and her disgust at three of her teachers, all women, being killed as punishment for educating girls. A 14-year-old boy whose entire family has been killed for converting to Christianity. A young man who watched his father’s body take 16 bullets from a Taliban AK-47.

These stories are devastatingly commonplace, and it is understanding of this experience of loss, grief and trauma that must colour our nation’s treatment of asylum seekers. The other night I sat up late with two of my housemates, both young Hazara men, and we had a talk. The newest of the 10 young Afghan refugees to live in our house this year came from Christmas Island last month.

Last night he reeled off the inevitable list that I always dread hearing: the inventory of family members wounded, killed or just disappeared. This particular list included the boy’s father, a sister, and his brother’s two baby children. So ordinary, so matter of fact was his telling of it. So devastating that many of our countrymen would react with hostility and suspicion rather than sorrow and condolence to a young man who has lost so much.

We need our government to provide leadership, to explain to the nation our collective obligations to asylum seekers, and to set the tone of debate, rather than scurrying along behind it in damage control mode. After the events of recent months, nobody in their right mind would suggest that Mr Rudd will lose the next election. So now, with political capital so far in the black, it is time for the government to spend some: to make some tough decisions, perhaps unpopular decisions, but strong, visionary and right decisions to uphold the moral and legal obligations that we hold to asylum seekers.

We must bolster the capacity and transparency of the UNHCR in the region, ensure proper processing under the banner of the rule of law and natural justice, and see that UNHCR’s operations are in line with international best practice.

Most fundamentally, we must increase our resettlement of asylum seekers from Indonesia. With increasing systematic ejection of Afghans from Iran, and the descent into chaos of the traditional city of refuge — Quetta, Pakistan — we will see more asylum seekers heading our way. Not because we are ‘soft’ or because they are destination shopping, but because between Pakistan and Australia, the only Refugees Convention signatory country is Cambodia.

Indonesia is the doorstep to the first country where Iraqis and Afghan Hazaras can hope to have their claims processed according to law. Currently, we are letting them down spectacularly.

Jessie Taylor is the secretary of Liberty Victoria.