By Gaurav Sharma
Australia’s opposition leader Tony Abbott is the country’s 28th prime minister after his Liberal-National coalition defeated the governing Labour Party by winning 88 seats in the 150-seat parliament. While the two parties differed on issues such as measures for tackling an expected economic slowdown and reducing the controversial carbon emissions tax, both displayed politically expedient bi-partisan urgency on supposedly “vote-winning” issue of reducing the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat, or “boat people” as they are called.
As recently as July, the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd had announced all asylum-seekers, even women and children, arriving by boat with no Australian visa will be sent to the impoverished Papua New Guinea or Nauru for further processing or resettlement. “The asylum-seekers will not enjoy any right ever of being processed to go to Australia. There will be no cap on the number of people who can be transferred or resettled in Papua New Guinea or Nauru,” his government said.
While Rudd claimed “this policy is designed to stop people smugglers and stop further loss of life at sea”, critics have dubbed it as Rudd’s “Final Solution”.
WHO ARE THESE “BOAT PEOPLE”?
These asylum-seekers are mainly people fleeing from war-infested zones such as Middle-East, Iraq and Afghanistan, and from countries like Indonesia and Sri Lanka, who bribe “people smugglers” in hope of a better life in Australia. As the boats used in smuggling people are not well-equipped, many drown en-route. Those who survive, are sent to the detention centres[or “concentration camps” as critics call them] in isolated islands of the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
Even when Australia detains the “boat people” on its own territory, the conditions are bad. There were 7,632 incident reports between October 2009 and May 2011 across the country’s operational immigration detention facilities including self-harm, assaults, hunger strikes, riots and disturbances.
For Australia, a land of immigrants, nothing can be more farcical.
As noted by award-winning investigative journalist John Pilger, in The Guardian recently, “For Aborigines and refugees, the irony is self-evident. Only Aboriginal people are true Australians. The rest of us – beginning with Captain Cook – are boat people.”
A new film on Australia by John Pilger, Utopia, commissioned by ITV and produced by Dartmouth Films will premier on October 3, which explores the country’s suppressed colonial past and its treatment of the Aboriginal population, against the backdrop of a huge mineral boom.
HISTORY OF THE “BOAT PEOPLE”
1992: Mandatory detention for refugees arriving in boats was put in place.
1998: A report by Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) stated that such detentions violated international as well as Australia's own human rights obligations.
2001: As known colloquially, “Pacific Solution” is implemented by the John Howard Government. This entailed detaining asylum-seekers in the Pacific islands, Nauru and Manus (in Papua New Guinea), while their asylum claims were processed. Such claims were not processed under Australian law and claimants had no access to legal assistance or judicial review.
2004: HREOC publishes a report criticising Australian immigration laws and stated that the “Pacific Solution” is fundamentally inconsistent with the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
2008: “Pacific Solution” ends. Now, Asylum-seekers were sent to the Christmas Island, a territory of Australia in the Indian Ocean, instead of Manus and Nauru.
2012: The Julia Gilliard Government ties-up with the governments of Nauru and Papua New Guinea again and restarts offshore processing of asylum-seekers. By year-end, 414 people were transferred to Nauru and 155 to the Manus Island.
July, 2013: The Kevin Rudd Government implements “Final Solution”, as known colloquially, which means all asylum-seekers will be held indefinitely on Papua New Guinea, with no chance of ever going to Australia.
August, 2013: A UN human rights committee calls Australia’s indefinite detention of 46 recognized refugees on security grounds amounting to “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, inflicting serious psychological harm on them”. The refugees - 42 Tamils from Sri Lanka, three Rohingya from Myanmar and a Kuwaiti, are in detention for the last two and a half years.
September, 2013: Tony Abbott storms to power. Earlier, during his election campaign, Abbott had stated that if his party wins, he will deport refugees already in Australian detention centres and will not hesitate to use the Navy to stop asylum boats. He also plans to create a new “tent city” on Nauru to house the “boat people”.