Kevin Rudd has prevented 255 Sri Lankan asylum seekers coming to Australia from Indonesia. The asylum seekers were already at sea when Kevin Rudd put in an urgent call to the Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, requesting that the Indonesian Navy intercept the vessel and escort it back to Indonesia.
The people on the vessel are from Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankans are ethnic Tamils, suffering at the hands of the majority Sinhalese following the defeat of Tamil resistance in a civil war which has waxed and waned tragically for the past 26 years.
Around 300,000 Tamils are being held in camps controlled by the Sri Lankan Army under the most appalling conditions, including a shortage of food, medical supplies and adequate shelter. The old and very young are dying at the rate of several hundred a month. Who would not want to escape, particularly with conditions set to deteriorate with the onset of the monsoon season? This weather will also affect the ability of boats to undertake the voyage, so the pressure is on to complete the journey now, before the weather sets in.
The British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, admitted to the House of Commons on 13 October that the British Government was aware that the extra-judicial killing of Tamils has taken place. Others claim that it is ongoing within and outside of the camps.
Australia has not sought humanitarian assistance for Tamils detained in the camps. The Sri Lankan government has denied access to international aid organisations whose protests at this, and the conditions inside the camps, has been muted. The international media has also been denied access in order that their witness will not generate criticism.
Dr Bob Birrell of Monash University says that the Tamils should wait to be processed by UNHCR, but UNHCR is not allowed access to the camps. And if placed in the same situation would he patiently wait to suffer illness and possibly die? I think not.
Australia has not sought access to the camps to process refugee claimants, which in any case is a process fraught with difficulty when conducted under the eyes of the military. In light of its own complacency and compliance Australia can hardly complain when desperate people take matters into their own hands.
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When it comes to criticism we have seen how thin skinned Kevin Rudd is. Does this stem from a lack of confidence or courage? There is no way Kevin is going to lose the next election, so why does he let the opposition get away with the wedge on refugees? The issue is not an election winner or spoiler for either major party. Why can’t he get out on the front foot and put the facts relating to refugees fairly and squarely to the Australian people.
The opposition has no coherent, compassionate or long term policy with regard to the processing of desperate people and have indicated that they are still prepared to play with the lives of those most in need of protection. It does them no credit.
Most people arriving by boat are found to be refugees after due process. Illegal immigrants arriving by plane run into the tens of thousands each year, maybe 50,000. Some pay significant sums of money for illegal visas, some stay after arriving on valid visas. In addition refugees are being demonised in the face of some dreadful and corrupt student visa practices.
Kevin Rudd was quite right to castigate the egregious former minister for Immigration, Philip Ruddock, for seeking to claim that the Howard government had ‘success’ with respect to refugee policy, but if Kevin Rudd is to claim any sort of genuine humanitarian success, rather than narrow and cruel political success, he will need to ensure that he quickly processes those that he has sent back to Indonesia.
It is untrue to claim, as Professor Robert Manne of La Trobe University and the Opposition have done recently, that the slightly more humane approach of the Rudd government has led to an increase in refugees seeking to come to Australia by boat. There has been a worldwide increase in the number of people seeking refugee protection. A deterioration in security in Sri Lanka for Tamils and in Afghanistan have pushed people toward the safe haven of Australia.
For make no mistake sending these people back to Indonesia is to condemn them to a debilitating existence on top of the effect and memory of the horrors they sought to escape. They will be warehoused in Indonesia, a country which is not a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees, for up to 10 years under conditions which will lead most to suffer mental deterioration. True they knew the risks they were running but to take those risks the situation they sought to escape must have been pretty bad. Just ask refugees already living in Australia, as I have, what the conditions were like in their ‘home’ countries that led them to undertake such dangerous risks.
The AFP, on behalf of the Australian Government, has entered into an unsustainable relationship with their Indonesian counterparts over the blocking of refugees coming to Australia via Indonesia. The Indonesian Police and Army are involved with and indeed in many instances control people smugglers. To the concern of the Indonesian Government both the Army and Police are involved in many corrupt money making activities in Indonesia. Deploying various strategies to counter the activities of their counterparts the AFP, in concert with other Australian agencies, has had some success in stopping the flow of boats. But money will not stop the flow and when the political relationship takes a dip, boats reappear on the water in order to make a point to Australia.
Three months ago the AFP, following a 2007 coroner’s report, made a somewhat overdue announcement that they would commence investigations into the death of five Australian journalists killed by Indonesian soldiers in the takeover of East Timor by Indonesian soldiers in 1975, with a view to prosecuting the soldiers involved.
The Indonesian military was not impressed and boats have been appearing on the horizon ever since.
Kevin Rudd has turned a boat back with the help of the Indonesian President, but will he be able to do that again? This intervention highlights the short term and ad hoc nature of the refugee policy that Kevin Rudd inherited from his predecessor. It is not sustainable and it is unnecessarily harsh.
As Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd should be careful not to feed hysteria, supported and promoted by the tabloid press and the Opposition, nor to endorse their xenophobia. People smugglers exist because of a tragic need, and referring to them as vermin and scum bags, betrays a surprising ignorance of the real world, it is un-Christian. It plays to the lowest common denominator in the Australian community.
Kevin Rudd should deploy diplomatic resources to bring pressure on the government of Sri Lanka to allow processing on shore.
How he now chooses to handle this humanitarian crisis will be a defining moment personally and politically.
Bruce Haigh is a political commentator, retired diplomat, who served in Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and South Africa. He has dealt with the issue of refugees since 1972 and is a former member of The Refugee Review Tribunal.