Ten years ago this week 43 asylum seekers made landfall on Australia’s Cape York Peninsula after fleeing persecution at the hands of military and police in Indonesian-controlled West Papua. What happened next is hard to imagine occurring today.

After several months on Christmas Island (where they were enthusiastically welcomed by locals) the group had their asylum claims accepted and were given permanent protection by the conservative Howard government.

The controversial move angered Indonesia and was seen as a gesture of support by the Australian government for West Papua’s independence movement. It was a bold move by Howard — but it was the right one. Australia has long turned a blind eye to Indonesia’s ongoing persecution and torture of the indigenous population in West Papua, our closest neighbour.

Compare that to the treatment received by a group of seven West Papuans who arrived by boat in the Torres Strait in 2013, under the Abbott government.

The group, which included a 10-year-old boy, was quietly shuffled off to a squalid refugee camp on Papua New Guinea’s porous border with Indonesia, where they claimed their lives were in danger. Their asylum claims were not even considered.

During Howard’s decade in power, immigration procedures were tightened, conditions in detention centres were notoriously bad, and asylum seekers were shamelessly politicised.

And yet, it’s a measure of how low Australian has sunk in its treatment of refugees that, 10 years on, even the Howard years are starting to seem mildly humanitarian in comparison.

Peter Fray

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