A trawler carrying 38 Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seekers was intercepted by an Australian border protection vessel off Cocos Island two weeks ago and handed over to the Sri Lankan Navy. There were six children aboard. The Sri Lankans are the first to be turned back in five months as Australia’s highest court hears a test case challenging the government’s right to intercept asylum seekers’ boats outside its territorial waters.
At the same time, the Migration and Maritime Powers Legislation Amendment Bill which is currently before the Australian Senate represents an unparalleled aggrandisement of the Immigration Minister’s authority and an all-out assault on refugee law.
The recent dilatory disclosure of the latest interception, well after the event, is disturbing in many ways. First, there is once again that toxic smoke-cloud of secrecy which enshrouds so much of our immigration policies. It cloaks all dealings of the tirelessly self-promoting Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison and the increasingly arbitrary actions of his own paramilitary Sturmabteilung, the Australian Border Force.
It is added to by a layer of befogging sophistry and specious argument often blended with a testy belligerence such as Morrison’s infamously disingenuous justification of his policy of deterrence as proceeding from a desire to prevent accidental drownings. It is present whenever he is publicly questioned such as his offensively belligerent and shamefully disrespectful hectoring of Gillian Triggs at the Australian Human Rights Commission recent inquiry into the detention of asylum-seeker children.
Morrison’s latest act of piracy or ‘interception’ was not reported immediately but hidden, it seems, for as long as possible. This has become a pattern, although on this occasion the fact that the action was illegal and that the ‘enhanced questioning’ was both wrong and against international law might have also contributed to its suppression. Whatever his precise motive, he was, however, just following the LNP coalition party line of being lean or mean with the truth.
For a party that promised the high road of open and transparent government, the LNP Coalition has done its best to crawl in the opposite direction. Delaying, suppressing, concealing, disputing and denying have now become its typical response to challenges. The Abbott government increasingly stands revealed as a government of broken promises and lies whose behaviour has cost it both credibility and legitimacy. Its governance lacks principle, its day to day conduct is dictated by a desperate necessity to pick a winner.
Nowhere is all of this better seen than in Morrison’s regime. Ruthless expediency and duplicity combine in what it grandly and falsely represents as border security and control. It’s touted as a runaway success. Yet Morrison’s operation, in fact, represent a callous indifference or calculated cruelty to others and a wilful determination to dishonour or evade Australia’s international obligations. It is illegal. It is wrong. It is dangerous. Shame on you, Abbott; shame on all of us.
The Abbott government has rightfully earned Australia United Nations’ censure for its indefinite detention, its detention of children. Its ABF shames us before the rest of the world. Yet, with characteristic hubris, Scott Morrison has recently blithely dismissed all such criticism with the line that that Australia’s immigration policies ‘will always be made in Australia’ as if we can walk away from the law or our international obligations any time it suits us.
His department’s secrecy has been defended by the Minister in several unsatisfactory ways, including his infamous ‘on-water matters’ excuse which is predicated on the fiction that ‘border protection’ would be somehow jeopardised if made public. ‘Loose lips sink ships’ was a British propaganda poster slogan of the last world war. Morrison is clearly either in some time-warp or he is labouring under the misapprehension that Australia is at war with asylum seekers. Nothing is further from the truth. They are part of our human family. We owe them the duty of care we owe to our brothers and sisters, daughters and sons. Most of us know this instinctively. Yet for Morrison and Abbott, they are the enemy. Horrifying as it is, it is not Morrison’s or his party’s only delusion.
Morrison likes to hark back to his party’s campaign slogan, stop the boats, as if successful government were merely a checklist of promises to be kept to the electorate by any means. He is also a little too interested in his own image, paying staff to google his name and to monitor his press. Little concern is spared for reflecting on the ways turning back the boats represent a scandalous abandonment of all civilised behaviour and a wilful flouting of all relevant international agreements and expectations.
If Morrison’s habitual secrecy is a continuing concern, what it covers on this occasion is even more alarming, the introduction by stealth of so-called ‘enhanced screening’. Were it not tight-lipped about its covert operations, the ABF might divulge the nature of its new, improved, streamlined fast-track ‘enhanced’ screening process, a self-parodying ‘process’ which in Orwellian Newspeak manner grotesquely distorts the meaning of the word enhancement to mean impoverishment and debasement.
Flouting accepted international practices, asylum seekers face a set of simple questions on the spot from an ABF operative with translator. It is brutally swift and unsatisfactory. There are enormous flaws in this impromptu, unsupervised, unscrutinised ‘process.’ Not the least of these faults is the likelihood that the subject of interrogation does not understand the seriousness of his entrapment.
Enhanced screening’s worst feature is, of course, that it is a cruel and cynical hoax, an instrument of coercion and duplicity contrived to return asylum-seekers hastily back where they came from – and further persecution. It is a shameful deception.
In the recent case, moreover, all but one aboard the trawler were returned to jail in Sri Lanka where they have been jailed while awaiting court cases set for May 2015 for illegally leaving the country. The all-but-one returned statistics reveal that the ‘process’ is a monstrous lie, a shameful sham and a travesty of due process. The world knows that on past evidence most, if not all, of these asylum seekers are likely to be genuine refugees. It is also widely understood that returning these people is to endanger their well-being. Experts attest that returning these Sri Lankans amounts to refoulement, or delivering them into the hands of their persecutors and oppressors.
The Tamil Refugee Council has said that the return almost certainly condemned them to persecution, including torture by returning them to their homeland. Furthermore, the screening system used by authorities is an illegal and insufficient test, the council said.
“The idea that you can properly test a person’s claim for refugee status at sea has been condemned by well-respected legal and human rights groups many times, yet this government cares nothing for its legal, moral or ethical obligations,” stated the council’s Trevor Grant.
For Australia, however, an arrogant ‘made in Australia’ evasion is all that Morrison bothers to offer to defend his proposed changes to the law. Then he repeats the lie that Australia has discharged its international obligations to refugees. He knows, like all tyrants, that to repeat a monstrous lie is to give it life. His latest moves serve to bring into sharper focus the cruelty and calculated inhumanity we now choose to inflict on asylum seekers; the bad faith with which we persecute those who in good faith seek asylum.
In itself, turning back the boats is a government’s disgraceful capitulation to the politics of petty ignorance, fear and chauvinism. Most of us can see it is wrong. Most of us know it is wrong. It is persecution and torture. It is a wilful denial of what makes us human.
What makes it even more disturbing is the perverse joy, and evident self-satisfaction, animating the Minister, his government and his key staff. Most Australians would blush with shame at the latest UN condemnation of our policy of indefinite detention as torture, but for Morrison and his government it is just another ‘on water matter’, an inconsequential irritation that will not deter him, nor cause him to reflect on the essential cruelty and betrayal of humanity that are the core of our immigration policy. The act does not need extending by legislation. It needs to be thrown out, along with its authors and supporters. Our humanity, our innate sense of justice and our compassion demand no less of us.