08 January 2015
Opinion piece on asylum seekers
Opinion Piece written by Andrew Wilkie and published in the the Mercury newspaper on 23 October 2014.
It is not illegal to seek asylum in Australia, nor is there any queue for asylum seekers to join, or a back door for them to somehow sneak into the country.
In fact, Australia has a legal obligation as a signatory to the United Nations’ Refugee Convention to hear the claims of asylum seekers no matter how they arrive, whether by a boat or plane, and to assess whether they are truthful in their need for protection.
If they’re not, we should send them home, but if they are genuine, we should act like the rich and fortunate country that we are and give them refuge.
Asylum seekers are people.
Giving them titles such as “illegals” and “boat people” is a cruel tactic by a succession of governments that hope to dehumanise asylum seekers so it is easier to turn them away.
The truth is that what is being turned away are families, husbands and wives, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, grandparents and grandchildren who simply want a life where they don’t have to live in fear simply for being who they are.
This Federal Government, and previous Labor and Liberal governments, have failed these people. At best, asylum seekers are treated like surplus goods that can be dumped offshore, out of sight and out of mind, and quite clearly out of safety as the evidence of physical and mental harm in offshore detention centres proves.
At worst, asylum seekers are seen as a threatening enemy who have a plan to harm our values and way of life.
In these cases they are returned to danger, handed back to the oppressors they were fleeing from, to a fate the Government simply doesn’t care about.
Some of these “threatening enemies” have been small children.
This is why I have been working with human rights advocate and lawyer Greg Barns and this week formally requested the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court to initiate an investigation into whether any actions of the Government in respect of asylum seekers arriving by boat constitute crimes against humanity.
The request is made under Article 15(1) of the Rome Statute, which allows the Prosecutor to instigate proprio motu proceedings and recommend that the Pre-Trial Chamber charge individuals with alleged crimes.
The Government needs to understand this is no stunt.
The policies the Government has implemented, including forced relocation to detention centres on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and in the Republic of Nauru, as well as putting some asylum seekers at risk by forcibly returning them to danger, create grave human rights concerns.
I argue that these policies not only breach Australia’s legal obligations under the refugee convention, but also our legal obligations under the convention on the rights of the child and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Importantly, I also argue that what has happened to some asylum seekers trying to reach Australia constitutes crimes against humanity as defined by Article 7 of the Rome Statute.
Hence I outline in my approach to the ICC crimes as severe as deprivation of physical liberty, forcible transfers and other intentional acts that cause great suffering or serious injury to mental and physical health.
That the Government’s asylum seeker policy has caused such ill effects is not in dispute.
There have been whistleblower accounts, not to mention the many inquiries and reports that have been conducted into conditions in detention centres and specific incidences of deportation and physical harm.
At least one incident recently resulted in the death of a young man who had attempted to travel to Australia looking for a new life and safety. Australia gave him neither.
This issue has nothing to do with race or religion, but rather that every human being has fundamental and inalienable rights and that the Government is failing to respect that.
We have the ability to run background checks, do health screenings and make sure an asylum seeker is no danger to Australia.
But this process should be quick, it should be done onshore, it should not separate families unnecessarily, and it should be compassionate.
Nor do we need to choose between looking after asylum seekers and looking after our own. We are rich enough to do both.
The Government should develop a sophisticated asylum seeker policy that is as legal and compassionate as it is effective. And this plan should seek to genuinely improve conditions in asylum seeker source countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq, countries of first asylum such as Iran and Pakistan, and transit countries such as Indonesia.
Tellingly, Australia’s foreign aid budget this financial year is about $5 billion, yet we’re allocating just $134 million to Afghanistan, $79 million to Pakistan and nothing at all to Iraq and Iran.
No wonder the situation in these places remains so dire.
Asylum seekers are a humanitarian challenge, not a border security problem, and it is truly way beyond time for the Government to start acting like civilised human beings rather than thugs.
It’s way beyond time for leadership instead of pandering to racism, xenophobia and selfishness.
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