Australia is playing a dangerous game with Sri Lanka

This post was written by Dr Stewart Motha, a Reader in the School of Law. It originally appeared on the Guardian’s Comment is Free on 21 February 2013.

It’s election year in Australia, and that means open season on boat migrants. Last year, 17,000 people arrived by boat, with a massive surge of 6,500 from Sri Lanka. These numbers have an alarming impact on Australia’s human rights record as the government puts in place draconian domestic measures to deal with the increase, and plays a foolhardy game of building military and security links with Sri Lanka to stem the flow.

Harsh measures for dealing with people arriving by boat are nothing new in Australia. The Howard government set the tone in 2001 by mobilising special forces to seize the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa after it rescued more than 400 refugees from a sinking vessel and brought them into Australian waters. The “Pacific solution” was then introduced, whereby outer islands were excised from the Australian territory for the purpose of migration and judicial review. Refugee claimants arriving by boat at excised territories were mandatorily detained and transported to harsh offshore camps administered by Australia in countries such as Nauru – a practice stopped in 2008, but reactivated last August.

The Australian government is now constructing permanent facilities in Nauru to detain boat migrants, and also runs a detention camp in Manus Island, Papua New Guinea. The PNG opposition were in court last week, challenging the legality of the Manus Island detention centre.

The migration amendment (unauthorised maritime arrivals) bill 2012 now seeks to implement the Pacific solution throughout Australia. What was an exception is to become the norm. A new category of “unauthorised maritime arrivals” will discriminate against people on the basis of the mode of their journey to Australia. If you arrive by boat, you face mandatory detention in a harsh and remote place. Travel by plane and you will be able to apply for a protection visa on arrival. Given most maritime arrivals are from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Sri Lanka, the legal regime effectively implements a de facto form of apartheid based on country of origin (and here, let us note that article 3 of the 1951 refugee convention obliges Australia to fulfil its protection obligations without discriminating on the basis of “race, religion, or country of origin”). As such, the migration amendment bill seeks to implement a staggering legal artifice for a nation that claims to walk tall among the civilised.

The Australian government has also introduced the dangerous practice of forced repatriations of people it claims are not refugees (last September, Human Rights Watch documented the torture of Tamil men and women repatriated to Sri Lanka by the UK Border Agency). These people are returned within 72 hours of arrival, and with “screening” taking place offshore, this happens without any provision of legal assistance for the returnees, or transparency in relation to the work of immigration officials. The risk of refoulement – the return of refugees with a right to protection to their persecutors – is increased, thus flouting the fundamental obligation under the refugee convention.

Australia’s extreme measures have been prompted by a curious surge in the number of people arriving by boat from Sri Lanka. In 2012 around 6,500 people made this arduous journey. In the previous year the number of Sri Lankan arrivals was a mere 211. Department of Immigration statistics indicate that 5,215 of the 2012 arrivals were Tamil, and 1,027 Sinhalese. In the last month, the number arriving has dramatically reduced to a trickle. What explains these fluctuations, and what is to be made of the Australian reaction to it?

Earlier this month, the Australian reported that Australia’s intelligence agencies suspected an official with a high profile close to President Mahinda Rajapaksa was “responsible for authorising numerous boats in the past 10 months, fuelling the surge of asylum seekers from Sri Lanka”. The Sri Lankan government has denied the allegations. The suggestion is that Sri Lanka can “turn on the tap” and “unleash untold asylum boats”. Australia has chosen an unreliable security and surveillance partner.

The politics of people smuggling is hardly ever only about the people being trafficked and those exploiting their desperation. Because of its hysterical attitude to those seeking asylum, Australia has potentially walked into the trap of being held hostage by any authoritarian regime that colludes in people smuggling. The currency they will demand is a blind-eye to human rights violations, favourable diplomatic attention and security partnerships.

The Australian minister for foreign affairs, Bob Carr, visited Sri Lanka in December and announced training for Sri Lankan naval officers on surveillance and intelligence gathering. The shadow minister for foreign affairs, Julie Bishop, visited Sri Lanka last month and praised its postwar reconciliation and reconstruction efforts. It’s one thing for Australia to throw the refugee convention out the window, and another to weigh in on issues such as reconciliation and militarisation in another country. If they want to do the former they should do it honestly; the latter is gratuitous, unnecessary and harmful.

As Australians look ahead to the renewal they deserve in an election year, is it not time to imagine a different, better Australia? Let’s not add another episode of “unutterable shame” to Australia’s archive of atrocity. Instead, let Australia summon up the sentiments of Henry Lawson’s iconic 1891 poem, Freedom on the Wallaby, for today it is not the rebel’s blood but a callous disregard for the vulnerable that “stains the wattle”.


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