Like many armchair, news junkie and aspiring political analysts of my age and experience, I closely follow the news, views and interviews of concern via the Internet and Television. Asylum Seekers arriving by boat appear to be a highly debated topic here on Australian television channels and on online forums. While some parties are urging more compassion and consideration towards the plight of refugees, particularly those from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, others are lobbying the government for tougher measures, even outright deportation.
The main opposition party, Liberal Party of Australia, has been at the forefront of anti-asylum seeker rhetoric, keen on exploiting the public sentiments amidst rising costs of living in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis. It is pressurising the incumbent Australian Labor Party to bring back the Pacific Solution – a set of asylum seeker specific policies set out under former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard, which saw asylum seekers subject to mandatory and lengthy detentions on remote Pacific Islands such as Nauru. Rolled out in 2001-02, the now infamous Pacific Solution saw hundreds of asylum seekers including children, mostly from Afghanistan, detained for over three years, many deported and others, surrendered in the face of hopeless wait, returned home.
Pressurized by the possibility of being battered in the polls the government, once a harsh critic of the Pacific Solution, is now considering a reopening of detention centres in Papua New Guinea and signing a boat-swap deal with Malaysia, a country yet to sign the United Nations Convention on Refugees. Malaysia's record on human rights is dismal at best and horrific at the minimum. On a policy level, the changes are the product of a popular misconception that stricter and harsher policies and a political race to the bottom will stop asylum seekers arriving on Australian shores or in the words of the Prime Minister Julia Gillard "break the back of the people smuggling model".
While I respect the political wisdom of the parties I beg to claim that tougher measures have not and cannot stop the flow of refugees to Australia or any safe destination in the world while wars and concerns remain. Based on the figures available on the website of the Australian Parliament, in the calendar year 2002 a single unauthorised boat arrived in Australia with only one person on board. That was down from 53 boats with 5516 people in the previous calendar year 2001. One could get carried away by the Liberal party drumbeat that it was the toughening of Australia's asylum seeker policy and the introduction of the Pacific Solution that had led to the decline in the number of boat arrivals, but, and it's a big "but", facts point at another direction.
In October 2001, the United States and its allies, including Australia, interfered in Afghanistan effectively, ending over five years of suppressive rule by the hard-line and brutal Taliban regime. Taliban had transformed the country into a pariah nation where other than the suppression of individual freedoms, there were naked displays of state brutality in the form of public beatings, floggings, executions, amputations, stoning and atrocities on a scale unrivalled anywhere in the world, all ruled by religious decree. The majority of people arriving in Australia by boat at the time were fleeing the Taliban.
Among them were thousands of ethnic Hazaras, people from central Afghanistan, whose homeland had been ravaged by the Taliban, their towns and villages burned to the ground and their people killed in thousands. The plight of the people has been internationally recognized and documented by the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International; and Australia, a signatory to the UN Human Rights Declaration and Refugee Convention, was the world leader in granting protection, albeit temporary, to thousands of Hazara asylum seekers.
The collapse of the Taliban regime in late 2001 brought down the walls of isolation surrounding Afghanistan and raised the hopes of millions of refugees for a better future in a place where they belonged. UNHCR estimates show that since then over 3.5 million refugees have returned home from Pakistan and a further million from Iran. Dozens of asylum seekers voluntarily returned from Australia to Afghanistan in the year 2002-2003. Thousands of others en-route to Australia, in Indonesia and Malaysia, returned home. These are facts and figures that partisan politicians, mainly in the Liberal camp, choose to overlook when running a populist drumbeat on the issue of asylum seekers. John Howard or his Pacific Solution had little to contribute when it came to the return of the people accounted for in the above number.
On a side-note to that Australia's treatment of asylum seekers, the great majority of whom are found to be genuine refugees, reflects negatively on Australia's position as a world leader in advocacy for upholding of human rights and fair treatment of people in the region and the world over. Under John Howard's now infamous Pacific Solution, over 1200 asylum seekers including women and children remained in detention of years un-ended on Nauru.
The island was out of bound for most journalists and refugee advocates and what so ever happened on Nauru, stayed on Nauru. Many detainees developed depression and PTSD, at least one died, others were left in limbo facing the choice between returning the homes they had fled and staying in indefinite detention on an island in the middle of nowhere. By the end of the Nauru episode, the overwhelming number of asylum seekers on it were found to be refugees; many were granted asylum in New Zealand, Canada, Sweden and some in Australia after lengthy battles. Others were returned home.
In its 2008 report and documentary 'A Well Founded Fear', the Edmund Rice Centre for Human Rights, an Australian NGO, tracked down 250 of these returnees in 22 countries, including ones returned to Afghanistan. At least 9 people returned to Afghanistan were found to have been murdered; tens of others lived their lives in hidings or as refugees in Pakistan and Iran. Returning these refugees to their places of origin was an open violation of the UN refugee convention, a violation that costed many their lives. The convention states:
No Contracting State shall expel or return ("refouler") a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.
While we stare at the abyss that's the Pacific Solution 2.0, we need to remind ourselves that there are lessons to be learned from the Nauru tragedy. We need to question the official narrative for why asylum seekers are being huddled from on inconsistent policy to another.
Besides ignoring our international obligations, are our governments so desperate for populist rhetoric that sacrificing the plight of helpless and desperate refugees has become acceptable? Is a potential repeat of the Tampa tragedy and its exploitation by the Howard government acceptable to Australians today? Is it acceptable for Australians to send hundreds of refugees to a remote country, without caring about what happens to them and pretend that refugees do not exist? And lastly the circumstances that have led to at least two asylum seekers committing suicide and many others suffering from mental health problems need to be investigated.
In a world wrecked and plagued by atrocities and exploitation, only compassion can lead us to a more humane and sensible world, not hard-headed political arrogance