Refugees left to drown, children brutally jailed

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In mid-October of 2001, a haunting, tragic image appeared on the front page of almost every Australian newspaper. Three pretty young girls smiled at Australians as they sat down to breakfast. These children, along with 350 other refugees from the Middle East and Afghanistan, had drowned the night before as an overloaded fishing vessel foundered in the Indian Ocean. Only 44 people survived.

What has become clear since then is that these refugees died as a direct result of the vicious, xenophobic policies of the Australian government.

Lies exposed. At the time, Prime Minister John Howard was in the middle of a hard-fought reelection campaign built on the promise to “protect Australia’s borders,” with the fresh horror of the September 11 attacks in the U.S. adding fuel to his anti-refugee fire.

Howard had kicked off his racist campaign with his response to the plight of 433 refugees rescued from a sinking boat weeks earlier by the crew of the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa. Rather than allow these shipwreck survivors to land, Howard ordered the military to intercept the Tampa. The refugees were then forcibly transferred to a prison camp on Nauru, a poor Pacific island country.

When faced with public outrage over the drownings in October, Howard at first denied that officials had had any information about the boat, dubbed SIEV X. (“SIEV” for “Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel,” even though it’s not illegal to enter a country by boat to seek asylum.) Howard also claimed that SIEV X had been in Indonesian waters when it foundered.

In June 2002, the lies fell apart. Leaked minutes of Howard’s refugee “task force” showed that the government knew all along about the boat, its course and the distress it was in. Crucially, the government also knew that SIEV X was in international waters before it sank. Australia is obliged, by international treaty, to rescue imperilled seafarers on the nearby seas.

Appearing before a Senate Inquiry, former diplomat Tony Kevin presented a videotape of statements by people who lived through the shipwreck. One survivor reports that two large ships were present before the boat went down and that their Indonesian rescuers told them these were Australian “Border Protection” ships. Other survivors agree vigorously. The survivor asks, “Were they ordered not to rescue us?”

The answer is “yes”. It appears that the masters of the two border patrol ships obeyed orders to avoid making a rescue if at all possible.

This tragedy was not an “accident.” Government policy is that refugee boats should not be allowed to enter Australia, and policy was carried out — no matter the loss of 353 lives.

Concentration camps. What happens to the “boat people” who are picked up is hardly less horrifying than the SIEV X affair.

Mandatory detention of refugees was enacted 10 years ago — shamefully, by an Australian Labor Party (ALP) government. Asylum seekers are held in grim “processing centres” at four desert locations and on islands in countries dependent upon Australian aid. These prisons are run by an Australian subsidiary of the notorious Wackenhut Corporation, a U.S. company which specialises in making money out of the misery of inmates. Conditions for adult refugees are so torturous that most suffer from mental illness. Self-harm and suicide attempts are common.

About 80 people under 18 are in the camps, and most are so severely traumatised that medical and welfare professional associations describe their treatment as State-sponsored child abuse.

Unions must lead. A movement to stop these outrages is growing. From unionists to lawyers, students and medical professionals, Australians are organising and marching to end the brutal persecution of besieged people seeking a safe place to live. Many unionists were angered by the ALP’s concurrence with the warmongering and bigotry of Howard’s conservative coalition government. Yet, despite this, union leaders largely abstained from the debate during last year’s election. Except for a few principled officials, they did not want to alienate those workers who fell in behind Howard’s reactionary politics.

Racism and xenophobia have been persistent, divisive currents in the Australian labour movement since its foundation. In the coming period, these ideologies must be confronted head on — not only to stop the persecution of refugees, but to present a solid front against growing attacks on the rights of all workers.

In 1998, a solid union campaign defeated the government’s attempt to destroy the Maritime Union. If the union movement declared that it would not permit a single refugee to be deported and organised against the detention camps, the government’s policy would collapse.

In every workplace, let the demands of the street marches come to life: Close the camps, open the borders, free the refugees! Jail all those responsible for abandoning the passengers of SIEV X!

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