Fwd [GLW}: Australia abuses refugees' human rights
alanb at SPAMelf.brisnet.org.au
Sun Aug 6 06:52:14 MDT 2000
The following articles are from the current issue of Green Left Weekly
Australia abuses refugees' human rights
BY SIMON BUTLER
Perhaps most people would like to believe that state-sanctioned abuses of
human rights occur only in Third World dictatorships. The reality,
shamefully, is far different. The human rights of refugees in Australia are
consciously and systematically violated -- and the government is now
desperate to stamp out many refugees' growing resistance to this.
Since the break-out of 700 asylum seekers from three detention camps in
June, the government has launched a wave of repression inside the camps,
targeting the ringleaders for prosecution and possible deportation. It
has even stooped to trying to bribe other detainees to inform on their
A similar fate may await those who staged a hunger strike at the Villawood
Detention Centre in Sydney. On July 29, the camp was stormed by riot police
and the strikers were arrested, sedated and bussed to more remote camps.
Unwilling to passively accept what the government dished up to them, asylum
seekers have been staging protest after protest for months. Those who broke
out of the Woomera, Port Hedland and Curtin detention centres on June 7
sought to bring public attention to their plight. They demanded a speed up
in the processing of their protection visa applications and called for an
end to the appalling conditions inside the camps.
Most had been detained in the remote camps for months without been fully
informed of their rights. Escapees said that they had been denied access to
television, newspapers and radio, and had frequently suffered violence and
intimidation from detention centre security guards.
In February, asylum seekers in the Curtin Detention Centre went on a hunger
strike to demand that they be moved to a major population centre where they
could make contact with relatives and supporters. A number of the hunger
strikers sewed their lips together, others threatened suicide.
Already facing international condemnation for its mandatory detention
policy, the break-outs and protests have become a major issue for the
federal government. Australia is the only Western country to imprison
asylum seekers prior to their cases being heard in court; others only hold
them until their identities are established.
To mitigate domestic condemnation of its inhumane treatment of asylum
seekers, the government has worked hard to restrict information flowing to
the public. Its damage control agenda is clear -- the most forthright
campaigners for human rights among the refugees must be singled out for
More than 30 refugees from Port Hedland and Curtin will face court on
August 15 on the charge of escaping from detention. Unable to charge all
700 escapees, the government is intent on making an example of some of
Almost all of those charged would have qualified for refugee status if not
for the inexplicable delays in processing their applications by the
Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs. But if convicted,
their chances of securing a protection visa are virtually nil. All asylum
seekers must pass a character assessment to obtain a visa. A criminal
conviction would almost certainly ensure rejection and deportation back to
the country the asylum seeker had fled.
One Iraqi refugee involved in the break-out from Curtin has been charged
with inciting other refugees to escape. His lawyer, Dr Mohamed Al-Jabiri,
told Green Left Weekly that three other refugees were offered promises of
leniency by high-ranking Curtin officials in return for testifying that
they overheard Al-Jabiri and his client plan the break-out on the
The three refused and Al-Jabiri's client was acquitted on June 30. However,
the magistrate said he had found no evidence of attempted bribery or
Al-Jabiri maintains that asylum seekers are being pressured to either give
evidence against other refugees or to plead guilty to the charges. He also
told Green Left Weekly that his client is now interned in the Curtin
Detention Centre prison, despite having been acquitted.
Increased intimidation is only one part of the government's overall
strategy: the key is to enforce isolation. If the Australian people can be
prevented from knowing the truth, the government's public relations problem
The largest detention centres are hidden away in some of the remotest
regions of Australia. Curtin and Port Hedland detention centres are
situated in the far north and north-west of Western Australia. Woomera
Detention Centre is in the South Australian desert.
On June 30, after a hunger strike in the Villawood Detention Centre in
suburban Sydney attracted numerous solidarity protests and some media
coverage (see accompanying article), the Department for Immigration and
Multicultural Affairs responded by packing the offending refugees onto a
bus to Woomera and Port Hedland, out of public view.
Camp detainees are routinely refused access to telephones and fax machines.
Even when they are permitted to use the telephone, the cost of
long-distance calls to legal representatives or relatives is often
Visitors, including legal representatives, are commonly refused admission
to the camps. Al-Jabiri has twice made the long journey from Sydney to
Curtin, but has not yet been allowed to see the actual detention centre.
The detention centres' management have also sought to restrict the use of
interpreters. There have even been reports of bilingual asylum seekers
being prevented from interpreting for other detainees who are meeting their
The final weapon in the government's bureaucratic arsenal is to ensure that
those released on protection visas are left alone and unsupported. The
government is attempting to generate anti-refugee sentiment, and refugees
who successfully integrate into the general population will counter this
Government policy now favours releasing refugees far away from Sydney and
Melbourne, where they are more likely to find members of their community
and social support networks.
In May, a group of Afghani refugees released from Woomera Detention Centre
were bussed to Adelaide and dropped off with only $239 each. In July,
another group were dumped in Melbourne with $50 each. Immigration minister
Philip Ruddock has written to local welfare agencies urging them to
withhold assistance to these refugees.
Margaret Piper from the Refugee Council of Australia explained in an
interview on the August 2 ABC AM program that released detainees receive
very limited access to any federal government services and are not provided
with any English-language instruction.
The government's regulations barring those who arrive without papers from
gaining permanent protection visas, and limiting them to three-year
temporary visas, provides the ultimate guarantee that few of the released
refugees can pursue a new life in Australia. Regardless of their proven
legitimacy, refugees on temporary protection visas will be deported sooner
In a speech presented at a international meeting of the European Union in
Paris on July 20, Ruddock estimated the world's refugee population at 23
million. Australia, despite its relative wealth, gives refuge to less than
0.2% of these people.
In the same speech, Ruddock boasted, We have developed a strong
whole-of-government approach involving a range of law enforcement agencies
for dealing with asylum seekers. This is certainly true. The Howard
government has devoted an inordinate amount of resources to detaining
asylum seekers, frustrating their attempts to win freedom and obscuring the
extent to which refugees' human rights are being ignored.
Al-Jabiri said, In Curtin, department officials tell refugees that they
are hated by Australians. They tell the refugees that Australians believe
they are all fundamentalist Muslims and don't want them here.
The onus is on all of us who oppose the federal government's anti-refugee
policy to prove this wrong, to demonstrate our solidarity with asylum
seekers and help them to gain their freedom.
Villawood under siege
July 24: Hunger strike by 100 asylum seekers begins at Villawood
Immigration Detention Centre. A roll call occurs five times a day. Twenty
Refugee Action Collective activists, outside the camp showing their
solidarity, are attacked by security guards employed by centre managers,
July 25: Riot control guards and police deployed at Villawood IDC.
Harassment and intimidation of hunger strikers intensifies. Immigration
department official threatens that if asylum seekers do not end the hunger
strike, their cases will fail or will be indefinitely delayed, and they
will be transferred to jail. Hunger strikers forced to take refuge in the
detention centre's recreation room. ACM refuses medical care to sick hunger
strikers, including diabetic Batrice Niombo.
July 26: All communication, water and power are disconnected. All
detainees, not just hunger strikers, are now incommunicado. ACM and police
try to get the hunger strikers to board buses to an unknown location, but
fail. Children of asylum seekers are taken from their mothers by ACM.
July 27: RAC-organised protest at Villawood draws 50 people, who are
refused entry to visit detainees. The immigration department promises there
are no plans to transfer detainees.
July 28: RAC protest, 20 people, at John Howard's city office.
July 29: At 4am, ACM security guards and riot police break down the door to
the Villawood IDC recreation room. Hunger strikers are handcuffed, sedated,
carried to trucks. ABC reports hunger strikers are moved to Woomera and
July 31: Water, phone and power are restored to Villawood. RAC activists
banned from contacting detainees or visiting the centre. At least six
detainees remain on hunger strike at Villawood and the hunger strike
continues in Port Hedland.
August 1: Media conference, attended by NSW Greens MLC Lee Rhiannon and
representatives of the RAC and Amnesty International, condemns the
treatment of asylum seekers.
August 4: RAC protest of 50 people occupies Blacktown Migrant Centre.
Immigration minister Philip Ruddock pulls out of a planned meeting there.
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