Backlash over missing asylum seeker boat
"We are breaching our central obligation under the refugee convention" says lawyer Julian Burnside, after two boatloads of asylum seekers were allegedly screened and handed over to the Sri Lankan navy by Australia.PT1M44S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-3ba34 620 349 July 3, 2014
These facts we know: There are confirmed reports of Tamil refugees headed for Australia. They are Sri Lankan Tamils who had gone to India and set out from Puducherry. Their English has a Sri Lankan accent, and their Tamil does not have a strong Indian-Tamil accent, so it is quite likely that they had been in India for only a short time. India has not signed the UN's Refugees Convention.
One boat was certainly carrying 153 people: 84 men, 32 women and 37 children. We have the names of four of the people on that boat. A person on that boat has been in contact with people in Australia. They expressed concern about the boat’s engine failing. They asked for help. They told the media they were Sri Lankan refugees seeking asylum in Australia.
Anyone who troubles to look behind the political rhetoric can identify Morrison’s lies.
The boat last made contact with Australia by phone on June 28 at about 10am. At that time, the boat was 175 nautical miles from Christmas Island.
"And whatever the facts turn out to be, Morrison has treated the Australian public with contempt." Photo: Andrew Meares
That same Saturday, Labor MP Alannah MacTiernan was on Christmas Island. She said immigration staff on Christmas Island were “on standby waiting for instructions”. She said she had been told two boats had been intercepted. She told the ABC: “They're saying that two boats have been intercepted and the ship on which they're being loaded is in Christmas Island waters.”
That same day Scott Morrison refused to confirm the boats’ existence despite the fact that people in Australia had spoken to people on board. He said that there were no “significant incidents at sea” to report. He would not say whether any boat had reached Australian waters, or whether the government had taken any action.
The known facts suggest several Tamil refugees reached the waters off Christmas Island last weekend. The facts make it apparent they included several children, and it is easy to infer they would have been distressed: it is a long and uncomfortable journey. They were seeking asylum from the Rajapaksa government in Sri Lanka, which has an appalling record of mistreating Tamils who had (or may have had) any connection with the Tamil Tigers.
From this point on, the facts are more difficult to pin down. There is reason to think the refugees have been handed over to the Sri Lankan navy. They have not made phone contact again since Saturday. That suggests either their phone has been confiscated or disabled, or they are in some other difficulty. Morrison refuses to say anything about the issue because it is an “on-water matter”. A Sri Lankan spokesman told ABC Radio: ‘‘We are not aware of any arrangements of the Australian navy handing over refugees, to Sri Lankan navy’’, which looks like a denial, but leaves plenty of room to move.
All that can be said with any confidence is at least 153 refugees have tried to get to Australia; they have disappeared; any decent human being would be concerned about their safety and their fate; and a minister of the Crown refuses to tell the public anything: he won’t even acknowledge or confirm known facts.
Morrison officially calls boat people “illegal” in an attempt to convey the impression that they are criminals, when in fact they commit no offence at all by coming here as they do. He officially tells us he is “protecting” us from the “illegals” and even changed the name of his department to “Immigration and Border Protection”. It is all a cynical exercise designed to persuade a gullible public that we are being protected from criminals when, in fact, we are mistreating innocent, frightened human beings.
Morrison knows if the refugees arrived at Christmas Island he would not have been able to send them back to Sri Lanka without seeing whether they had legitimate claims for protection. If it turns out that he did hand them over to the Sri Lankan authorities, it is a clear breach of our obligations under the Refugees Convention. And sending men, women and children back to a murderous regime where they are likely to be persecuted makes him unfit to be a minister of the Crown.
Anyone who troubles to look behind the political rhetoric can identify Morrison’s lies. But now he wants to hide the facts: presumably so he can maintain his ignoble boast that he has “stopped the boats”. What he overlooks, now as before, is that he is playing with the lives of innocent people and, almost as bad, he is destroying this country’s reputation for decency and a fair go.
And whatever the facts turn out to be, Morrison has treated the Australian public with contempt. The public have a legitimate interest in knowing what is being done, in our name, to people who have done nothing worse than ask for our help. Morrison either knows the fate of the refugees or he does not. If he does, he should tell us: either that they have been rescued or helped, or that they have been sent to Sri Lanka. The alternative is that he does not know, in which case he should be sacked for incompetence.
We should no longer be treated as if we do not care about the fate of other human beings.
Julian Burnside is a lawyer and human-rights advocate.