Kevin Rudd has prevented 255 Sri Lankan asylum seekers coming to Australia from Indonesia. The asylum seekers were already at sea when the Prime Minister put in an urgent call to Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono requesting that the Indonesian Navy intercept the vessel and escort it back to Indonesia.
The people on the vessel are ethnic Tamils, a group suffering at the hands of the majority Sinhalese following the defeat of Tamil resistance in a civil war that has waxed and waned tragically for the past 26 years.
About 300,000 Tamils are being held in camps controlled by the Sri Lankan Army under the most appalling conditions, including a shortage of food, medical supplies and adequate shelter. The old and very young are dying at the rate of several hundred a month. Who would not want to escape, particularly as conditions are set to deteriorate with the onset of the monsoon season? This weather will also affect the ability of boats to undertake the voyage, so the pressure is on to complete the journey soon.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband admitted to the House of Commons on October 13 that the British Government was aware that the extrajudicial killing of Tamils has taken place. Others claim that it is continuing inside and outside of the camps.
Australia has not sought humanitarian assistance for Tamils detained in the camps. The Sri Lankan Government has denied access to international aid organisations whose protests against this, and the conditions inside the camps, has been muted. The international media has also been denied access so that their witness will not generate criticism.
Bob Birrell, of Monash University, says that the Tamils should wait to be processed by the UN's refugee agency, but it is not allowed access to the camps. If placed in the same situation, would he patiently wait to suffer illness and possibly die?
Australia has not sought access to the camps to process refugee claimants, which in any case is a process fraught with difficulty when conducted under the eyes of the military. In light of its own complacency and compliance, Australia can hardly complain when desperate people take matters into their own hands.
When it comes to criticism, we have seen how thin-skinned Kevin Rudd is. Does this stem from a lack of confidence or courage? There is no way Rudd is going to lose the next election, so why does he let the Opposition get away with the wedge on refugees? The issue is not an election winner or spoiler for either major party. Why can't he get out on the front foot and put the facts relating to refugees fairly and squarely to the Australian people?
The Opposition has no coherent, compassionate or long-term policy with regard to the processing of desperate people and has indicated that it is still prepared to play with the lives of those most in need of protection. It does them no credit.
Most people arriving by boat are found to be refugees after due process. Illegal immigrants arriving by plane run into the tens of thousands each year, maybe 50,000. Some pay large sums of money for illegal visas, some stay after arriving on valid visas. In addition, refugees are being demonised in the face of some dreadful and corrupt student visa practices.
Rudd was quite right to castigate the egregious former immigration minister Philip Ruddock for seeking to claim that the Howard government had ''success'' with respect to refugee policy. But if Rudd is to claim any sort of genuine humanitarian success, rather than narrow and cruel political success, he will need to ensure that he quickly processes those that he has sent back to Indonesia.
It is untrue to claim, that the slightly more humane approach of the Rudd Government has led to an increase in refugees seeking to come to Australia by boat. There has been a worldwide increase in the number of people seeking refugee protection. A deterioration in security in Sri Lanka for Tamils and in Afghanistan have pushed people towards the safe haven of Australia.
Make no mistake - sending these people back to Indonesia is to condemn them to a debilitating existence on top of the effect and memory of the horrors they sought to escape. They will be warehoused in Indonesia, a country that is not a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees, for up to 10 years under conditions that will lead most to suffer mental deterioration.
Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and South Africa. He has dealt with the issue of refugees since 1972 and is a former member of the Refugee Review Tribunal.
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