Asylum Battle in Australia

One minute you're standing in Australia. The next, the government decides you're no longer in Australia and you never were. It sounds like an Orwellian nightmare, but it happened recently to 14 Kurdish asylum seekers.

The men traveled from Indonesia in a small fishing boat and on Nov. 4 arrived at Melville Island, 50 miles from the Australian mainland. They claimed to be Kurdish refugees fleeing persecution in Turkey. To prevent them from being processed by the immigration department, the Australian government removed Melville Island, along with more than 3,000 other small islands, from Australia's migration zone.

This means that although the islands are still Australian territory, they weren't part of Australia for the purposes of immigration. The regulations applied retroactively, so even though the asylum seekers had arrived when Melville Island was part of the migration zone, they were still unable to claim asylum.

To further confuse the issue, the regulations removing the islands from the "migration zone" were overturned in the opposition-controlled Senate. Yet the decision against the would-be refugees stands. And most believe the Alice-in-Wonderland ploy -- calling parts of Australia outside of Australia -- or something like it will be resurrected.

The men were deported to Indonesia. Both the Australian immigration minister and the foreign minister stated the men had not claimed asylum. But Australian radio interviewed one of the men in an Indonesian detention center who said, "I begged them, I pleaded down on my knees. They sent a Turkish interpreter and I pleaded with him, saying I'll do anything not to be sent back. We spent four days on the water, 10 days without sleep, it nearly killed us. I'm human, I'm a human being. I'm a refugee."

The Sydney Morning Herald, meanwhile, reports the men were not refugees but were seeking better economic conditions in Australia.

Whatever the ultimate legal characterization of the immigrant Kurds, the Melville Island issue had drawn widespread condemnation. The United Nations Human Rights Commission's Australian representative, Michel Gabaudan, said Australia had breached international law under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the refugee convention. Amnesty International has reported on the widespread torture, rape and murder of Kurds in Turkey, including the disappearance of Kurdish politicians.

This is only the latest saga in the federal government's harsh approach toward asylum seekers. Anyone arriving in Australia without a visa -- including refugees and children -- is subject to mandatory detention until a decision is made whether to grant a visa or deport him or her. Although more than 80 percent of detainees are eventually declared to be genuine refugees, there is no legal limit on the duration of detention. The process can take a few hours or, in some cases, years. Amnesty International recently reported that a 5-year-old boy released only last year "had spent his entire life as a detainee." There are currently over 180 children in detention.

Asylum seekers are often transferred to remote detention centers in the Australian Outback. As part of a process known in Australia as the Pacific Solution, asylum seekers have also been transferred to other countries such as Nauru and Papua New Guinea while immigration officials assess their refugee claims. Poor conditions and indefinite detention have led inmates to riot or go on hunger strikes. Last year, the UNHCR called Australia's detention centers "a great tragedy" and said the detention of children breached international law.

Unfortunately for asylum seekers, many Australians support stringent border policies and anti-immigrant rhetoric. The asylum issue flared in the 2001 federal election. Though pre-election polls indicated the conservative coalition government of Prime Minister John Howard would lose the election, approval ratings soared after its treatment of the Norwegian cargo ship Tampa. That August, the Tampa rescued more than 400 refugees from a sinking Indonesian craft and headed toward Australia's Christmas Island, the nearest port. For days the Tampa was refused permission to land, and despite repeated calls for emergency medical assistance, none was sent. It then entered Australian territorial waters and was boarded by Australian special forces. The refugees were subsequently transported to Nauru as anti-immigrant hysteria gripped Australia. One newspaper polled readers and found 95 percent supported keeping the Tampa's asylum seekers out of Australia.

The prime minister said of the Tampa, "We decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come," a slogan the government put on their election posters. They were victorious at the polls.

The next federal election is in 2004. The government has shown it has no qualms about ignoring refugee rights if that can win votes. Sadly, in today's Australia, it probably will.

Aidan Doyle is a freelance writer based in Melbourne.

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