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Election Gambit: Australia, Sri Lanka and Politicising Asylum

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Election Gambit: Australia, Sri Lanka and Politicising Asylum

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Written by Dr. Binoy Kampmark 

When it comes to the tawdry, hideous business of politicising the right to asylum, and the refugees who arise from it, no country does it better than Australia.  A country proud of being a pioneer in women’s rights, the secret ballot, good pay conditions and tatty hardware (the Hills Hoist remains a famous suburban monstrosity) has also been responsible for jettisoning key principles of international law. 

When it comes to policy Down Under, the United Nations Refugee Convention is barely worth a mention.  Politicians are proudly ignorant of it; the courts pay lip service to the idea while preferring rigid domestic interpretations of the Migration Act; and the United Nations is simply that foreign body which makes an occasional noise about such nasties as indefinite detention.

It should therefore have come as no surprise that, in the dying days of the Morrison government, another chance to stir the electorate by demonising refugees arose – somewhat conveniently.  As voters were, quite literally, heading to the polls, the commander of the Joint Agency Task Force Operation Sovereign Borders, Rear Admiral Justin Jones, revealed that a vessel had “been intercepted in a likely attempt to illegally enter Australia from Sri Lanka.”

The Rear Admiral’s statement insisted that Australian policy on such arrivals had not changed.  “We will intercept any vessel seeking to reach Australia illegally and to safely return those on board to their point of departure or country of origin.” Shallow formalities are observed: the implausible observance of international laws, consideration of safety of all those involved “including potential illegal immigrants”.  Nothing else is deemed worthy of mention.  “In line with long standing practice, we will make no further comment.”

With only a few more hours left being Australia’s most jingoistic Defence Minister in a generation, Peter Dutton tweeted a warning, referring to the statement from Jones: “Don’t risk Australia’s national security with Labor.”  In another comment, Dutton decided to peer into the minds of those aiding the asylum process.  “People smugglers have obviously decided who is going to win the election and the boats have already started.”

The Minister for Home Affairs, Karen Andrews, was also mining the message for its demagogic potential, raising the spectre of emboldened people smugglers.  They, she squeaked, “are targeting Australia.”  The “people smuggling vessel” had been intercepted “off Christmas Island.”

Andrews might as well have been using the same language to condemn drug traffickers and their commodities which, in terms of analogy, Australian politicians have implicitly done for decades. But for the occasion, the obvious target was the opposition vying for government.  “Labor’s flip flopping on border protection risks our border security.  You can’t trust them.”

The Liberal Party’s electioneering machinery picked up on the Sri Lankan connection, bombarding voters in marginal seats with text messages about this newfound discovery.  “Keep our borders secure by voting Liberal today,” came the prompt.  As things transpired, the entire operation, from Cabinet to the distribution of phone messages, had the full approval of Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

Revealing the existence of ships moving on mysteriously convenient schedules (another, according to the Saturday Newspaper, was also intercepted by Sri Lankan authorities) raised two burning questions.  The first goes to the troubling relationship with Sri Lanka, which the Australian government had gone some ways to promoting as a safeguard against asylum seekers.  Canberra has tended to skirt over issues of human rights, not least those associated with that country’s long civil war.  In fact, Australian officials have done their best to encourage Colombo to prevent individuals leaving Sri Lanka with a view of heading to Australia by boat.  In 2013, 2014 and 2017, Bay-class naval vessels were gifted to the Sri Lankan Navy to aid the interception of smuggling operations.

During his time in office, Dutton has made more than the odd trip to Colombo.  In May 2015, he made a visit as then Minister for Immigration and Border Protection to discuss “continued cooperation regarding people smuggling and to further strengthen ties between our two countries.”  He duly rubbished people smugglers – they had been “cowardly and malicious” for aiding individuals to pursue their right to asylum – and praised the success of Operation Sovereign Borders.  “Since we started turning back boats there have been no known deaths at sea.”

In June 2019, he paid another visit to shore up the commitment.  It was prompted by a report that a vessel carrying 20 Sri Lankan asylum seekers had been intercepted off Australia’s north-west coast, with the possibility of six others on route.  Then, as now, Dutton could only blame his Labor opponents for somehow encouraging such journeys while reiterating the standard, draconian line.  “People are not coming here [to Australia] by boat and regardless of what people smugglers tell you, the Morrison government, under the Prime Minister and myself, will not allow those people to arrive by boat.”

The second question goes to the supposed success of Operation Sovereign Borders.  This military grade, secretive policy had supposedly “stopped the boats” and remains a favourite Coalition mantra.  But why reveal a chink in the armour, a breach in the fortress unless it was manufactured with the aid of the Sri Lankan authorities or a failure to being with?  As comedian and political commentator Dan Ilic observed in a pointed remark to Dutton: “This happened on your watch dude.”  The Sri Lankan revelation demonstrated, when it comes to such matters, mendacity oils the machine of border protection.

No side in Australian politics has been able to avoid politicising the issue of refugee and asylum arrivals via boat.  The moment Australia’s Labor government made the arrival of individuals without formal authorisation a breach of law warranting mandatory detention, the issue became a political matter.  It took the Liberal National Coalition led by Prime Minister John Howard to turn the issue into a form of feral, gonzo politics.

That form remains unforgettably marked by the use of SAS personnel against 400 individuals, rescued at sea by the Norwegian vessel, the MV Tampa, in August 2001.  In defiance of maritime conventions and in blatant disregard for human safety, the Howard government held the asylum seekers at sea off Christmas Island for almost ten days.  Those on the vessel were accused of piracy and economic opportunism.  From this barbarism issued the Pacific Solution, a tropical concentration camp system which has had a few iterations since.

Governments, both Coalition and Labor, have drawn political capital from harsh policies against unwanted naval arrivals, smearing the merits of asylum and ignoring the obligations of international refugee law.  The new Albanese government has the chance, however unlikely it is to pursue it, to extract the political and replace it with the humanitarian.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He currently lectures at RMIT University.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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Strelkov

Meh, all “Western” Nations are bat crap crazy for destroying themselves with migrants from competing and alien racial groups. Engaging in such insanity only serves to further the cause of the genocidal maniacs at the Jewish money printing concerns.

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Mimi

The UN says the Refugee has a right to refuge… in the nearest country. The refugee does not have the right to cherrypick his destination country. Australia has a good record in accepting legitimate refugees from around the world. The queue jumpers want to bypass the system and barge ahead of others. The writer has a permanent chip on his shoulder with regard to Australia and I wonder why he stays there.

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Abraham Lincoln

Real refugees are the ones the government brings directly from refugee camps. If they can travel past teh fist country of opportunity they are not refugees because they can travel.

The rich want to bring in such economic migrants to lower wages destroy the middle income groups in society spo teh .01% will have all the wealth and the 99.9% will have nothing.

Such er used to be called scabs when they were brought in by the rich to break strikes for higher wages ans safety standards. Now if you object to scabs lowering your wages making the rich much richer and teh poor much poorer you are a racist.

Immigration policy used to be liek sports team picking the best players now it us just about making the rich much richer and the poor much poorer turning countries into a dictatorship of the rich. We have Judeo nazi invasion immigration polices like Hitler had for teh Soviet Union.

Mimi

The author of this very biased article constantly mentions the UN Refugee policy of which he is ignorant. . Those Sri Lankans could very easily head for India which is a safer journey and a democracy, and is the closest country which the UN policy says is where those people should head for..if they were genuine refugees.

The author very conveniently fails to mention that the civil war ended some years ago and those people are thus not eligible to claim refugee status at all.

Australia has a massive coastline hard to police, and if it didn’t have firm policies Australia could potentially have millions arriving here just like America has right now. With a population of about 25 million Australia would soon see chaos. The US has 330 million and it can’t handle their illegal immigrants so Australia is doing the right policy for Australia by being firm.

The author should avoid abuse as this is not a good way to argue your case.

Abraham Lincoln

Yes Real refugees are the ones the government brings directly from refugee camps. If they can travel past the first country of opportunity, they are not refugees because they can travel.

The rich want to bring in such economic migrants to lower wages destroy the middle-income groups in society so the .01% will have all the wealth and the 99.9% will have nothing.

Such er used to be called scabs when they were brought in by the rich to break strikes for higher wages and safety standards. Now if you object to scabs lowering your wages making the rich much richer and the poor much poorer you are a racist.

Immigration policy used to be like sports team picking the best players now it us just about making the rich much richer and the poor much poorer turning countries into a dictatorship of the rich. We have Judeo Nazi invasion immigration polices like Hitler had for the Soviet Union.

Anonymous

Illegals are illegal End of story. All this feel sorry for the criminals breaking the law because their governments are arseholes is just rubbish.

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