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Australia and asylum

St Paul Cathedral Melbourne

St Paul Cathedral Melbourne

Last October, independent MP Andrew Wilkie wrote to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to denounce Abbott and his Cabinet of crimes against humanity. Why? The treatment of asylum-seekers.

Since the drafting of the UN Charter, that brought well deserved fame and honour to then Minister of External Affairs Herbert Vere Evatt for his restless activity during the San Francisco Conference, Australia has successfully sought to portray herself as a good international citizen. Nonetheless, while she has championed human rights internationally, she has been at times reluctant to apply them domestically; to the point that Australia is the only Western democracy without a Bill of Rights.

Australian relationship with the system of international law is fickle and selective. In 1954, the Asian-Pacific giant immediately ratified the Convention on the Status of Refugees, acceding in 1973 to the 1967 Protocol. On the other hand, the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workersand Members of Their Families (1990) was never ratified. In 1991, Robert ‘Bob’ Hawke Labor Government signed the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which allows the UN Commission on Human Rights to receive complaints against Australia. In 1993, then Labor PM Paul Keating, the Australian Government refused to comply with the Commission’s opinion that Australia had violeted article ) of the Covenant and the complainant – a Cambodian asylum-seekers imprisoned for more than four years in a detention centre – had a right to compensation. Ten years later, Coalition Government on duty, Bakhtiyari family denounced the violation of article 24(1) of the Convenant, dealing with the rights of the child. Again, the Commission find Australia to be the defaulting party. The reaction of the Howard Government is best captured in the words of Foreing Affairs Minister Alexander Downer: “If a UN Committee wants to play domestic here, then it will end up with a bloody nose.” A rather explicit comment. Noteworthy, when you think that the adherence to international conventions and, even more, the subscription to controls are absolutely voluntary. Surprising, when you come to know that the Howard Government itself had enthusiastically ratified Rome Statute on the ICC.

The contentious matter is mandatory detention of asylum-seekers entering the country illegally, in offshore centres located on Manus Island (PNG) and Nauru. The policy was first implemented by the Keating Government in 1992 and was never called into question, despite the vociferousness of the debate surrounding the issue of asylum-seekers. The question of illegal migrants is a battleground in every electoral campaign, so much that former Labor PM Kevin Rudd during 2007 campaign – which he won – denounced his predecessor’s, John Howard, intransigence in dealing with the Tampa case. Howard had ordered SAS to prevent the Norwegian freighter from disembarking the migrants it had given aid to. Rudd promised that no vessel would be turned back and that the detention centres located outside the Australian territory would be closed down. Rudd had to make a clamorous U-turn in the face of a media battle dramatising the arrival of illegal migrants and, most probably, this was among the factors that led him to resign. It must be said that Australians are deeply worried about being flooded by boat-people arrivals: in December, 2013, a poll found that 60 per cent of the respondents wished for a tougher response on asylum-seekers. If xenophobia is a deep-seated feature of Australian character – a feature that, psychologically, can be traced back to the perception of being a Western enclave in a hostile environment and that was formalised by the White Australia Policy finally dismantled in the 1970s – the idea of an imminent flood of illegal immigrants is broadened by the political debate, the obsessive media coverage and, also, the rhetoric of some State angencies such as the Australian Federal Police (AFP). Australian scholar Sharon Pickering (Monash University) analysed narratives in its reports. Refugees and asylum-seekers are indiscriminately associated with  illegal migration and people-smuggling without a distinction of sorts between people-smugglers and migrants: both are accomplices of a criminal enterprise potentially subversive. The sympathy for refugees is thus replaced by outrage toward so called ‘queue-jumpers’, individuals not willing to wait their turn. While the issue of forced migration is absent from these reports, the question is framed within criminal justice. The suggestion is that illegal migrants entering Australia will devote themselves to criminal activities. AFP insists on organised crime with the implication that it has direct ties with terrorism, so that national security is at stake. Criminalising the mode of arrival of these people runs contrary to the Convention on the Status of Refugees which clearly states that it must not impinge on their request for asylum.

If MP Wilkie’s initiative is a mere provocation and has been described as an attention-seeking drive, it has nevertheless the virtue of placing Australia again under public scrutiny – domestically and internationally – for her contentious treatment of asylum-seekers.

The original version of this article was published in Italian on L’Indro 20/02/2015 

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