Where to from here?

by Julian Burnside         www.julianburnside.com.au

Now that the government has passed its Migration amendments through the Senate, many people are asking: “What can we do now?”

I have put some ideas at the foot of this document.  But beyond everything else, remember: Never give up; never give up.

First, some background to where we are and how we got here.  Bear with me: the background is important.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the great international human rights instruments were created.  When the Nazi concentration camps were opened, the world drew breath in horror at what had happened.  Most civilized nations resolved that it should never happen again. 

The United Nations created the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the Refugees Convention (1948), the Genocide Convention (1951), the Convention Against Torture (1984), and various other Conventions dealing with human rights.  Australia is a party to all of them. 

The point of the Refugees Convention was to share the load of people fleeing persecution. Before the Refugees Convention, countries adjacent to trouble spots bore the main burden of refugee movement.  During the years leading up to WW2, many Jews had tried to escape persecution.  Notoriously, many countries turned them away.  They tried all manner of desperate measures to get to safety.

The central obligation in the Refugees Convention is the “non-refoulement” obligation: that is, the obligation not to send a refugee back to a place of persecution, directly or indirectly.  So, if a refugee passes through countries which have not signed the Convention and arrives in a country which has signed, that country cannot send the person back to the country they just came from, because that country (not having signed the Convention) might send the person back to the country they are trying to escape.

What all this means is that countries which have signed the Refugees Convention are obliged to consider whether a person is a refugee if they claim to be, before they can send that person back to the place they came from.  If they do not consider their claim, they may breach their non-refoulement obligation.

For Australia, this is significant.  For nearly all boat people, Australia is the first country they reach which has signed the Refugees Convention. Importantly, Malaysia and Indonesia have not signed it, and do not offer protection.

The Federal election campaign of 2013 was the first time in our political history that both major parties campaigned on a promise to be cruel to a particular group of human beings: asylum seekers.  They promised to treat asylum seekers so harshly that others would be deterred from seeking our help. This completely ignores the point of the Refugees Convention, and it ignores Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Right, which says “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”

Since the election, we have witnessed increasingly brutal treatment of asylum seekers. This has been done, in large part, by Morrison repeatedly referring to boat people as “illegal arrivals”.  It is the great lie on which his campaign of cruelty is based.    It ignores Article 14 of the Universal Declaration.  It ignores the fact that it is not an offence to come here, without papers, without an invitation, seeking asylum.

It is based on an alleged (but not genuine) concern about people drowning in their attempt to reach safety.  When Abbott and Morrison express a humanitarian concern about boat people drowning, they are lying.  In fact, their stance demonstrates a complete lack of concern for the lives of persecuted people who are unable to escape.  While it is undoubtedly tragic that people drown trying to escape persecution, if they do not escape, and are killed by their persecutors, they are just as dead as if they drowned.  For those unable to seek protection, Abbott and Morrison show no concern whatever.

I do not believe Mr Abbott and Mr Morrison have any genuine humanitarian concern about asylum seekers.  They say they have stopped the boats.  It is largely true: with a couple of exceptions, boats have stopped arriving.  But we know they have not stopped setting out from Indonesia: we have been pushing them back.  We are not allowed to know how many have drowned on those boats: it is an “on-water matter”, so it remains a secret.

Boat people who have managed to get here without drowning are treated with unparalleled harshness.  They are treated as sub-humans, in needlessly dreadful conditions in Nauru and Manus Island.  Let us face the plain facts: innocent men, women and children are suffering terribly in detention centres, and their suffering is the intended result of Australia’s policy.  As a nation, Australia is responsible for the misery and harm deliberately inflicted on boat people by our government.

Now Morrison has bulldozed his refugee amendments through the Senate.  Morrison said he would remove children from detention if the Senate passed his amendments.  He already had that power, even without the amendments.  His strategy, in any other context, would look like the conduct of a hostage-taker: “I will release the children, but only if you do what I demand.” 

Under Morrison’s amendments, the principle of natural justice is removed, the supervisory role of the courts is removed, references to the Refugees Convention in the Migration Act are removed, and the Minister now has the power to send a person to any country he chooses, even if that may involve a breach of our international obligations.

Under Morrison’s amendments, Australia will almost certainly breach its non-refoulement obligations. 

Under Morrison’s amendments, Australia appears to have abandoned its commitment to the Refugees Convention, without actually withdrawing from it.

This Christmas, Abbott and Morrison are no doubt celebrating their policy “success”.  These two men – supposedly devout Christians – have used deliberate cruelty to harm innocent people, including hundreds of children, and have turned their backs on the lessons of the Holocaust.  It is no cause for celebration.

I mention these things because it is important to understand the legal and historical context of the present situation.  Most people know that we are treating asylum seekers harshly.  Many people think it is justified because the government is “protecting us from dangerous criminals”.  Of course, that is not true: boat people are not dangerous and they are not criminals. 

But the government has lied to us, and has led us into very dangerous territory.  We have been reduced to the status of a pariah: even South Africans – who used to be vilified for their Apartheid regime -  now criticise our human rights record.  Abbott and Morrison have dragged us to a new low.

A government which is willing to lie to us and mistreat innocent people should be condemned before it does even more harm to our character as a nation. Many people are asking what can be done now.

I firmly believe in liberal democracy.  I think we need to demand that our representatives in parliament defend the character and good name of Australia. So, things that can be done:

1.      write (don’t email, write) to Scott Morrison’s office expressing your disgust at his conduct as a minister.  Send a copy to your local federal MP and the member of the opposite major party in your electorate.  Let them know your feelings.  But don’t stop at this: move to step two

2.      write (don’t email, write) to your local federal MP and the member of the opposite major party in your electorate asking simple, straight forward questions.  for example:

1.     Do you believe that people commit an offence by arriving in Australia without permission and seeking asylum? If Yes, what offence do they commit? 

2.     Do you consider that people who arrive in Australia informally and seek asylum should be called "illegal"?

3.     Do you believe it is right to imprison children who have not committed any offence?

4.     Do you believe it is right to imprison women who have not committed any offence?

5.     Do you believe it is right to imprison people who have not committed any offence?

6.     Should asylum seekers who arrive in Australia be treated:

a)  humanely?

b)  decently?

c)  fairly?

7.     In your opinion, are asylum seekers who arrive in Australia treated:

a)  humanely?

b)  decently?

c)  fairly?

8.     Do you believe that people who arrive in Australia informally and seek asylum should be detained?  If yes, for how long should they be detained, and why?

9.     Do you believe that people who arrive in Australia informally and seek asylum should be sent to other countries for processing?  If so, why?

10.  How much does it cost Australia each year to pursue its current policy of deterrence in relation to asylum seekers who arrive by boat?

11.  Do you believe Australia's policy of indefinite mandatory detention of asylum seekers is:

a)  necessary?

b)  humane?

c)  decent?

d)  fair?

·        For example:

Dear ...................

I am a voter in your electorate.

Do you believe that people commit an offence by arriving in Australia without permission and seeking asylum? If Yes, what offence do they commit? 

Yours faithfully

3.      It is important to ask just one or two questions, otherwise their failure to actually answer the question will be less obvious.  Let’s be candid: any MP who answers honestly and says he or she agrees with cruel treatment of innocent people deserves to be kicked out of parliament as soon as possible.

4.      If (when) they refuse to answer your questions directly, write again and remind them of the questions. 

·        For example:

Dear ...................

I am still a voter in your electorate.  Your recent letter did not answer my questions. What I asked was:

Do you believe that people commit an offence by arriving in Australia without permission and seeking asylum? If Yes, what offence do they commit? 

Yours faithfully

5.      Repeat as often as necessary.

6.      Encourage your friends to do the same.  Aim for a position where every federal MP is being besieged with letters from constituents in their own electorate asking them to reveal their basic moral settings. 

7.      Make life unbearable for them, just as they are doing to refugees.  But don’t mistreat their children: we have more decency than most of our politicians.

Julian Burnside www.julianburnside.com.au