A criminal act on the open seas?

Max Phillips protesting at Baxter Detention Centre in 2003.


There are reports that the Australian Government is handing back Tamil asylum seekers to the Sri Lankan government.  The asylum seekers apparently left refugee camps in India and may have been intercepted by the Australian Navy near Christmas Island.   The reports suggest a mid-ocean transfer of the asylum seekers to the Sri Lankan government may occur.  If this is true, then the government is committing a crime and in severe breach of the Refugee Convention.  It is truly shocking to think that a country like Australia would hand people fleeing persecution back over to the very people carrying out the persecution!  Would Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Immigration Minister Scott Morrison have handed back Jewish people fleeing Germany back to the Nazis?  The answer has to be, yes, quite possibly they would.

Furthermore, Minister Morrison wants to have a new test that if there is only a 50% chance of torture, then the Australian Government will take a punt and return the asylum seeker a high chance of torture.  Unbelievable!

For many years I was a refugee activist.  I was a key member of the Refugee Action Coalition of NSW for many years.  I camped and protested outside the infamous Baxter Detention Centre in the South Australian desert.  I worked for Greens Senator Kerry Nettle as her adviser and campaigner on immigration and asylum seekers for many years.

I’ve met newly arrived West Papuans refugees on Christmas Island.  I’ve seen the inside of the stainless steel, suicide proof “management cells” of Villawood Detention Centre.  I’ve protested at Sydney Airport trying to stop people being deported to danger.

After years of campaigning, public opinion softened towards asylum seekers to the point that when the Rudd Government was elected things improved somewhat.  Off-shore detention on Nauru was closed down, Temporary Protection Visas were abolished and the detention centres started to empty.

When the Gillard Labor Government started to ramp up the rhetoric and notch up the cruelty, I deliberately tuned out.  I admired those stalwarts activists like Ian Rintoul and Mark Goudkamp who indefatigably kept going month after month, and year after year.  I was glad that Senator Sarah Hanson-Young was a strong voice for humanity and common sense, in an otherwise toxic political spiral.  But I could not bare to listen to the debate once again descend into a chest beating exercise on who could be the cruellest and most hard-hearted towards refugees – with xenophobia and racism always just under the surface.  While I was aware what was happening, I did not follow it in detail because I’d seen it all before and it was too depressing to witness it all being repeated.  Instead I concentrated on climate change issues and fighting coal seam gas and coal mining.

When a freshly resurrected Prime Minister Kevin Rudd re-introduced the PNG solution in a last minute attempt to look tough to voters, I was sickened.  But Tony Abbott, Scott Morrison and the extreme Liberal Party have managed to trump even Kevin Rudd in their callous pursuit of political gain over humanity, morality and legal obligations.

My Grandmother, Edith Phillips, was a Austrian Jew studying medicine in Vienna when the Anschluss occurred and the Nazi’s took over. She had to escape the Nazi threat and was lucky enough to be smuggled out of Nazi Austria, via Italy, by an pharmacist from Western Australia.  She arrived by boat and made a new life in Australia.  There are many similar stories in the family histories of many Australians.

The United Nations Refugee Convention and Protocol were drafted and signed by many nations around the world to ensure that people in need, just like my grandmother, would be treated fairly and given protection from fear, persecution, torture or death.  The protocol explicitly states that a government can not discriminate against people by their mode of arrival, yet successive Australian governments (Labor and Liberal) have made laws to purposefully discriminate against those who arrive by boat.

Riot police guard Baxter Detention Centre against balloon and kite wielding activists, in 2003

Riot police guard Baxter Detention Centre against balloon and kite wielding activists, in 2003

For the ideologues and psychopaths that run the modern Liberal Party, the Refugee Convention is just an annoying inconvenience to get around while the exploit latent xenophobia for electoral gain.  While it is a terrible act to discriminate against boat arrivals, to detain them almost without hope, and delay their assessment, it is altogether another level of crudity to actually hand back asylum seekers to the authorities that are likely to persecute them.

If this is indeed occurring, then it is a criminal act.  The ‘operational silence’ from the government does nothing to make it less criminal.  If Abbott and his ministers actually carry it through, then they have proven themselves devoid of humanity and unfit for public office.

However, on this policy, Bill Shorten’s Labor Party is hardly much of an alternative.  Ever since the Tampa episode of August 2011, the Labor Party’s failure to stand up for basic humanity has allowed the extremists and psychopaths in the Liberal Party to drive the public debate into a very, very dark place.

As Greens Senator Richard Di Natale said on QandA this week, “we need to remember that offering people protection is a sign of strength, it’s not a sign of weakness.”  Australians are not naturally mean-hearted, but we need leaders across the political spectrum who choose to bring out the best in us, rather than exploit the worst.

Max Phillips






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