On Saturday afternoon, on a sweltering street corner in central Perth, an intense silence cut through the Christmas bustle as people tried to catch broken sentences issuing from a mobile phone held to a microphone. The small gathering of refugee supporters hardly dared breathe as we strained to hear a voice out of limbo, somewhere on a boat near Merak.
For the children, women and men aboard the Jaya Lestari 5, time is running out very fast.
Officials from the International Organisation for Migration have withdrawn, leaving the Indonesian navy in charge. The occupants, asylum seekers as well as over a hundred UN-certified refugees, are overcome by exhaustion. Unsurprisingly, there is illness and diarrhoea aboard. The humid and rainy conditions of Merak Port do not help. But spirits remain strong. The majority declare they will not disembark in Indonesia nor will they return to Sri Lanka.
Earlier this month, the Rudd Government, having concluded its painfully prolonged negotiations with the Oceanic Viking, washed its hands of the fate of the other boat holding Tamil asylum seekers. According to Immigration Minister Chris Evans, the Jaya Lestari was intercepted "by the Indonesians in Indonesian waters" and is therefore no concern of his or ours. Never mind that, according to Indonesian cabinet documents, the request to intercept was made by Australian officials keen to "send a clear message to people smugglers". And a message, too, to domestic audiences about the Government’s tough stance on asylum seekers?
In the last few weeks the Liberal leadership crisis and the possibility of a double dissolution have focused attention on climate change politics. But there is little doubt that asylum seekers will be a key election issue in 2010. The contest over asylum seeker policy will be uglier, more bitter and fraught than the contest over climate because it is so historically loaded and calls forth deeply embedded emotions and phobias.
The race to the bottom, thinly disguised as the race to denounce people smugglers, will be fierce and the pitch of the dog whistle that accompanies it even more intense. The return of Philip Ruddock and Kevin Andrews to the Opposition frontbench ensures that.
The simple question the Jaya Lestari poses is this: how far are we willing to go to send our message to people smugglers? And is that message really as clear as Kevin Rudd or Tony Abbott would have us believe?
There are human stories behind the rhetoric. Media reports emerged recently of "people smuggling" charges against an Afghan-Australian from Slacks Creek, Brisbane. He had committed the vile act of trying to help his mother and sisters move from Kuala Lumpur, where they had lived in a camp for five years, to Jakarta, so that they could register with the UNHCR. Six years in an Indonesian jail for an Australian who attempts to reunite with his family: is this a price we as a nation are willing to pay for our "tough stance" and our "clear messages"?
For their part, the people of the Jaya Lestari have been sending messages to us in Australia and Indonesia. Briefly — very briefly — our hearts were touched by the words of a nine-year-old girl, Brindha, whose appeal to us could not have been clearer: "we are your children". Media access to the Jaya Lestari was quickly cut, and the story was dropped from the front pages. But Brindha’s fellow voyagers, including the 30 other children on board, continue to send us messages tossed into the sea in bottles. One message in a bottle reads: "Until now we heard that your country is a humanitarian country and also the refugee can restart their new life with freedom in your country."
Many respond that it is this very humanitarian reputation that makes us a soft touch for criminals and would-be terrorists. "Alex," the spokesman for the Jaya Lestari, has done the group a huge disservice by concealing his identity and his criminal record in Canada. Yet the obvious point remains to be made: if the boat had proceeded to Christmas Island instead of being intercepted mid-voyage, identity checks would have soon revealed Alex’s past and allowed authorities to determine whether he was entitled to make a case for asylum despite a criminal record. He wouldn’t be the first felon to seek a new start on these shores.
Indonesia, not a signatory to the Refugee Convention, has been sending its own messages, and later withdrawing them, about the possibility of returning the people of the Jaya Lestari. The Sri Lankan delegate to the UN made an appearance on the ABC to give the bland assurance that there was no internal "push factor" in Sri Lanka, and to attribute the flight of hundreds of people to Australian policies that make this country a "magnet" for economic migrants. His implicit reference to internal debates about Rudd’s policies was a touch undiplomatic; but perhaps it will be overlooked because it chimes so well with the PM’s own comments about "illegal immigrants".
Are we in for a campaign where the words of Sri Lankan officials feature in domestic electioneering? This is a grotesque prospect. It was the Secretary to Sri Lanka’s Human Rights ministry who, when asked by a reporter from the UK Times about the barbed wire ringing the camps housing internally displaced people (IDPs), responded: "Unfortunately, a man from a cold climate does not realise that, in the sub-continent, barbed wire is the most common material to establish secure boundaries, to permit ventilation as well as views". An answer worthy of Comical Ali in the last days of Saddam Hussein. Asked about reports of rape in the camps, the same official’s response was chillingly cavalier: "There are plenty of blue-eyed children in the camps. I think you’ll find plenty of NGOs have been having fun in the camps."
The concept of rape as fun, whether for the military or NGO workers, resounded in my head as I considered the first eyewitness accounts of the IDPs released from the camps. First-hand reports published on the website Groundviews in November give a chilling account of reluctant young women being herded into buses and lorries bearing IOM stickers, with no IOM personnel present. With "a funny grin on his face", an observer tells the witnesses: "you know why IOM officers are not here!"
Other IDPs are returning to devastated homes and conditions of utmost hardship. According to witnesses, although resettlement in Musali started in April 2009, "these huts don’t have any walls around … Women complained that since they don’t have a toilet or private place to bathe, they have to go to the jungle in the night despite the fear of … snakes and elephants. The only solid concrete structure one could see is the new military barracks built in between these villages."
I do not agree with those who describe conditions in Sri Lanka as amounting to genocide against Tamils. But the interests of three governments — Sri Lankan, Australian, Indonesian — now converge in whitewashing the undeniable dangers that would face the people of the Jaya Lestari if they were returned. Platitudes about the "damage to our international reputation" aside, can Australians face up to what would amount, in all but name, to a refoulement, or expulsion, of certified refugees and asylum seekers to a place they fled because of a very well-founded fear of persecution?
Or will the lives of those on board the Jaya Lestari be quietly forfeited for the sake of those "clear messages" that will be flying thick and fast in the forthcoming campaign?
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