Please Form An Orderly Queue


When Wikileaks published the Iraq War Diaries  last Friday, they opened almost 400000 windows onto the deeds and misdeeds of Coalition and Iraqi governments and armed forces — and also onto the lives, and deaths, of the Iraqi people.

This opportunity for insight is both significant and unprecedented. It is in the interest of the Australian public to know something about everyday life in Iraq — and other countries such as Afghanistan and Sri Lanka that are also officially not at war. After all, a functioning democracy depends on citizens having access to facts, and to multiple versions of events. Prior to this leak, and that of the Afghan War Diaries earlier in the year, we have had little access to this kind of information.

Asylum seekers are one of the most politically potent topics in Australia today — specifically those who arrive by boat. Successive Australian governments have repeatedly claimed that Iraq is safe enough to warrant the return of asylum seekers but the revelation of some 15000 previously unreported civilian deaths suggest that such claims may have been overstated. Given that the published material excludes details of names and places, there is no way of telling whether any of these faceless casualties represent people whose claims for refugee status in Australia were rejected. Even if they do not, the very number not only of deaths but of near-deaths, injuries and other trauma is a reminder that while a war may be officially, daily life in Iraq is still extremely dangerous.

The figure of the queue-jumper plays a major role in the dialogue which justifies detaining and rejecting asylum-seekers who arrive in Australia by boat. The Iraq War Diaries offer some insight into the reality of the forced migration experience.

There are few reports that directly mention refugees, and only two of these involve casualties. As Julian Assange said in his London news conference on Saturday however, the "tremendous scale [of the total casualties]should not make us blind to the small human scale in this material." Further there is no way of knowing how many incidents involved refugees or returned asylum-seekers but did not mention their status.

Let’s take some examples. From 23 April 2004: "The Ramadi Government Center reported fighting between the ___ refugee in (___) and a local Iraqi tribe."

From 7th December 2004: "Residents of the apartment complex set fire to 1x ___ construction package and several humanitarian aid chickens. The patrol reports dropping the aid packages off to ___ refugees in the area … Residents of the complex threatened to kill the refugees when the US soldiers left."

From 13th March 2006: "People were intimidated and they were forced to leave their homes. According to heads of displaced families it was verbal intimidation and they got letter with threats." Later in the same report "The reserve of Red Crescent is not enough to support all refugees with all needs."

From 4th October 2006 "The AIF [insurgents]intend to use the buildings that the refugees are occupying to launch their attack on Karbala City."

And from 14th June 2008: "the area where the IED [explosive]went off is a refugee site."

How safe are the places where people should form an orderly migration queue? Reports like these show that the notion such a thing exists is a false one. It is very hard to sustain the idea of a simple, organised process of completing forms and waiting patiently in the face of such evidence. If this is the situation in Iraq, which is officially not at war, it does not seem far-fetched to think similar things may happen in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, the source countries of most boat arrivals into Australia.

The Wikileaks documents also reveal genuine security issues; also from 4th October 2006: "it is possible that the AIF ___ get help from the refugees." Yet others show refugees actively risking their own safety to assist Coalition forces. From 21st December 2006: "The LN [local national]females stated [having voluntarily approached Coalition troops]that their ___ [relative or protector]and his friends are planning to attack the battle base and that their lives are now in danger for giving this information," which included his name, description, and the location of weapons caches and IEDs.

The reports paint a picture of a complex and dangerous situation in Iraq.

They reveal that one of the foundations of current policy and opinion — the queue-jumper coming from an organised place of safety — is false.

The Iraq War Diaries show that the people of the so-called Coalition of the willing cannot rely on their governments to be transparent about the reality of life in Iraq, of the orders issued to troops, and the actions they take. Access to accurate information is a keystone of democracy. When the information is false or so massively restricted such that only one perspective of events is available, the public good and the public interest are undermined. The image of asylum-seekers who come to Australia by boat as queue-jumpers comes from looking through one window — but the many windows of the Iraq War Diaries offer a very different set of images.

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Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.