After Australia watched an estimated 97 asylum seekers drown in the ocean off Christmas Island in 2010, a national tragedy, no new rescue policy was initiated. The total number of drownings since 1996 is estimated to be around 1500, yet successive coronial inquiries since 2001 have produced no recommendations which resulted in less lives lost at sea.
By contrast, last year two disasters in Italy forced a reassessment of rescue practices. Three hundred and sixty-eight Eritreans drowned within sight of Lampedusa, followed by 232 Syrians. Now a flotilla of five naval vessels, formed to conduct rescues, has saved more than 10,000 asylum seekers, including over 600 women and 1,000 children.
After Christmas Island, the Federal Government, Navy and Customs followed the same old rescue procedures, which have failed so often. An opportunity to change course on rescue policy was lost when the Expert Panel, convened by Labor, endorsed a deterrence policy with offshore camps, boat disruption strategies, denial of family reunion and a mix of cruel punitive strategies.
The Expert Panel received over 340 submissions, which overwhelmingly opposed offshore camps. These were ignored, as was the recommendation to change the boundaries for rescue at sea, which in effect currently offloads responsibility for rescues from Australia to Indonesia. There are many reasons why so many drowned at sea and Australia has chosen to ignore responsibility and culpability.
The Coalition boasts that no one has arrived in 100 days. It is true that we did not think that the boats could be stopped by force alone. However, we underestimated the capacity for this government and its supporters to create punitive conditions so harsh that even people fleeing persecution might hesitate.
We did not foresee that the military would be armed against asylum seekers and that they would use force and send asylum seekers back in expensive, fully-submersible lifeboats. We also underestimated the willingness of successive Australian governments to strip billions of dollars from programs of lasting value to fund detention centres.
This government has stopped people arriving by boat seeking our protection, through a combination of terror and physical force. The Navy allegedly refused to search for people who fell overboard in our waters off Darwin and people have been bashed and have had their hands burned. Asylum seekers are being treated in a way that would be against the law — if they were able to seek legal protection. Australia is now persecuting the persecuted.
Our Navy and customs officials are engaged in cruel and brutal tactics that diminish their own self-respect and that of the nation. The government passed laws exempting sailors from criminal sanctions when enacting government policy, but this will not save them from the misery of knowing what they have done to vulnerable men, women and children at the government’s behest. Australia’s relationship with Indonesia is in tatters and our Pacific neighbours now view us as a racist, cashed-up bully.
The Prime minister and his Minister may be pleased with their “100 days — no boats” slogan, but what is the cost to the nation’s soul? We could have saved lives with far less damage to the social fabric of our country. This was the original stated purpose of the brutal offshore and rendition policies of successive governments. Italy and Europe have chosen a humanitarian path, Australia, with far less to fear, has chosen to put its borders on a war footing.
Australia says that cruelty is necessary to save lives, in the same way that America said that it was necessary to obliterate Vietnamese villages in order to save them. History will judge us harshly and we will deserve it.
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