February 8, 2014
Ever since John Howard’s Tampa affair back in 2001, refugees arriving by boat have been at the centre of political debate in Australia. A campaign to demonise and dehumanise refugees has been in full swing ever since. Its been so successful the Abbott government has even seen the value in using refugees to launch a fresh round of attacks on the ABC for perceived bias.
Criticism is growing both in Australia and around the world to our treatment of refugees. This criticisms is aimed at both the policies and the increasingly vitriolic rhetoric of the Australian government.
— UNHCR United Kingdom (@UNHCRUK) January 12, 2014
Australians want boat arrivals treated more harshly: poll. Constant Gov propaganda effective, Goebbels Jews http://t.co/e59JlCngJC
— Malcolm Fraser (@MalcolmFraser12) January 9, 2014
Even Australia’s own Human Rights Commission is launching its own inquiry into children in immigration detention.
One of Australia’s most passionate and respected refugee advocate is Kon Karapanagiotidis OAM (@Kon__K). He is the founder of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, is involved in other charity work and volunteers his time as a radio DJ at community radio station 3CR (@3CR) in Melbourne.
NoFibs spoke to Kon in the lead up to Australia Day. We heard his thoughts on some of issues that have been keeping Scott Morrison and refugees in the headlines lately.
In early January reports started appearing in global media about refugees being abused at the hands of the Australian Navy - Oman Tribune 8th January 2014
The ABC eventually obtained video of the injuries allegedly caused by the Australian Navy. ABC 22nd January 2014
Indonesian Authorities were investigating the allegations but ran into jurisdictional problems, the alleged abuse occurred outside their territorial waters. The Australian government continues to resist calls for an investigation, instead denigrating the claims made by refugees and attacking the ABC for airing the footage.
The UN is probing the allegations. China Post 25th January 2014[dropshadowbox align="none" effect="lifted-both" width="650px" height="" background_color="#ffffff" border_width="1" border_color="#dddddd" ]Kon – I don’t know if its happened or not. Just as everyone deserves the presumption of innocence, asylum seekers deserve natural justice, due process and an investigation. The claims need to be taken seriously. My problem is Abbott and Morrison declaring the allegations false without an investigation, their word is not good enough, its not worth anything. Especially in a culture where there is no transparency or accountability. We the Australian public deserve a transparent and accountable government. We have allegations, possible evidence and Indonesian authorities investigating, that should be enough to trigger an investigation by the Australian government. What’s so troubling is we have a culture of denial, to paraphrase Abbott – Who are you going to take the word of, our upstanding navy or people trying to break the law? The idea being refugees do not deserve natural justice, due process or a fair hearing. When you drive the navy to something they should not be a part of, you politicise the navy.You make a law just before Christmas that says the navy is no longer required to take reasonable care for the well being or safety of other sailors and asylum seekers at sea. When you indemnify the navy from prosecution for enforcing government legislation, you’re creating the potential for a culture of abuse by excluding people from accountability. Then when you tell the navy they’re at war, you further create the potential for abuse. What I can say for a fact is there has been no investigation, there can be no way the government could be satisfied this did not occur.[/dropshadowbox]
I asked Kon about Bill Shorten’s response to the allegations. Which to me seemed focused on defending the navy rather than calling for the allegations to be tested.[dropshadowbox align="none" effect="lifted-both" width="650px" height="" background_color="#ffffff" border_width="1" border_color="#dddddd" ]Kon – I have not heard much of his response to be specific in this case, but we need to get away from blind patriotism. The response navy couldn’t do this – no institution is beyond the potential for abuse of its power. We know that, we see it with navy, catholic church and others. It is irresponsible as a government to sit there and say its not possible when you have not investigated it. We should be able to constructively talk about this without accusations of slurring the navy or being un-Australian. These are serious allegations of abuse by a navy that’s upholding the laws of our country. We the public should be able to view this in a transparent light so we can keep our faith and confidence in the navy. How is that complicated for people to understand?[/dropshadowbox]
New Development: Fairfax media investigates the allegations further and interviews Fasher, the refugee Australian Navy used as an interpreter on the boat.
Our conversation shifted to recent developments on Nauru and what they may mean for refugees detained there.
The Nauru Government recently increased visa fees for journalists, from $200 to $8000. The Greens claim the increase is designed to hide how Australian taxpayers money is spent. The Guardian 9th January 2014[dropshadowbox align="none" effect="lifted-both" width="650px" height="" background_color="#ffffff" border_width="1" border_color="#dddddd" ]Kon – You’ve got one of the poorest countries in the world who miraculously has come up with one of the most expensive visas in the world. Say that out loud, it just doesn’t make sense. A country desperate for tourism, attention and profile are for all intense purposes banning journalists from going there. To go from $200 to $8000 over night, of course it was at the direction of Scott Morrison. For what other purpose would Nauru want to ban journalists. Why would you do that unless you wanted to create no oversight, no accountability and no responsibility. The impact on refugees – the abuses towards them will likely be greater and more widespread. The odds of whistle blowers, things being documented or exposed are diminished. Democracy and a healthy respect for human rights is matched by a healthy thriving media. The smaller that media circle becomes, the easier it is for abuse occur. [/dropshadowbox]
I’ve seen numerous debates on Twitter regarding the starting point of Australia’s decent into indecency regarding refugees. Most commonly the beginning of mandatory detention or the Tampa affair are nominated. I put this question to Kon.[dropshadowbox align="none" effect="lifted-both" width="650px" height="" background_color="#ffffff" border_width="1" border_color="#dddddd" ]Kon – It’s interesting, I haven’t heard the interview yet, but Paul Keating was interviewed recently and was asked about mandatory detention. Apparently he said his intention was never for it to be used as it is now and its an abuse. He’s trying to distance himself from it. Any time you bring in a piece of legislation like that, you always need to consider the culture you create, who may come after you and if they will honour the intention, and have I created the flexibility for abuse. Of course 1996, more critically 2001 with Tampa, 1999 with temporary protection visas, children overboard. Howard seismically shifted the landscape of this country. He created a country that went from being unaware and indifferent about refugees arriving by boat, sympathetic and compassionate towards asylum seekers, to a nation where the majority resent , fear and even hate asylum seekers. He turned the public against them – these people could be terrorists, a threat to our way of life, these people are illegal. That narrative. Tony Abbott recently in Davos – are you going to take the word of those who seek to break the law? He knows full well refugees have broken no law, they’ve never been criminally prosecuted or imprisoned for that. We just happen to have an arbitrary policy of mandatory detention.[/dropshadowbox]
I asked Kon about the recent poll which showed the majority of Australian’s want refugees treated more harshly, and Malcolm Fraser’s comment on Twitter (see top of page) about the results from that poll.[dropshadowbox align="none" effect="lifted-both" width="650px" height="" background_color="#ffffff" border_width="1" border_color="#dddddd" ]Kon – I looked at that and the first part your heart sinks and you’re like fuck, we have an even bigger battle. To think its the worst its been in 30 years and the majority of Australian’s want refugees treated even harsher. All that’s left is sinking boats, water boarding, hanging them. We intern them, we don’t let them work, we separate families, put them in offshore concentration camps. There’s not much left. I want to think, I need to think the reason we have 60% saying they want refugees treated even harsher is based on mis-information. The poll asked questions like if we should be tougher and if they should get welfare. People have been poisoned by the idea asylum seekers are illegal, queue jumpers, that they’re getting four times what Australian pensioners are getting. Australian’s have been so poisoned by this they say lets get tougher and tougher, so many are disconnected from whats actually happening. People think refugees should be grateful they’re in detention, they’re getting 5 star accommodation. Its costing us billions so they must living the good life on our tax dollars. So I’d like to think mis-information, but that can’t explain it all. There’s no doubt an underbelly of racism still runs through this country. As the demographic got older in that polling, you saw the line getting harder and harder. You can’t ignore racism, we have to tackle that as well. Are we a racist country, of course we are.[/dropshadowbox]
Refugee lawyers and advocates complain about access to their clients in detention centres and the treatment asylum seekers receive. I asked Kon about this and if these things were consistent across the detention centre network. Kon began his answer by referring to this story.[dropshadowbox align="none" effect="lifted-both" width="650px" height="" background_color="#ffffff" border_width="1" border_color="#dddddd" ]Kon – Every centre is its own creature. When the story broke about women having to queue for sanitary items, the government came out and said that doesn’t happen. But it does and it is. In some detention centres it doesn’t happen at all, but in others its the practice. Every detention centre is different depending on the culture of management and the private company running the facility. It varies because every one of them is applying guidelines and directions from the minister differently. Morrison doesn’t really know what’s going on on the ground. For refugee advocates it varies again around understanding the importance of allowing people to have access, you’re more likely to quell unrest and protest if refugees have more connection. Up in Darwin refugees will be warned not to go and talk to people attending vigils (where refugees stand on one side of the fence and community members stand on the other side). In some centres its a hard line but in others like Broadmedows they’re probably a little more reasonable. Critically though, as a refugee lawyer, you can’t get access to someone unless you have their name. You can’t just go in there to find someone. More and more its becoming difficult because people are increasingly being fast tracked offshore (within 48 hrs). Once refugees are offshore on Christmas and Manus Islands or Nauru, unless you have a whistle blower or someone giving you access, how can you ever get to those people. The idea of moving to an offshore regime is about trying to make it impenetrable to reach these people, making access to lawyers and advocates almost impossible, fast tracking aids this. They haven’t been able to do this unequivocally, but we’re seeing an expansion. Also the fast tracking of removals, Sri Lanka and Vietnam are considered to be non-refugee producing countries by the government, so they’re sending people back against their will.[/dropshadowbox]
A recent report finds the Sri Lankan military responsible for the majority of human rights abuses during the civil war, and of destroying mass graves to hide the evidence.
Legal experts and activists have been claiming Australia is in breach of numerous international conventions we are signatories to. I asked Kon his opinion on these claims.[dropshadowbox align="none" effect="lifted-both" width="650px" height="" background_color="#ffffff" border_width="1" border_color="#dddddd" ]Kon – The first one is the Refugee Convention, we just past the 60th anniversary of Australia ratifying the convention. What is so extraordinary is on the evening of the anniversary we had asylum seekers coming into the ASRC with letters from Department of Immigration lawyers asking them if they can postpone their court hearings. The Minister has technically suspended the refugee convention as it applies to boat arrivals. We are the only industrialised nation in the world where refugees arriving by boat are no longer eligible to be considered for asylum under the refugee convention. Boat arrivals have been excised from the Refugee Convention. The Green’s have said they will challenge that in the senate, and obviously it will be challenged in the courts. But we have actually excluded boat arrivals from the Refugee Convention entirely. Scott Morrison has cynically done that knowing its illegal in the hope Labor will cave in with Temporary Protection Visas. Secondly the convention of Rights of the Child. Offshore processing, sending unaccompanied children, the UNHCR has condemned it. They have said children and families should never be detained or sent to offshore camps – we have an obligation to act in the best interest of children. By sending children offshore and saying we are no longer the guardian of a child, that is a breach. We must do no harm to children, act in the best interest of children, protect the welfare of children, clearly these are not being done. In fact we are contravening the convention, we are jepadising their mental health, physical wellbeing and safety. Cases such as sending profoundly disabled wheelchair bound 4 year old girls to offshore detention centres. Separating a 12 year old boy from his father when the father had a heart attack, they sent the father to Darwin and left the 12 year old without the primary care giver on Christmas Island. If you look at my tweets about Scott Morrison’s first 100 days you can see a litany of these. We are breaching the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Community based asylum seekers are denied the right to work, they’re forced into destitution, denied health care. Threatening people with new code of behavior protocols breaches the ICCPR. The Convention Against Torture, people are continually warning for example the conditions on Manus Is could constitute torture. Denying people water, denying people respite from heat, denying access to basic medical care and confiscating things like hearing aids. Look at that amazing letter from those doctors. [/dropshadowbox]
Photo via @pamelacurr
I asked Kon about the boat push/tow backs and if these breach international conventions.
[dropshadowbox align="none" effect="lifted-both" width="650px" height="" background_color="#ffffff" border_width="1" border_color="#dddddd" ]Kon – Yes for two reasons. Its unlawful under the refugee convention to turn back the boats. When a person is in your territory, in your waters and they are seeking asylum, you have an obligation to receive and process them. You can not turn people away at sea, its a breach of the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) convention, we have an obligation not to endanger the life’s of people at sea in our waters. When the government is craping on saying we’ve discharged and meeting our obligations, of course they haven’t.[/dropshadowbox]
— Bevan Shields (@bevanshields85) January 15, 2014
There has been a lot of debate about the tactics employed by Australian governments to dehumanise and demonise refugees for political purposes. I asked Kon his thoughts on the subject.[dropshadowbox align="none" effect="lifted-both" width="650px" height="" background_color="#ffffff" border_width="1" border_color="#dddddd" ]Kon – I think governments and now Abbott have all been masters of building a really simple narrative and simple slogans that have worked effectively to dehumanise refugees. The idea of the economic migrant, Bob Carr was really good at that. The media lacks the courage to really crack that nut open, they could’ve easily dismantled it.
We’re going to stop the boats sends a simple message that there is a problem. They’re really clever with this. Why do we need to stop the boats? Because these people are illegal. If they’re illegal they don’t deserve the right to law, protection and human rights. These people are queue jumpers and don’t deserve a place in Australian society because they’re not fair go people. They’re ripping off genuine refugees, the myth of the genuine and non-genuine refugee. The deserving and non-deserving. All of that language has worked so effectively. The public looks at them and says- they’re not genuine refugees because they had money and jumped the queue. But the word illegal has been the most powerful way of turning the Australian public against those seeking asylum.[/dropshadowbox]
Since the Abbott government came to power, the rhetoric about refugees has become nastier, the vilification louder and more extreme. I asked Kon if he’s noticed an increase in people speaking out in support of refugees and volunteering their time for organisations like the ASRC in response.[dropshadowbox align="none" effect="lifted-both" width="650px" height="" background_color="#ffffff" border_width="1" border_color="#dddddd" ]Kon – The really heartening this is as bad as it gets and its the worst its ever been, we’re seeing an unprecedented outpouring of support. We’ve got 2065 volunteers booked in for our February volunteer information sessions, which is 4 times the usual numbers. We’ve had two working bees at our new premises in Footscray, and just by posting on social media 75 people came to those two working bees. We’ve had unprecedented support for our Christmas appeal. Its really humbling. The great thing is the worse it gets the more Australian’s are putting up their hands. And its coming from a lot of unexpected sectors, corporate, sporting clubs, religious groups, ethnic groups, community groups and business groups. People are saying I need to do something, I’m ashamed of this, I feel powerless, let me help.[/dropshadowbox]
I finished up by asking Kon if there was anything he wanted to say to NoFibs readers.[dropshadowbox align="none" effect="lifted-both" width="650px" height="" background_color="#ffffff" border_width="1" border_color="#dddddd" ]Kon – I think the most important thing is people are not helpless, people are powerful. The best ways for people to change Australia’s refugee policy if they don’t like where its going and what it stands for is:
- Get informed, know the facts, knowledge is power.
- Get involved, find an organisation, a group, or a way. You don’t even have to necessarily formally volunteer, get involved helping asylum seekers already in your community.
- Be a voice. Once you’re informed use that voice in any space you can to influence and try and create a positive impact.[/dropshadowbox]