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Unnecessary suffering

By Bruce Haigh - posted Monday, 19 October 2009


Kevin Rudd has prevented 255 Sri Lankan asylum seekers coming to Australia from Indonesia. The asylum seekers were already at sea when Kevin Rudd put in an urgent call to the Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, requesting that the Indonesian Navy intercept the vessel and escort it back to Indonesia.

The people on the vessel are from Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankans are ethnic Tamils, suffering at the hands of the majority Sinhalese following the defeat of Tamil resistance in a civil war which has waxed and waned tragically for the past 26 years.

About 300,000 Tamils are being held in camps controlled by the Sri Lankan Army under the most appalling conditions, including a shortage of food, medical supplies and adequate shelter. The old and very young are dying at the rate of several hundred a month. Who would not want to escape, particularly with conditions set to deteriorate with the onset of the monsoon season? This weather will also affect the ability of boats to undertake the voyage, so the pressure is on to complete the journey before the weather sets in.

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The British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, admitted to the House of Commons on October 13 that the British government was aware that the extra judicial killing of Tamils has taken place. Others claim that it is ongoing within and outside of the camps.

Australia has not sought humanitarian assistance for Tamils detained in the camps. The Sri Lankan government has denied access to international aid organisations whose protests at this, and the conditions inside the camps, has been muted. The international media has also been denied access in order that their witness will not generate criticism.

Dr Bob Birrell of Monash University says that the Tamils should wait to be processed by UNHCR, but UNHCR is not allowed access to the camps. And if placed in the same situation would he patiently wait to suffer illness and possibly die? I think not.

Australia has not sought access to the camps to process refugee claimants, which in any case is a process fraught with difficulty when conducted under the eyes of the military. In light of its own complacency and compliance Australia can hardly complain when desperate people take matters into their own hands.

When it comes to criticism we have seen how thin skinned Kevin Rudd is. Does this stem from a lack of confidence or courage? There is no way Rudd is going to lose the next election, so why does he let the opposition get away with the wedge on refugees? The issue is not an election winner or spoiler for either major party. Why can’t he get out on the front foot and put the facts relating to refugees fairly and squarely to the Australian people.

The Opposition has no coherent, compassionate or long term policy with regard to the processing of desperate people and has indicated that it is still prepared to play with the lives of those most in need of protection. It does the party no credit.

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Most people arriving by boat are found to be refugees after due process. Illegal immigrants arriving by plane run into the tens of thousands each year, maybe 50,000. Some pay significant sums of money for illegal visas; some stay after arriving on valid visas. In addition refugees are being demonised in the face of some dreadful and corrupt student visa practices.

Kevin Rudd was quite right to castigate the egregious former minister for Immigration, Philip Ruddock, for seeking to claim that the Howard government had “success” with respect to refugee policy, but if Kevin Rudd is to claim any sort of genuine humanitarian success, rather than narrow and cruel political success, he will need to ensure that he quickly processes those that he has sent back to Indonesia.

It is untrue to claim, as Professor Robert Manne of La Trobe University and the Opposition have done recently, that the slightly more humane approach of the Rudd government has led to an increase in refugees seeking to come to Australia by boat. There has been a worldwide increase in the number of people seeking refugee protection. Deterioration in security in Sri Lanka for Tamils and in Afghanistan have pushed people towards the safe haven of Australia.

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About the Author

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972-73 and 1986-88, and in South Africa from 1976-1979

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