Gillard should forget minders and listen to Carlton

I’m a fan of Michael Carlton‘s who writes the backpage on Fairfax’s weekend NewsReview. Last weekend, he tackled the ‘farce of the mining tax’, the latest sympton of what he calls Labor’s ‘terminal disease.’

Vintage Carlton. But then came the very good bit about Tony Abbott.

“Tony Abbott was oddly silent all week. Invisible, even. There was no silly TV stunt at a fish shop or a widget factory, no poncing around in Lycra or hard hat. He kept his head down, allowing his shadow ministers and his obsequious media claque to do the public gloating over the opinion poll.

It was clever politics. Any comment from him would have looked like smart-alec hubris, which is one reason that voters have so disliked him in the past. Abbott still believes he was born to The Lodge and will do anything to get there, but he is learning to disguise this. The election is still his to lose, as his former mate John Hewson managed to do in 1993.

With Labor in turmoil and the smell of blood in the water, the opposition blithely carries on as a policy-free zone and gets away with it.”

Now read this carefully. If you enjoyed it last weekend, you will enjoy it again.

“Yet you know exactly what the Coalition will do if it wins government in September. First up there’ll be the Gothic horror of a Labor budget “black hole” – even worse than expected, we’ll be told. This will be the pretext for a savage round of expenditure “savings” and the sacking of thousands of public servants.

That done, all the same-old, clapped-out Tory machinery will creak into place. Once again there’ll be grovelling deference to the Americans in our defence and foreign policies. Billions will be wasted on bright and shiny military hardware, just as the Howard government did by buying 59 useless main battle tanks for the army, the navy’s Seasprite helicopters that could fly only in daylight in fine weather, and the eye-watering extravagance of the struggling Joint Strike Fighter project for the air force.

Domestically, Labor’s reforms in healthcare and education will be scrapped, with money ripped out of the public sector to be shovelled back into private hospitals and private schools. Climate change will be crap again. WorkChoices will eventually re-emerge with a new name; there will be a swingeing ideological attack on the ABC, enforced by a whopping funding cut; the national broadband network will be gutted; social reforms like same-sex marriage will be further off than ever; and the gap between rich and poor will grow ever wider, as it does in the US.

Been there, done that, deja vu all over again.”

Hard to sum it up better than that. Many of us have been there before and those that haven’t, don’t need to. Tip for Labor. Get rid of the mindless repetitious ‘working men and women’ version of Howard’s ‘working families’. Carlton, perhaps jokingly, says that he emailed John McTernan, your PR “apparatchik from the British Labour Party” last Christmas suggesting a drink but he hasn’t heard back.  I would take him at his word and sit down and have a chat with him. He might have more ideas. I doubt he’ll charge you an arm and a leg, like those expensive lobbyists and advertising firms.

For a start, I’d ditch trying to jolly up those journalists who have been campaigning to get rid of you for years and deliver Carlton’s column to every home in Australia. Skywrite and tweet it phrase by phrase.

Then I would get try one last treatment for that terminal disease and instead of dumping on the Greens follow their advice – fix the mining tax, stop the appalling abuse of asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus, speak up about war crimes in Sri Lanka and restore the income Labor’s taken from single parents and give those on unemployment allowance a rise of $50 which just about everyone who has tried living on the allowance recommends as a minimum.

Note : The last 40 words in the first published version of this post were slightly different. Edited for clarity and accuracy.

Australian government risks lives of Sri Lankan asylum seekers

Yesterday, in a dramatic backdown, the Australian government agreed to allow 56 Tamils asylum seekers who were due to be deported to Sri Lanka to make applications to be granted asylum as refugees. Today, the Australian government is once again planning to deport another group of Tamils who have been subject to a “screening out” process which denies them the right to proceed with a a full refugee application.

The decision to allow 56 of those awaiting deportation to stay followed an application to the High Court to examine whether the Tamils had been given a proper chance to make refugee applications. Rather than go ahead with the hearing, the government “screened” them back into the refugee process.

On November 30, another group of “screened out” Sri Lankans were deported. On arrival, they were imprisoned outside the capital of Sri Lanka at Colombo in Negombo prison. While some have now been released, they are likely to be subject to continued surveillance and discrimination.

,Hummingbird Stories published an account of what happened to these asylum seekers at the Northern Immigration Centre before they were released.

The asylum seekers say they were taken at 4 am for brief interviews and expected there would be further interviews with case managers. They have since said that they had been constantly interrupted and accused of being liars. Serco guards then refused any further requests for interviews. Some asked for access to documents in which they had alleged persecution in their property but were refused, exposing them to further risk on their return.

On December 3, the Bishop of Mannar, Dr Rayappu Joseph wrote to the Australian government: “it is highly dangerous for the asylum seekers from the North and East of Sri Lanka to be sent back to Sri Lanka in the prevailing political situation in our regions.” According to Dr Joseph, threats, discrimination, restrictions, surveillance and questioning are routinely used leaving those who are deported living in fright and fear. It is hard to see what good reason the Federal Minister for Immigration Chris Bowen could have for disbelieving the Bishop and believing the Sri Lankan government which has got a proven record of suppressing the truth and is accused of committing and covering up war crimes.

Human rights groups have documented cases where those returning to Sri Lanka have been severely tortured. As The Independent reported in September, Human Rights Watch has detailed 13 credible cases where failed Sri Lankan asylum seekers from Europe have been returned and tortured since the end of the civil war in 2009. Freedom from Torture  has uncovered a further 24 cases where voluntary returnees have been tortured.

It is this sort of evidence and scrutiny that the Australian government is avoiding by its deportations and decision to avoid court action. As Refugee Action Coalition spokesman Ian Rintoul wrote in a press release:

“This has been a victory for the 56 men who had been denied justice by the federal government. But others in detention still remain potential victims of the dubious practice … The government has lot of explaining to do. It has been desperate to avoid the court and any public scrutiny of its screening out process. It has virtually admitted that it cannot defend the way in which screening out decisions are being made. Now the government has to act to ensure that safety of those deported as a result of the dubious screening out interviews … The Australian ambassador should be instructed to attend Negombo jail to ensure that all those jailed by the Rajapaksa regime after being returned from Australia are safe and that they are immediately released and given Australian government protection.”

In a further release, Rintoul said that although deported asylum seekers had been released from Negombo prison, some still had to report to intelligence. “If the Minister was confident of the legality of the screening out process, he would reveal the details of the screening out interviews. He won’t reveal the details because they are arbitrary and indefensible.”

Asylum Seeker Resource Centre spokesperson Pamela Curr told the ABC that she had  spoken to a staff member at the detention centre who was appalled at the way in which Sri Lankan men were being interviewed. She said:

“The most serious and basic tenet of the Refugee Convention is non-refoulement, a French word meaning that people cannot and must not be returned to persecution.
What this says is that the Australian Government is breaching that most basic tenet of the Refugee Convention….When they sent people back to Sri Lanka, and they’re imprisoned and beaten – and I have contacts in Negombo who have reported to me that people are being beaten in that prison – then we are sending them home to be persecuted and we know that.”

There is no way that the Australian government could not be well aware of what can happen to forcibly returned asylum seekers. In July this year, a SMH investigation uncovered instances where of both Sinhalese and Tamil asylum seekers sent home from Australia, or stopped by the Australian government from ever reaching the country, have been sent back to systematic state-sanctioned abuse including beatings, imprisonment and torture. As one man told SMH’s Ben Doherty:

“They hung me upside down with ropes and put a pole behind my arms, then they hit me with batons. They hung me upside down at 11am and they took me down at 3pm. They hung three of us up, but only two of us came down alive. The other man died.”

Reports by several Australian journalists  have provided strong evidence that there are economic migrants amongst the Sri Lankans who have arrived on boats. But they also acknowledge that others are political refugees who will be in danger of being killed, imprisoned or denied work if returned to Sri Lanka.  By punishing a whole group, the Australian government, urged on by the Opposition puts innocent lives of persecuted people at risk. There is a long history of suppression of dissent and persecution of those who do not support the government in Sri Lanka. We deny their rights and risk their lives if we discriminate against asylum seekers, just because not everyone is a political refugee.

Refugee policy – a dangerous lottery for Sri Lankan asylum seekers

Today, the Australian government released more than 500 men, most of whom are Sri Lankan, from detention on bridging visas into the community. Most of these men have arrived since August when the Gillard government reintroduced its harsh new policy aimed at deterring people from traveling by boat to seek asylum.

The men were flown from Darwin to Melbourne and Sydney.They will be expected to live on an allowance which is less than the dole, which scores of community groups recently told a Senate Committee was not enough to cover basic needs. Their current visas will expire in June and until then they will not be allowed to work or study. Although Australians who offer voluntary help to asylum seekers will do what they can, these asylum seekers will be at risk of becoming homeless. But at least they will not be imprisoned or tortured in Sri Lanka.

But while these men were being flown across Australian, 45 less fortunate people, including seven Tamils who also arrived recently on boats were being flown from Christmas Island to Darwin and then back to Sri Lanka. They were accompanied on the airforce plane by a team of Federal police who will deliver them to authorities in Sri Lanka.

As a spokesperson for the Refugee Asylum Resource Centre put it:

No names, no evidence of refugee determination, no access to advice. It is reported that there were 7 Tamil men among those returned. Australia engaged in the dirty business of re-foulement.Who will ever know what happens to these men and who will care?

Refoulement is a French word which, in the context of refugees, means returning asylum seekers to their country of origin where they may face human rights abuses. Non- refoulement is an important principle of refugee rights which as a signatory of the United Nations convention on refugees, Australia is supposed to follow.

These men are only the latest of hundreds of Sri Lankans who have been deported. Many have had no chance to make proper applications for asylum. The government initially claimed that whole groups of arrivals were failing to claim refugee status. But this week, the government withdrew from fighting a High Court case in which lawyers acting for asylum seekers would have argued that the Immigration department had failed to provide a proper opportunity to make an application.

Over recent weeks, Sri Lankan refugees have been involuntarily and quietly spirited out of Australia with no legal or other independent advice. Usual procedures were not followed. On November 23 for instance, approximately 15 Sri Lankans including two women were escorted onto a plane parked behind an airport building. Security was provided by Federal police and private Serco guards. Each person was taken from the bus and ‘escorted’ by two men onto the plane. The whole process took a long time as some were reluctant to go and were physically ‘assisted’.

No one knows what has happened to this group but this week, Fairfax’s Ben Doherty visited Negombo prison where those deported are sometimes held on their arrival. Megaraj Suresh, a returned Tamil man from Batticaloa, told Doherty he had been harassed and beaten by Sri Lankan “government people” because he campaigned for the Tamil National Alliance party. He has previously been jailed for his political activity but said Australia government officials did not listen to his claim. “I had only one interview to determine my case, they had already decided to send us back,” he said.”They didn’t do proper research, they didn’t care about my circumstance, or even look at my documents, they were not honest in their assessment.”

A spokesman for the United Nations in Canberra said the agency was “troubled” by the way Australia was processing people’s claims. While people not found to be refugees can be returned, the first step must be a fair and accurate process to assess any protection claims that are raised.”The current procedures raise troubling questions as to both fairness and accuracy, which we have raised with the Australian government, ” the spokesperson told Fairfax media.

Other Sri Lankan asylum seekers are on Nauru which was visited yesterday by Opposition Immigration Shadow Minister Scott Morrison. According to the asylum seekers facebook page, he told Sri Lankans to return home ”as you have no problems back home and it is wise for you to go back or rather you have not problems to return.” Morrison’s other suggestion is for Australian to provide more support to the Sri Lankan government to develop their navy so it can more effectively turn back boats.

While the Gillard government and Opposition compete with each other to see who can be toughest on asylum seekers, they continue to  ignore the advice of large human rights organisations. In the last two months alone, Amnesty InternationalHuman Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group have raised concerns about continuing extra-judicial killings, torture, enforced disappearances and the lack of judicial independence, persecution of journalists and lack of media freedom..

On November 12, the executive officer of the Brisbane branch of the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission Peter Arndt put out a statement asking the government to pursue the issue of human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. He said that Catholic clergy in Sri Lanka have told him that there has been no improvement in the human rights situation of Tamils since the end of the civil conflict in 2009. Unfortunately the Australian government continues to be prepared to return people to this situation without giving them a fair opportunity to explain their case.