A young Sri Lankan man stood up among a sea of white faces at a weekend forum in Brisbane to say he had come to Australia as a 'boat person', had spent time in detention - but not at Manus or Nauru. He thanked people for caring about boat people and spoke up for other Sri Lankans who needed asylum as much as he had. But, he said, no one knew what had happened to the 200 Sri Lankans sent back earlier by Australia because nobody had heard from them.
Recently the Tamil Refugee Council has claimed at least 11 people handed over to the Sri Lankan navy have been tortured by that country's intelligence services (5/7/14) and that it had been a week since the Tamil community, refugee supporters and the media last heard from a boat close to Christmas Island carrying 153 Tamil asylum seekers.
The Australian Government confirmed (7/7/14) that 41 asylum seekers had been handed over to Sri Lankan authorities after being intercepted near the Cocos Islands. Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said one of the boats was carrying 37 Sinhalese and four Tamils from Sri Lanka. He said these asylum seekers were processed at sea and transferred to the Sri Lankan navy, near Sri Lanka. By Monday afternoon public response to this news began to hit the airwaves.
The weekend Queensland Refugee Action Collective forum had been called primarily to focus on what was happening to refugees in off-shore detention camps. It heard from an Amnesty International worker and from others who have worked at or visited one or other of the off-shore camps. A number stressed they had signed stringent confidential documents which prevented them from airing the true circumstances of camp conditions. Nevertheless, the picture that has emerged is horrifying and a total denial of the image of a generous, multicultural democratic Australia.
The audience heard how men have to live in crowded tents under a climate of fiercely hot, humid weather, with no air flow. Even unaccompanied children live in the tents in the intense heat. Daily, refugee males have to queue for food for two hours with no cover, not even hats, under a scorching sun. At the next mealtime they have to queue for two hours again. They also queue for showers and can find themselves supervised by camp staff. There is no privacy anywhere. In spare time there is nothing to do but sit, or as one ex-staff member demonstrated by pacing, prowl four squares of space like big zoo animals in the bad old days. One speaker only had to hint at the state of the lavatories to make the audience squirm. In one camp there are children in detention but there are no toys or play facilities for them. Even young children were becoming depressed, he said. Some fathers blame themselves for bringing wives and families to such a place.
The speakers described the prevalent atmosphere at the camps as one of 'helpless hopelessness', if not caused by, certainly aggravated by the lack of information given to refugees about their future. This had led to incidents of self-harm, the sewing up of lips, attempted suicides and violence. In this atmosphere tensions inevitably built up and he predicted further riots. Suffering so much uncertainty about what would become of them, refugees came to see themselves as victims and lost any sense of trust. They were given no valid explanations and it drives them 'mad', he said. Some refugees become so traumatised and damaged they are never likely to recover. When some recently returned to the camp after two weeks in an Australian hospital, they became completely traumatised and when spoken to, just looked down and cried. They could not answer. Many of them were already broken and in his view, would never again be capable of fitting into society.
Although the camps are in PNG and Nauru, in actuality the decisions are taken in Canberra, two speakers said. 'Everything is controlled by Canberra.'
In November the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) published two damning assessments of Australia's offshore detention regime, concluding the policies breached international law and subjected people to harsh deterrence: 'Asylum seekers on both Manus and Nauru, who may be true refugees, are being encouraged to return to their country of origin as a result of the oppressive conditions offshore. On Nauru in particular it is noted that asylum seekers are put under 'significant pressure to return to their countries of origin', its report stated.
On Manus the UNHCR observed: '…the majority of asylum seekers live in "cramped accommodation conditions" with some asylum seekers placing their bedding on the floor to escape the "'particularly oppressive" hot conditions. It observes that one block "smelt putrid and had blocked shower drains with several inches of filthy water flooding the floor".
A forum speaker said that the current treatment of refugees should be viewed as a deliberate exercise to make them volunteer to go back home and that the agreement with PNG for the detention camp to operate there is at the moment for one year only. When he talked to some PNG local men about the possible resettlement of the refugees in PNG, they replied as one that this would never happen. They were 'not be welcome and their lives would be at risk,' they said. In April it was announced by Immigration Minister Scott Morrison and his PNG counterpart that the refugees would be re-settled in PNG. The statement was later watered down by PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill and the idea seems to have evaporated. Recently a busload of refugees was to be taken out of the compound for a change of scene. The bus was stopped by local PNG men at the entrance and forced to reverse back into the camp.
An alternative to indefinite detention has been put forward by QC Julian Burnside. He says, '... we deliberately, consciously mistreat them for political purposes; it costs us a fortune to treat them this way. I do not advocate an open borders policy. Initial detention for people who arrive without papers is reasonable. But it should be limited to one month, for preliminary health and security checks'. He suggested refugees should then be released on condition they remain in contact with the Immigration Department until their refugee status has been decided; they should be allowed to work or study; have access to Centrelink and Medicare benefits; and until their refugee status was determined, live in specified rural or regional towns'. As Burnside sees it, there are plenty of slowly shrinking country towns and the National Farmers Federation had estimated there are thousands of unfilled jobs in country areas. By Burnside's calculations this would save the country more than $3 billion a year. 'But it won't happen until someone shows enough leadership that we are behaving badly because we have been misled about the character of the people who wash up on our shores', he writes.
Former Liberal Prime Minister Malcom Fraser was quoted by SBS TV on Sunday saying that sending back the refugees was 'redolent of sending the Jews back to the Nazis.' Earlier this year he commented, 'Displaced people are a global phenomenon and the Refugee Convention is the world's agreement to protect people fleeing harm. We made this agreement after the atrocities of World War II, recognising the need to protect people escaping persecution. Sadly, there are now many more people fleeing similarly violent harm. This is the global situation and Australia cannot resile from it.' (Sydney Morning Herald, 20/2/14).