The treatment of Asylum-seekers beggars belief
John Pilger on Asylum Seekers in Australia
The treatment of Asylum-seekers beggars belief
One of my first assignments as a young reporter in Sydney was to go to
the airport and ask famous people arriving from overseas what they
thought of Australia. There was a checklist; our beer and beaches were
near the top, followed by our "mateship". If the famous person
hesitated or, in the case of the movie star Elizabeth Taylor, objected
to this asinine interrogation, pleading that they could not possibly
answer the questions because they had never previously set foot in
Australia, they were in big trouble.
When Taylor and her then husband, Mike Todd, the Hollywood producer,
told the press to sod off, they were dogged by negative publicity and
their visit was, in show-business terms, a disaster. Something similar
happened to the great star Ava Gardner, filming Nevil Shute's On the
Beach in Melbourne, about the nuclear apocalypse. Asked what she
thought of Australia, she replied: "I cannot think of a better place
to make a movie about the end of the world."
She was duly unforgiven, and vowed never to return. These days, it can
seem that nothing has changed. Foreigners (and expatriots) who smudge
the picture postcard still excite an indignation unknown in New
Zealand and Canada, especially in a press dominated by Rupert Murdoch,
whose patriotism is distinguished by his abandonment of Australian
citizenship in order to buy television stations in America.
For Godzone's political and media elite, based in Sydney, the 2000
Olympics was regarded as an ultimate rite of passage to the rest of
the world. Small-time politicians pressed the flesh of the
international great and good, Sydney's traffic lights were fixed on
green for the motorcade of the International Olympic Committee, and
civil liberties were suspended so that the authorities could control
those who might interrupt the joy; Aborigines were of particular
concern. And the world duly applauded.
Alas, all those warm millennium feelings are long forgotten as the
Government of John Howard has, at a stroke,demolished the national
image with racist and inhumane policies, shamelessly and aggressively
implemented, currently against desperate refugees.
There is a terrible irony at work here. Last October, as the "war on
terrorism" burst on the world, flags bedecked the Murdoch tabloids as
Australian troops were sent to join the great crusade. This was in
keeping with a long tradition of going to war for great powers and
colonial masters: from the despatch of Sydney Tramway Company horses
to relieve General Gordon at Khartoum (they died on the way) to the
tragic adventures of Gallipoli and Vietnam. No one seemed to know what
the troops headed for Afghanistan would do; and the Americans have
since tried their best to give them odd jobs, such as "commanding" the
American naval blockade of Iraq, which, according to the United
Nations Children's Fund, is mostly responsible for the deaths, every
month, of 6,000 Iraqi children under the age of five.
Australia is not at war with Iraq or any country, but it is at war
with refugees heading for its shores, many of them Iraqis fleeing the
conditions that the American blockade has largely created. For a
nation that bases its popular history on the elevation of its Anzac
"diggers" (soldiers) to a pantheon of mateship, the guardians of a
society of "fair go", the craven campaign against ordinary people at
their most vulnerable has been salutary.
When a freighter, the Tampa, having rescued 400 refugees from almost
certain drowning, approached Australia's shores, the Canberra
government sent special forcesto prevent traumatised men, women and
children from landing. In full battle kit, the soldiers steered the
refugees to miserable conditions on remote Pacific islands, where
several contracted malaria. In their attempts to justify this
contravention of the most basic of human rights, the right of refuge,
Prime Minister Howard and his ministers lied that another group of
refugees had thrown their children overboard as a sacrificial means of
attracting attention. "I find that [the refugees' behaviour] is
against the natural instinct," said Howard. These people, said a
senator, "are repulsive . . . and unworthy of Australia". The then
Labor Party leader, Kim Beazley, joined in the condemnation, to the
disgust of almost everyone. In fact, the refugees had jumped from
their leaking craft when an Australian warship fired across its bows.
No children had been "thrown overboard", admitted Australia's naval
chief, in a rare contradiction of his political master.
Those Iraqis and Afghans who have succeeded in reaching Australia
receive treatment which, for a society proclaiming humanist values,
beggars belief. Many are imprisoned behind razor wire in some of the
most hostile terrain on earth, deliberately isolated from population
centres in "detention centres" run by an American company specialising
in top-security prisons. In their desperation, the refugees, many of
them unaccompanied children, have resorted to suicide, starvation,
arson and mass escapes. Last week, 62 refugees in a camp at Woomera in
the South Australian desert sewed their lips together to protest the
government's admission that it was delaying their asylum application,
"deliberately to break their spirit", say lawyers allowed access to
A study has revealed that most had experienced terrible suffering
before fleeing their homelands. "On many occasions," wrote Robert
Manne, a professor at LaTrobe University in Melbourne, "the refugees
had been required to visit the horror of such experiences in
interrogations by ignorant officials who make it transparent they do
not believe the stories they are told." In one camp, their life
consists of daily musters and nightly headcounts, at 2am and 5am,
under a regime of arbitrary punishments that range from the denial of
visitors to solitary confinement and enforced sedation.
Howard and his ministers have promoted a propaganda exercise of fear
and loathing among the Australian public. Such is Howard's cynicism
that he has never explained to Australians that their country actually
receives one of the smallest numbers of "illegal" asylum-seekers in
the world: about 4,000 a year. Of these, three-quarters are eventually
accepted, but only after mandatory and indefinite imprisonment in
camps described by the former conservative prime minister Malcolm
Fraser as "hell-holes".
The minister responsible is Philip Ruddock, a man who speaks in a
strange, congealed jargon, usually with a smirk. Three years ago,
Ruddock boasted to me that Aboriginal infant mortality was "only"
three times that of white children. Ruddock's abuse of his victims has
become his curious signature. Last year, he referred to a six-year-old
Iraqi boy struck speechless by his experiences in a detention camp as
"it". When an official of Amnesty International told him of the
appalling conditions in the camps on the Pacific island of Nauru,
whose debt-ridden government Australia has bribed to take its boat
people, the minister's jocular jibe was: "Do you think they would
prefer to be at one of our detention centres here?"
The treatment of "white" illegal immigrants is very different. In
2001, there were 6,160 Britons who had overstayed the duration of
their visas, and as many other Europeans. None goes to a detention
camp and most are given a "bridging visa". It is said that Howard's
"tough stand" against the combined "threat" posed by helpless refugees
and international terrorists gave him his election victory last
November. "Is Australia safe?" pleaded a headline in the Melbourne
Age, in probably the safest place on the planet. Murdoch's Sunday
Telegraph joined in with: "Exclusive: A traitor's innocent son asks .
. . will Dad blow up Australia?" The Murdoch newspapers' campaign
against an Australian drifter, David Hicks, who fought with the
Taliban, is matched by Howard's disgraceful refusal to demand that the
United States hand him back to his own country or treat him as a PoW.
There is a correlation between this false hysteria and the "tough
stand" also taken against Aborigines, a minority of around 2 per cent
of the population. When an Aboriginal boxer, Anthony Mundine, remarked
on television that Americans had "brought [terrorism] upon themselves
[for] what they done in the history of time", he was all but lynched.
He is a Muslim. Thanks to his "traitorous talk", crowed one of the
media lynch party, "word is that his promising international career is
As Australia is entrenched as yet another colony of the "global
economy", the tragedy for those seeking personal pride in the
achievements of their nation is the suppression of a political history
of which there is much to be proud, and whose wonderfully subversive
stories are seldom told.
Australia was the first country where ordinary people won a 35-hour
week, half a century ahead of Europe and America. Long before most of
the world, Australia had a minimum wage, child benefits and pensions.
Australian women were the first to be able to vote and stand for
parliament. The secret ballot was invented in Australia.
In my lifetime, Australia has been transformed from a second-hand
Anglo-Irish society to one of the most culturally diverse places on
earth, and this has happened peacefully, if by default. By most
standards of civilisation, the transformation is a remarkable
achievement. Of course, indigenous Australians were never included.
Their extraordinary civilisation, their survivalism and oneness with
an ancient land, was not taught, until recently, as a source of
national pride; and their inclusion, still to be achieved, may well be
the key to what the small liberal elite constantly refers to as "the
search for identity" and which means overcoming a legacy of brutal
Last week, Pauline Hanson retired from politics, mainly because the
Howard government pre-empted and absorbed her populism. Her openly
racist One Nation party at its peak captured 10 per cent of the
national vote: about a million people. Now they are Howard's people.
She appealed not only to those left out of the consumerism that has
taken over a society that once had the most equitable spread of
personal income in the world and is now one of the most unequal. She
also had middle-class support, though this is seldom mentioned.
"Pauline, you made us more honest", said the headline over an article
in the Sydney Morning Herald. The writer, Margo Kingston, who
apparently thinks of herself as a liberal, waffled about "the
unfinished legacy of the redhead from Ipswich (Queensland)" and about
Hanson's stimulating contribution to a national "debate". In fact,
Hanson encouraged dishonesty by giving bigotry credence.
In recent years, this "debate" has been influenced by a group of David
Irving-style denialists who say there was no slaughter of the first
Australians, no rapacious past. This chorus of windbags of the "lunar
right" (a term used by one columnist who likes to pretend he is not
one of them) dominates a press with a narrower ownership than anywhere
in the west. Murdoch owns 70 per cent of the capital city press; and
journalists and broadcasters who speak too freely must consider the
consequences, especially those in the state-funded Australian
It is more than 20 years since David Williamson's fine play Sons of
Cain described this intimidation, and little has changed. Only a few,
like the investigative writers Brian Toohey and Ken Davidson, have
bothered to understand and consistently alert the public to vital
issues, such as the secretive trade deal that the Howard government is
stitching up with the United States and which will allow American
multinationals to subvert much of Australia's fragile primary industry
and manipulate its trade.
A great many Australians care about this, and express their
powerlessness. Over a year ago, almost a million people filled the
Sydney Harbour Bridge in protest against the treatment of the
Aborigines. It is difficult to find anyone not appalled by the policy
on refugees. But their gestures, however noble and charitable, are no
longer enough, now that Hanson's "unfinished legacy" has found its
true legitimacy in an elected government.
For many, there is the spectre of comparison with apartheid South
Africa. The other day, Andrea Durbach, formerly of Cape Town and now a
prominent human rights advocate in Sydney, said she did not believe
the horrors of apartheid South Africa would ever be reproduced in
Australia. "What may be coming is not as crude," she said. "The
language is not as crude. It's much more subtle; it's much more
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