In 1976, when I was a young boy, I recall seeing The Voyage of the Damned, a movie about the tragic 1939 voyage of SS St Louis, which carried German Jewish refugees on board. The passengers were denied asylum by Cuba, and sent back to Europe. It is estimated that 600 of the 937 passengers on the SS St Louis died in Nazi concentration camps.
So when I was asked to assist 157 Tamil asylum seekers who made their way to Australian shores last June, I was taken back to that movie – and the risk that the passengers, including children as young as one, might face if returned to their persecutors.
Sri Lanka is a refugee producing country. In 2012, when Sri Lanka’s human rights record was reviewed by the UN, the Australian government told its Sri Lankan counterpart to eliminate torture and abuse by police and security forces. Historically, 90% of Sri Lankan asylum seekers arriving by boat in Australia have been found to be refugees.
After 16 days of sailing, the group approached Christmas Island. People on board reached Australia with a satellite phone, informing them of engine problems. Then suddenly, all contact with the boat ceased.
Despite growing concerns for the passengers’ wellbeing, the Australian government persistently refused to confirm whether they were OK, in Australian custody and, if so, what they planned to do with them.
It was only after we commenced high court action that the government confirmed that the 157 people were in Australian custody on board an Australian vessel. Officials refused to confirm where they were, or where they were being taken. It now appears that the government was trying to take them to India.
With the high court case on foot, the government then removed nine adults and two children from the main group on the customs vessel, and told them they would be put on lifeboats in the middle of the ocean. The adults, who had no navigational experience, were told they had to take the entire group back to India. The adults and children were then separately detained for four or five days, before the government apparently decided to shelve the lifeboat plan.
The minister claims that boat arrivals must be treated harshly to deter deaths at sea but that is at odds with his plan to send the group, including 50 children, across thousands of miles of ocean to put their lives at risk in a five hour lifeboat ride back to India without any experienced navigators.
Finally, after almost a month locked in three windowless rooms for at least 21 hours a day, the government ended the group’s high seas detention by bringing them to the Curtin detention centre.
During the ordeal, Morrison broke his operational silence on the matter to mislead the Australian public, claiming the 157 people were all “economic migrants” who had not made any refugee protection claims, despite his own court documents admitting they had.
The minister’s court documents also revealed the government did not even ask the 157 people why they left Sri Lanka and then India. In other words, there was no attempt made to assess their refugee claims.
He also claimed he had negotiated a humanitarian deal with India for the return of any Indian and possibly non-Indian asylum seekers, ignoring the fact that they are Sri Lankans who deliberately chose to leave India. The Indian high commission this week confirmed it never agreed to accept the return of non-citizens.
Morrison then suggested that we had advised our clients not to speak to Indian officials who were to visit Curtin. We never did. In fact, we had written to the government shortly after the group was brought to Australia, seeking urgent access to all 157 detainees to provide legal advice and asking simple questions about what was proposed in relation to the Indian interviews, offering to engage in a cooperative process.
The government never replied to our letter, and we were able to speak to only three of the 157 people before they were secretly sent on an overnight flight to Nauru last Friday. The government advised us of their transfer through the newspapers. They knew we had sought to meet with all of the group in person at Curtin on Monday or Tuesday this week.
Secret detention at sea. A plan to dump families in lifeboats in the ocean. Frustrating access to lawyers and the courts. Misleading the public and a secret overnight plane transfer. Whatever your views around refugee policy, these are not the hallmarks of an open and fair government that respects the rule of law.
All Australians should be concerned about the lack of due process which the Abbott government is using to hide its cruel asylum seeker policies and the harm it causes. There is something seriously wrong with a system designed to deter people from coming to Australia by intentionally harming those who do survive the boat journey.
The high court case is still on foot, and will consider whether it was lawful under Australian law for the government to intercept the boat and detain 157 people for almost a month in order to undertake the failed attempt to send them back to India. In the meantime, we’re in the process of contacting our clients on Nauru to advise them about their legal options.
The whole ordeal reveals the desperate measures the Australian government is prepared to use to stop the boats, regardless of the human and social cost. It also reveals the government’s hypocrisy. You don’t protect lives at sea by dumping families in the ocean. And you don’t care for people’s humanitarian concerns by sending 50 children to an offshore detention camp that the UNHCR has described as unsafe, inhumane and in breach of international law. (The Guardian)