Review of The People Smuggler, by Robin de Crespigny, Penguin, 2012
Mark Goudkamp, Refugee Action Coalition
IT IS December 2010. After finally being released from the Villawood detention centre, a refugee and his mother watch TV in horror as an asylum boat smashes into the rocks off Christmas Island.
He follows the ‘debate’ that follows, where ‘evil people smugglers’ are blamed, and Julia Gillard and Chris Bowen coin the phrase: the people smugglers’ business model.
“They declare they are going to smash this mysterious identity by any means. I laugh out loud when I hear it. Do they think there are men in suits sitting around boardroom tables somewhere devising strategies? Has no one told them people smuggling is an amorphous rag-tag network run by word of mouth and mobile phones? There are no records or bank accounts. No spreadsheets or business plans. They pop up wherever people are trying to escape and disappear when they are no longer needed.”
Ali Al Jenabi’s words come at the end of The People Smuggler, the epic life story of this Iraqi refugee turned smuggler. Originally conceived as a film, Robin de Crespigny’s wonderfully written book projects Ali’s brave and authentic voice in a way that is captivating and compelling. Read more
This statement was released by Hazara asylum seekers inside Darwin detention centre to explain the aims of their protest:
We the Hazara Afghan Asylum seekers held a peaceful protest in Darwin detention centre with number of 100 asylum seekers on 24 September 2011.
We strongly condemn the act of target killings of Hazaras in Pakistan and Afghanistan and we pass our condolences to those grieved families
The aim of protest was to let the Humanitarian nations and the UN know about the Hazaras Persecutions and genocide in Pakistan and Afghanistan and take notice of the Hazaras Target killings. Asylum seeker from different compounds gathered and shared their concerns.
The asylum seekers held banners saying, “Is being Hazara still a crime?”; Why UN is silent ?; Stop killing of innocent Hazaras, Is there any one to hear Hazaras voices, NO More Killings, UN wake up and take notice of the current situations,
The protest was held following news that from 31 August 2011 till 23 September, more than 60 Hazaras were executed ruthlessly in Pakistan and Afghanistan. On 2 February, 2009 UNHCR sub-office Chief John Soloki from the Chaman Housing area in Quetta, Pakistan was kidnapped the whole world raised their concerns and protested world wide but today when Hazara genocide has reached to its peak non of the Nations of the worlds takes notice this.
Our demands from immigration department was to know that Hazaras live a colonial life which consists of a father, a mother, sisters and brothers, etc. whose lives are at an extreme danger in Pakistan and Afghanistan and the asylum seekers are much too concerned about their families living as illegal refugees in Pakistan and Afghanistan where is no life guarantee for any Hazaras.
The peaceful protest continued for 2 hours and At the end of the peaceful protest the asylum seekers returned to their compounds. But the anxiety and their worries remain. We would like to request all Hazaras of the world to raise their voices against the brutalities on innocent killings of Hazaras
Sayed, who has recently been released from Villawood detention centre after being forced to flee first Burma, then Malaysia, asked us to post this thank you letter to his supporters, along with photos below of Sayd at the recent “Villawood: Survival + Resistance” art show at the ICE building in Parramatta.
A letter to Sayed Kasim’s supporters
My name is Sayed Kasim and I would like to thank the Australian government and all of the people who supported my family and me during the one year and ten months that I spent in the Villawood Immigration and Detention Centre.
My troubles began in my homeland of Burma. As a member of the Rohingya Muslim minority, I was not allowed to receive any public or secondary school education. Instead I was educated in the religious school in my village. My membership in the Democratic Party for Human Rights also put me at odds with the Burmese government. After applying to the authorities to open a school in my village, I was seized and then tortured by the Burmese military.
In 1992, I escaped to Malaysia, where I registered as a refugee with the UNHCR. I met my wife and married in Malaysia in 2003. We had four children. There, I opened a school for the children of Rohingya refugees in the city of Klang in 2005. However, in 2009 I was targeted by a large religious party in Malaysia who resent the presence of Rohingya refugees, and who threatened my life on many occasions. After it became clear that neither the UNHCR, various NGOs, nor the Malaysian police were able to help me, I was forced to leave my wife and children and take a boat to Australia. If I had had the money, I would have brought them with me.
On 4 January 2010, I arrived at Christmas Island and was given refugee status after 6 months in detention. However I was then to wait over a year for my security clearance from ASIO. My wife had no means of livelihood during this time, and was forced to put my eldest son in an orphanage. She became homeless for two days before finding temporary refuge in the home of another refugee. During this time, I felt powerless and became extremely distressed. My family were starving and losing all hope of survival. Yet thanks to the kindness and generosity of my supporters here in Australia, I was able to send money to my wife, who could then afford a home and food for our children. My son was taken out of the orphanage and reunited with the family.
My heartfelt thanks go out to the people who have supported me: Bert Mendelsohn, Peter Wise, Helena Ameisen, Safdar Ahmed, Bilquis Ghani, Mahmood Ghani, Ann-Marie Meeks, Carl Connor, Mark Goudkamp, Graham Thom, Abdulah Zayied, Annarose Robinson, Naza Alkhateeb, Jessica Hill, Sarah Whitney, Jessica Compton, and everyone else who followed my case.
After 20 months in detention, I received the news that my security clearance came through and am now experiencing my first days of freedom in this country. Words cannot express my happiness, given that I was not truly free in the past, neither in Burma nor in Malaysia. I would like to thank the Australian Government and my supporters for giving me a new life and a new future for my family. And because human rights apply to everyone, I call on the Australian government to release people from detention. I am particularly concerned to see that other asylum seekers are going through the kind of agony that I experienced.
With peace, Sayed Kasim.
Julia Gillard and Chris Bowen are pushing ahead with new legislative amendments designed to get around the High Court and allow the Malaysia solution to proceed. Tony Abbott has announced that the Liberals will not support the new laws, and the government has rejected his proposed amendment that would have meant asylum seekers could only be sent to countries that have signed the UN Convention on refugees, such as Nauru.
The Labor caucus has approved Gillard’s new amendments, despite significant opposition from inside the caucus. The refugee movement has been encouraged by the reports that Labor MPs are considering crossing the floor or boycotting the vote. It is an indication of the growing community support for putting an end to the disgraceful race to the bottom between Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott.
At this stage new legislation is unlikely to pass through parliament. But further efforts by the government to get up new legal changes are possible, before the government plans to push for a vote on them on Wednesday. If parliament passes any amendments RAC will hold a protest this Thursday at 12.30pm at the Department of Immigration, Lee St, City.
In the meantime, RAC is urging people to contact their local MPs to make sure the law is not changed, by urging MPs to vote against any proposed amendments designed to allow the Malaysia deal and other expansions of offshore processing to proceed. Read more
Below is an assessment by RAC of what the decision in the High Court over the Malaysia solution means. We will discuss the ramifications at RAC’s next organising meeting this Monday night, to which all are welcome: 6pm Monday Sept 5 at the NSW Teachers federation building 23-33 Mary st, Surry Hills, walking distance from Central station.
Yesterday’s High Court decision has found that the Malaysia Agreement is unlawful. Politically, it is a significant blow to the Gillard government that has invested so much in selling this Agreement as its answer to the Liberals carping on about Nauru.
However, there is no sign – as yet – that the government is now about to take refugee policy in a humanitarian direction (see some of Bowen’s comments below).
The refugee movement can take some sustenance from the decision. The refugee movement fought Howard to a standstill. We now have to do the same thing with the Gillard government.
The High Court decision is a significant obstacle to the government finding a offshore country that will satisfy the High Courts criteria for a “safe third country” to process asylum seekers.
This doesn’t mean that the government won’t try – hence Bowen’s statement that he won’t even rule out considering opening Nauru.
We will have to wait to see what the government’s actually does in response.
The Gillard government has suffered a setback. However, regardless what happens with offshore processing, the government’s offshore processing on Christmas Island and its mandatory detention regime remains intact. There are now over 6000 people in detention. The “factories of mental illness” are relentlessly taking their toll. Read more
Prime Minister Julia Gillard has used a report by a hand-picked “Expert Panel” to announce the re-opening of offshore detention for asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru. These are the same locations used under John Howard’s Pacific Solution.
Labor closed the Pacific Solution on coming to power in 2007, but has now moved to embrace Howard’s anti-refugee policy. Labor’s adoption of the policies of the Coalition saw Tony Abbott agree to pass the legislation, ensuring it became law. Labor has also said it supports “in principle” all the other recommendations of the “Expert Panel”.
What’s wrong with the Pacific Solution?
John Howard held 1637 asylum seekers in the Pacific Solution for up to five years. Former UN Human Rights Commission Secretary, John Pace, visited Nauru in 2001 for Amnesty International and reported: “Conditions are harsh, with the heat and humidity consistently in the upper thirties and health facilities are basic. Medical staff does its best, but is nowhere near providing the essential psychological care that these people need, and need more with every day that passes.”1
After just over a year, the head psychiatrist on Nauru, Dr Martin Dormaar, quit, labelling the camp “a psychiatrist’s nightmare”.
Tropical disease is rife. About one in six people living on Manus Island contract malaria each year. Nauru does not have reliable water or electricity supplies. When refugee advocate Phil Glendenning visited Nauru in 2010, water, “was off between 9:00am and 5:00pm… [people] were unable to flush toilets in those hours”.
The purpose of dumping people in such remote locations is to deny them proper legal support, medical services and contact with the Australian public. Nauru is 3000 kilometres from the Australian mainland, while Manus Island lies 300 kilometres north of the main island of Papua New Guinea.
The last detainee on Manus Island, Aladdin Sisalem, who was left in the detention centre on his own for ten months, described how, “One day, or two days, or even, after two years, you end up having a breakdown or a trauma, post-traumatic stress and other psychological issues. You have to live with it for the rest of your life.”
How is Gillard’s version different?
In some ways Labor’s revived Pacific Solution is worse than Howard’s. Gillard says that to provide a “deterrent” refugees must get “no advantage” from arriving in Australia by boat. Therefore the government wants to force them to spend as long on Nauru and Manus Island as those who wait in camps for resettlement in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia. Gillard has said that asylum seekers could be made to wait for “up to four or five years”.
But the idea there is an orderly “queue” in refugee camps overseas is a myth.
Some people wait decades for resettlement. If everyone currently in Malaysia joined a queue the wait would be longer than ten years—and is increasing every year as more people arrive annually than gain resettlement. As the Refugee Council puts it, the global refugee system does not resemble a queue so much as a ticket in a lottery.
The new legislation also removes the status of the Immigration Minister as the guardian of children and unaccompanied minors sent offshore—meaning they can be detained indefinitely and forcibly deported.
How much will this cost?
While Immigration Minister Chris Bowen says final costs are “unknown” the Expert Panel estimated reopening Nauru would cost $1.4 billion and Manus Island $0.9 billion.2 Based on the estimates of accommodating 2100 people between the two facilities this amounts to over $1 million per asylum seeker. Under Howard the Pacific Solution cost more than $500,000 per person.
Why is the government doing this?
The government’s real goal is to “stop the boats”, and compete with Tony Abbott about who can best keep out refugees. Gillard outlined this aim before the 2010 election when she announced her now failed plan for an offshore processing centre in East Timor. This desire is driven by xenophobia and electoral expediency, not any real “problem” with the number of boat arrivals, which continue to be tiny. Even this year’s “record” number of less than 8500 is only 4.5 per cent of our annual immigration intake.
But more recently the government has claimed a humanitarian motive. Julia Gillard says, “our aim here is to stop people risking their lives at sea”, citing such tragedies as the Christmas Island shipwreck in 2010 and the boat sinkings in June. But almost all these deaths were caused by the appalling response of Australia’s search and rescue services, who have been told to prioritise stopping boats, not saving lives. Tony Kevin, author of Reluctant Rescuers, has written that the “rescue response is ad hoc and unpredictable… we act when we choose to”. As a result, “Hundreds of people have died when they could and should have been saved”. Rescue services did nothing for 36 hours in June after learning a boat was in trouble. As a result 90 people drowned.
In addition Australian government “deterrence” policies have made the trip less safe. These include detention in Indonesia of anyone caught trying to get a boat, criminalisation of people smuggling and the sinking or burning of boats that arrive, which means only old, unsafe vessels make the trip.
Is there an alternative?
Government policy is driving asylum seekers onto boats because they have no realistic chance of resettlement once they get to Indonesia and Malaysia. Many refugees wait years: 80 Tamils from a boat stopped and held at the Indonesian port of Merak at Australia’s request who were promised resettlement by the Rudd government in 2009 are still waiting.
At the end of July there were about 6600 refugees and asylum seekers registered with the UNHCR in Indonesia. Yet Australia accepted an average of only 60 people a year from Indonesia between 2001 and 2009. The most up to date figures for last year show Australia accepted just 97.3 The government has now agreed to increase the overall refugee intake, as recommended by the Expert Panel, from 13,750 to 20,000 a year. But without guaranteed resettlement for those found to be refugees in Indonesia, many will still have little option but to risk getting on a boat. The Expert Panel suggested immediately accepting 3200 refugees from Indonesia to clear the backlog of recognised refugees there. But the government has set aside just 400 places.
These steps could reduce the number of refugees that must risk taking a boat. But there will always be some that have no option but to take this risk—such as the asylum seekers that catch boats directly from Sri Lanka. When they come they should be welcomed.
What else did the Expert Panel recommend?
- The Malaysia Solution
The Panel also backed Gillard’s proposed Malaysia people swap deal, that would see 800 asylum seekers dumped in Malaysia where they will live in limbo, without rights to work, education or genuine protection.
While it proposes “strengthening safeguards and accountability” before a Malaysia deal could be implemented, it encourages the government to, “immediately pursue amendments to the Arrangement it negotiated with Malaysia in 2011”.
- Turning back the boats
While the Panel points out this is not currently possible, due to the need for consent of the country to which asylum are to be returned, it praises it as “an effective disincentive” to refugees and says it may become possible if circumstances change through the negotiation of a regional agreement.
Turning back boats is a dangerous practice that undermines the right of asylum seekers to claim asylum at all. Five asylum seekers died during two attempts to turn back the boats under John Howard. Hundreds of others had to be rescued when boats foundered in the process of being turned back.
- Excising the whole of Australia from the migration zone
John Howard excised territories such as Christmas Island and Ashmore Reef, but the report’s recommendation would mean that any boat arrivals that manage to make it to the mainland could be processed offshore too.
- New restrictions on family reunion
The Panel has recommended that family reunion through the Special Humanitarian Program be abolished, and instead moved to the general Family Migration Program. It suggests increasing the Family Migration program by 4000 places, which would speed up family reunion. But there will now be an upfront fee of $2000 for applications. Unaccompanied minors would lose the right to family re-union for their parents. This is designed to stop them coming on boats but will instead force whole families to risk boat journeys as they have no other way to get here. These changes are intended to be retrospectively applied to those who arrived by “irregular maritime voyages”.
1. John Pace Report of mission to the republic of Nauru 8 to 13 November 2001 for Amnesty International Secretariat in London
2. Report of the Expert Panel on asylum seekers, August 2012, p 143-4
3. Senate Estimates hearing, Legal and Constitutional Committee, May 21, 2012.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s plan for a regional asylum seekers’ processing centre in East Timor has caused widespread concern there, where political parties and non-government organisations – indeed the parliament – have all expressed their opposition.
The Refugee Action Coalition believes it is an attempt to replicate the Pacific Solution of the Howard government. The “East Timor solution” is an attempt to “stop the boats” and subvert Australia’s commitment to the Refugee Convention and its obligation to welcome asylum seekers at its borders.
We have initiated an “Open letter to President Ramos Horta and the people of Timor Leste” to encourage the opposition in East Timor and demonstrate the widespread opposition that exists in Australia to this proposal. Current signatories include John Pilger, Noam Chomsky, union leader Sally McManus, and refugee advocates including Phil Glendenning, Sr Susan Connelly and many others.
Timor-Leste speaks out against Australia’s asylum plans
11 October 2010
For immediate release
Tonight Ms. Dinorah Granadeiro, Director of Timor-Leste‚s NGO Forum, presented a public petition to the Australian Minister for Immigration and Citizenship at an invitation only reception in Dili.
The petition opposes an Australian asylum seeker processing centre in Timor-Leste. It highlights Australia‚s poor human rights record in asylum seekers and emphasized Australia‚s responsibility to receive asylum seekers on its own soil.
“We reject any proposal for an Australian refugee detention centre in Timor-Leste,” said Ms. Granadeiro.
Ms. Granadeiro also gave the Minister an open letter stating several problems with Australia‚s plan. The letter emphasized that an asylum seeker processing centre distracts from Timor-Leste’s own needs, such as supporting health care, housing and education.
Few people in Dili were aware of the Minister‚s visit beforehand and the petition only began late Sunday afternoon. Organizers were overwhelmed by the response.
* Citizens Against an Australian Asylum Seeker Processing Centre in Timor-Leste
Mail via FONGTIL, Caicoli, Dili, Timor-Leste