|Refugee Action protest 27 July 2013 Melbourne (Photo credit: Takver)|
Although the issue of refugees and asylum seekers has been the subject of furious - and often intemperate and ignorant - debate the world over only now is the actual Refugee Convention under serious threat.
In the run up to Australia's election something happened which caused a collective gawp for the sizable Australian minority who haven't lost their minds about refugee boat arrivals.
The then Labor government proposed a new policy of shipping boat arrivals to Papua New Guinea (PNG) and refusing them asylum in Australia, thus abrogating a basic principle of the Refugee Convention, which almost all nations are signed up to, either the 1951 Convention and/or the 1967 Protocol.
Australian policy towards asylum seekers is described by politicians as "harsh". 'Vindictive' and 'cruel' would be more apt. The place in PNG where boat arrivals are being sent (and only them, not those claiming asylum at an airport, logic has nothing to do with this politics) is a dump, on a tropical island, where rape and torture has been uncovered as ocurring - the government tried to cover that up. They are sending children there. The 'PNG option' came from strong arming and aid threats. Locals to the camp, on Manus Island, say they are being shut out of jobs and get no benefit from it. They say they would welcome the asylum seekers living in their community.
This was sold to Australians as "humanitarian" because it would 'stop the boats' coming from Indonesia as some of them sink and over 1000 are thought to have drowned since 2001. But another investigation found more cover up of a failure to stop boats at risk of sinking and aid them - another two-finger salute to international law, in that case the international law of the sea which demands mutual aid on the high seas.
In the dead of night on 17 December 2011, an asylum seeker boat called the Barokah left the coast of Java with around 250 men, women and children on board. One of them was ethnic Hazara man, Esmat Adine. The boat was so crowded, Adine couldn't even find a place to sit. The Barokah was just 40 nautical miles from Indonesia when it fell apart.
'At first I couldn't believe that our boat has sank,' Adine recalls. 'But I saw a toy is coming from the inside of the boat; it is coming by water. When it comes close to me, I realised that no, that was not a toy. That was a kid. That was a kid named Daniel. Daniel was with his mother; they were sitting in front of me, next to me, while we came by bus. When I saw Daniel's body, I realised that our boat has sank, and there is no further hope for us to be alive. '
Eight hours later, at 3 o'clock that afternoon, a passing fishing boat found around a hundred people in high seas, desperately clinging to debris. It was only able to rescue 34 people. Adine shouted to the people in the water, 'Be patient—we will bring you more boats, and they will rescue you.'
In Canberra that evening, Australian agencies became aware the Barokah had sunk. They told Indonesian authorities, because the boat was in their search and rescue zone.
Months later, customs officials would tell a Senate Estimates hearing that Indonesia had initially declined Australia's offer to help with the search and rescue.
But the official incident timeline, which Fairfax obtained under freedom information laws, revealed that BASARNAS, Indonesia's search and rescue agency, had asked AMSA to coordinate the rescue response—AMSA refused.
For two days, while men, women and children struggled to survive in waves up to six metres high, Indonesia and Australia did nothing.
Finally, on December 19, BASARNAS asked again for help. This time, AMSA agreed, and dispatched naval and Customs assets to the scene.
But it was too late. Two hundred and one people were dead.(I should note there have been similar criticisms of the Italian and Greek's border protection services and the EU.)
Australia actually wanted the Refugee Convention to be changed to suit them. Fortunately they were rebuffed but who knows if either the new Australian government or some other governments peaked by the Australian effort will try again.
The Convention was drawn up in the wake of World War Two, during that period when most of the world worked together to draw up the basic laws which make up a decent, peaceful world. It was a reaction to the shameful way Jews attempting to flee Nazi Germany had been treated in the 1930s, as well as the immediate needs of those fleeing communism.
The latter is why Israel's abrogation of the Convention is causing such consternation as it acts much as Australia is doing. In Israel's case, I kid you not, trading refugees for weapons with Uganda.
Writes Natasha Roth for +972 Magazine:
That this is a war on asylum seekers and human rights is self-evident. But it is also a war on dignity and an assault on human memory and conscience. Whether or not the deal goes through, the fact remains that the Israeli government has seriously considered forcibly dispatching thousands of Africans, to a country not of their choosing, as part of a trade agreement. This brings up a historical recollection of such offensiveness that it is difficult to address it directly. Furthermore, the overlooked “commodity” in this proposed deal is space – for that is what the Israeli government will receive for its part in the potential bargain. This reported agreement is nothing more than a chapter in Israel’s playbook for ‘making room’ and homogenizing; it is persecution as ‘preservation.’ Doubtless one of Netanyahu’s spokespersons will find an appropriate moniker to try and lend some legitimacy to the proceedings (when the Serbs did the same thing in the 1990s, they dubbed it “ethnic cleansing”).The Israelis characterise the refugees as "infiltrators". The Australians insist they're all "economic migrants".
The ones in Israel are all black, mostly Sudanese and Eritrean. The ones arriving in Australia by boat are mostly Muslim, Afghans, Iranians and Iraqis.
Makarere University Security Studies Professor Paul Omach told allAfrica.com that Israel's actions are 'just another example of a richer nation paying a poorer one to solve its problems'.
Israel looks at these immigrants, mostly Africans really, as unwanted in its country. So if somebody can take it and you can just sign the checks, and you get somebody who is itching for money, that is definitely what they will do.The co-founder of the International Refugee Rights Initiative in Kampala, Dismas Nkunda, told allAfrica.com that the deal would completely undermine the Refugee Convention:
What happens to them, certainly that is going to be a very big legal problem, because on what basis are they being admitted in Uganda? They have not sought refugee status in Uganda, they have not sought asylum in Uganda. They sought first asylum in the first country they thought of, which was Israel. Actually, you might say that they might end up becoming stateless.If Australia gets away with it and Israel gets away with it who will be next? If they want to do this just unsign and stop pretending to be 'humanitarian'. Why are there no consequences for those who sign up and then ignore the rules?
As Laissez Passer points out, Kenya's courts are doing a better job of defending international law than Israel's - you could say much the same of Australia's courts. And Kenya hosts hundreds of thousands of refugees. Israel 55000 and Australia far, far less.
Jerome Connolly and Joan Roddy write that:
An unwritten assumption underlying the Convention is that States Parties would not be faced with unmanageable flows of asylum seekers. But experience has belied that assumption on a number of occasions and shown how, in practice, this and other assumptions on which the smooth running of the Convention depends can be invalidated. Asylum determination procedures may be overwhelmed or made irrelevant by mass movements engendered by political violence, especially when conflict spills over frontiers. There may be an associated breakdown of political authority or alternatively borders may be closed as an emergency measure to protect the authority and resources of the host country. This may deny asylum to many refugees or lead to greatly diminished protection for them.But neither Israel nor Australia are "overwhelmed" except by rhetoric saying they are "overwhelmed". Their actions go far beyond criticism you could make of the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers by Greece or the UK or Turkey, they undercut the basic concepts agreed on for years.
And this is happening when many are worried that growing conflicts and problems like climate change and water shortages will also test the Convention, that protections need strengthening not weakening.