On the day we received a direct appeal (see Appendix) from a representative of the Rohingya people (of mostly Myanmar) who are dispersed in concentration camps and close to starving, we report on a direct challenge to the Tony Abbott led Government of Australia, whose moral legitimacy is underpinned by its controversial policies regarding asylum-seekers. That legitimacy has been questioned in recent weeks by almost daily revelations of illegal funding by Abott’s government of ‘people smugglers’, as well as the continued widespread abuse of refugees in Australia’s offshore detention centres. Now that legitimacy has been further threatened by one of Australia’s leading barristers, Julian Burnside QC: yesterday he challenged the Government to prosecute someone under the new Border Force Act – to use his words: ‘bring it on’ – for he is confident that this law is not only unjust but unworkable. Indeed, this law could be described as the Government’s ‘Achilles heel’ in that by exposing how it is nothing less than an attempt to outlaw dissent the moral vacuity of a reactionary government is also exposed.
Put simply, the Abbott Gang have shown all the characteristics of the schoolyard bully: aggressive, loud-mouthed, vicious, misogynistic, uncaring, power-driven. But as with any bullies, if enough decent, fair-minded people stand up to them, Abbott & Co will pack up and run like hell.
In his article ‘Why gag doctors in detention centres? What are we hiding?’, Julian Burnside says:
“In my opinion, if a worker in a detention facility genuinely believed, on reasonable grounds, that facts he or she learned while employed by a service provider represented a serious threat to the life or health of one or more asylum seekers, and, that disclosing those facts might help prevent or lessen that threat, the disclosure would not constitute an offence. If the Immigration Department did not share that view and prosecuted the person, the prosecution would provide a useful showcase in which all the details of all the inquities in our detention system would be exposed. Bring it on!“
Last month, Australian doctors, via their peak professional association, warned the Abbott Government that it would not tolerate its new gagging law that threatens two years prison for those people who work in detention centres and who report abuse. More recently, David Berger, in his article ‘Australia’s law to gag doctors with concerns about asylum seekers is a failure of democracy’, puts it:
““If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.” So runs the mantra of Western governments when they want us to accept mass surveillance of phones, email, and messaging. The script changes, however, when the boot is on the other foot. At the slightest chance of embarrassment, or an awkward question to a minister, governments do their utmost to control the flow of information to prevent disclosure, irrespective of any real implications for national security… We must conclude, therefore, that the only reason to suppress doctors in this way is to avoid embarrassing revelations about how Australia is flouting its international humanitarian obligations towards refugees and is subjecting them to treatment that violates the United Nations Convention Against Torture… It is hard, therefore, to see this [Border Protect] Act as anything but a dangerous precedent, in Australia and globally, for suppressing legitimate voices of conscience and dissent.”
Professor David Isaac, a leading Australian paediatrician, who worked at the offshore refugee detention centre on Nauru, says that after July 1st, once the new law comes into force, he is afraid that he could be imprisoned for speaking out about the appalling conditions at the centre. He said:
“I saw a six-year-old child who tried to hang herself with a fence tie. I saw a 15-year-old brave lad who’d sewed his lips up and his parents were cross with him for doing it, and he was cross with them because when he collapsed they let the medical staff cut the ties on his lips. I just saw endless trauma … I saw 20 or 30 children and the trauma they were going through, over a year in prison really without knowing what their fate was going to be, it was appalling.”
Earlier this month, a doctor who oversaw health facilities at the Nauru detention centre gave testimony to the ongoing Senate Inquiry into abuse at the centre. However, in a few days time he could face prosecution if he continues to provide testimony. Similarly, with the other workers who gave testimony to the Inquiry. For example, Charlotte Wilson, a Save the Children case manager at the Nauru detention centre until February 2015, recently alleged that ‘bartering and trading, including of sexual favours’ was rife at the centre and that guards paid for and taped sex acts with detainees.
Asylum-seekers: the 65 who were hijacked
The boat carrying the 65 asylum-seekers had been on its way to New Zealand but was hijacked by the Australian Navy in international waters, forced to Australian waters and there replaced by two smaller boats with insufficient fuel or provisions for a return journey to Indonesia. One of the boats ran out of fuel and the other crashed on to a reef at Landu Island.
An Indonesian official called it “a suicide mission”. Many of the asylum-seekers on board were able to swim ashore, but the women and children were stranded and had to be rescued by Indonesian villagers.
It is fortunate no one died as a result of the Australian operation, otherwise the Australian authorities would have been charged with manslaughter.
Asylum-seekers: the wider problem:
And then there’s the wider Australian Government policy concerning refugees, the latest example being the refusal by the Australian Government to play any part in assisting the Rohingya, who are at risk of genocide or are dispersed in concentration camps, facing starvation (see Appendix, below).
As a recent article in The Age starkly put it:
“Abbott’s recent “nope, nope, nope” response to refugees starving on boats in our region was a stark signpost to the moral vacuum that now passes for policy in Australia. As images emerged of terrified toddlers desperate for food and water, of Rohingya refugees swimming for food dropped by helicopters not intending to rescue them, Australia’s belligerent rhetoric ultimately separated us from the regional and global pack. Australia’s inhumane response to the suffering and deaths of those human beings left in tatters government claims that stopping boats was ever about saving lives at sea.”
The next steps?
1. Health professionals and social workers clearly need to show a united front by refusing to adhere to this reactionary law. Last Saturday the president of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, Prof Nick Talley, said: “Threatening doctors with imprisonment is a direct attack on our ability to work for the health and protection of our patients” and called for the gagging law to be amended. If all health professionals in Australia stood as one on this, the law would become irrelevant.
2. But if one or more prosecutions took place under this heinous law, then, as Mr Burnside proposed, let the courts decide on the efficacy of it.
3. In the meantime, whistleblowers can still provide information to the media in a number of ways – notably: a) sites that offer GlobalLeaks secure facilities (e.g. Media Direct), b) the Wikileaks submission facility; and c) the Guardian Securedrop facility (see other Securedrop sites too). Note: users should follow all precautionary instructions on these sites (if those instructions are available).
And here – before you read the Appendix, below – is a final word on the matter of Mr Abbott…
Appendix: appeal by Rohingya people for urgent help
All Rohingya in the Pauaktaw town of Arakan lost their houses and properties in 2012 as a consequence of state-sponsored violence. Most of them were provided camps and rice by UN organizations after the violence. Most of IDPs from Nga Chaung self-evacuated during the Mahasen storm alert in 2013, when authorities refused to give them protection and evacuate them to a safer place. Most reached Santetmaw, Anauk Ywe, Muyurkul, and Sittwe, though later the military forced them to Nga Chaung IDPs.
148 families, including 592 Rohingya, returned to their IDP camps in recent weeks. But their shelters had already been occupied by others, so they had to stay in other camps, from where they have requested WFP for rice on several times. As the WFP refused to provide rice, the Rohingya have to collect crabs from nearby rivers and sell them to the Rakhine for their survival. Now, in the rainy reason, they can’t catch crabs to sell, so most of are starving.
Husein from Nga Chaung IDP said “We feel ashamed to depend on others’ aids, we want to work, we have no right to work. For almost three years we have been suffering this kind of starvation. Animals have their rights, but we don’t have even basic human rights. We are dying every second here.”
Lalu, in a very desperate state, said “They made us into beggars, who have no right to demand. Whenever INGOs provide we eat or we starve. For the last three years the international community has failed to stop the persecution against us. We appreciate all the help the international communities have provided – rice and other things – but no one has the power to stop the Myanmar government’s persecution. Our people, especially children and women, are dying daily everywhere through lack of malnutrition, medical assistance and through persecution.”
Recently, I pleaded for help for the unregistered IDPs in Say Tha Mar and Sittwe, where 1100 people urgently need attention, and in Sandawli , Aung Mingla and Basfara or Anauk SanPya too.
We urgently request the WFP, the UNHCR, and all other INGOs to provide rice for those particular Rohingya.
Note: for more on who the Rohingya are and what is happening to them, click here.