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Thursday, 31 January, 2002, 09:00 GMT
Asylum seekers: Is the government justified?
A 15-day hunger strike staged by asylum seekers at a remote detention centre in Australia has ended.
More than 240 asylum seekers - mainly Afghans - abandoned their protest after the government promised to treat their claims to asylum in a more transparent fashion.
Several detainees had been refusing food and water - and activists had warned the Australian Government it was only a matter of time before someone died.
Prime Minister John Howard said his government's tough immigration policies would not be watered down by the continued unrest.
Should the government have given into the asylum seekers' demands? Were the asylum seekers right to carry out their hunger strike?
This debate is now closed. Read your comments below.
The Australian government is absolutely right in its tough stance against illegal immigrants. Í am also an Afghan immigrant, but I did not gate crash into some country. My whole family took refuge in Pakistan for four years before being granted asylum in the US.
There is no guarantee that these illegal immigrants will not defy the law of the land even if they are given asylum. They may continue to break the law in future and if convicted, may complain of discrimination.
The Australian government's treatment of refugees is shameful disgrace. After the success of the Sydney Olympics and the good which that achievement did to Australia on an international stage it is depressing to see such an ugly side to what is a beautiful country. What's even more depressing is that so many Australian citizens appear to rabidly support such a morally bankrupt government.
Surely people accept that a country (Australia or otherwise) can only accept a finite amount of immigrants within a certain period of time. Those who are genuinely fleeing for their lives should be given priority over those who are fleeing for a better standard of living. In order to do this you need to find out who these people are. Unfortunately, as has happened in the UK, may immigrants do a disappearing act before their claims can be processed. So various governments are now using detention centres. What would those who object to these centres suggest? That you allow unrestricted and unchecked entry for everyone who turns up?
I am of the widely-held opinion that Australia's immigration policies are largely racist in motivation. The government does not take anywhere near the same line when it comes to Europeans who have overstayed their visas, or work illegally. This is pointed out in newspaper editorials regularly. These people may even outnumber the migrants from Asia-- I lived in Australia on a youth-work exchange, and I can tell you for a fact that there are thousands of young people working illegally in Sydney alone. When they are found out they are certainly not put into concentration camps pending their expulsion.
I have been to Australia and long before that seen what a great place it looks like. So (being only a teenager at the time) I looked at their immigration policy with a view to emigrate when I was adult. However if you check it out you will they no longer accept "£10 poms". For me (a British working university student) it is very hard to get in to, I would even have to take a language test - on my first language. Which is fair enough - why would they want to let me in if one million me's want in. So why should they be forced to make exceptions for asylum seekers whom on the whole do not speak English, have not got much work experience, and will more than likely be a burden to the Australian economy rather than an addition? I know the USA (and the 51st state) likes to get involved with other countries, but that¿s no reason to force values on Australia.
For the record I do hope to emigrate once I have a degree, about 8 years work experience, am still under 30, and have the necessary funds. It can't be one rule for some and another for others.
Chris Hurst, UK/Australia
A refugee is an individual who seeks asylum in the nearest safe country. An immigrant picks and chooses a desired country to live and work in. These people in the detention centres have chosen Australia as their destination and therefore should be treated as immigrants, not refugees. It's as simple as that. There are thousands of people from all parts of the world (not just white parts) who are waiting to immigrate to Australia and have followed the correct legal procedures. It would be unfair to them to allow people who have illegally entered the country with no documents, records or identification before them especially if they don't meet the criteria set out for everyone. Indonesia has turned a blind eye to allow their progression to Australia and has received virtually no criticism on this issue. And what country in it's right mind would be welcoming of an individual who sews his/her lips together to make a point?
Australia seems to feel immigrants are no longer to be made welcome in the country. Perhaps they should remember that Australia is a nation of immigrants who stole the land from the Aborigines and denied them many of their basic human rights. The Afghan refugees simply seek protection, and the right to share in Australia's culture - they have no desire to obliterate it and replace it with one of their own. Australia - look to your history. You should be ashamed
I think the Australian government should either, immediately repatriate the asylum seekers as soon as they arrive illegally, or treat them in a more humane fashion and process their claims quicker, the camps are bad for everyone and have left the detainees in limbo, in a half world of non existence.
The Australian Federal Government are doing a good job, under the most trying conditions. The people involved are no more then "queue jumpers" We take more then our fair share of refugees. The government must make a stand and have a proper system of refugees coming into this country
I think the Australian government, and, by the tone of many preceding letters, a considerable number of the Australian people, should be ashamed of their treatment and attitude toward the asylum seekers. This reasoning would appear to be an unpleasant reflection of the discredited "whites only" policies which existed in Australia not too long ago. Australia, like Canada and the U.S., were forged by immigrants and refugees of many origins, and we are the better for it. The more the people of the world mix and intermarry, the more understanding will eventually prevail. There will be no end to war, terrorism, or refugee crises as long as huge economic inequities exist.
In Canada, we are under pressure from the "great bully" next door to align our policies with theirs in the wake of their recent events. (Yes, I have an interest in what happens in Oz. Over the years two sisters, their families, and our parents went down-under (from Britain), both my daughters have visited and loved it).
What particularly bothers me in this whole situation is the impact upon the children involved.
From reports there are children in there who are without parents. I fully agree with their request that they be placed into foster care while their cases are being examined. Woomera is no place for anyone, especially not kids.
Our new immigration policy here in Australia puts us in breach of our international obligations under the UN's Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its related Protocol, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Why do Australians have no qualms about violating these obligations? At least some of the blame must lie with our media. During our recent election campaign 90% of our newspaper editors told their readers that they should vote for Howard despite, and in some instances because of, his immigration policies. The Murdochs, Packers and other owners of mass media should be ashamed.
Shelley Jones, Australia / UK resident
I have watched the way that Australia has treated its refugees over the past year. Australian politicians deny that these concentration camps are prisons. It's true: they are not prisons. Real prison inmates are allowed to work for extra money, have access to real education, they are treated as individuals and they generally are not locked up with their children. The only difference is that real prison inmates are guilty of a crime. These poor asylum seekers have done nothing wrong except to try and save themselves and their children from the terror of the countries they have fled. They would love to work in the Australian community and earn their keep.
I love Australia, I swore allegiance to it - a free choice on my part, but I feel ashamed. It is not simply the government but the people who are generally in support of mistreating asylum seekers.
I fully back the Australian government in their decision not to be forced to change their policy just because some illegal immigrants are objecting.
As some of the other respondents have stated, the idea of asylum is that the asylum seeker goes to the nearest 'safe' country. To expect anyone to believe that the closest safe country to Afghanistan is Australia is plainly ludicrous. The same thing can be said of the UK. What the asylum seekers are doing is heading for the nearest big Western country where they can have access to food, medicine and education way beyond what their own country has. Australia has recognised this and is refusing to give in. If only the UK would do the same, and other European countries share the burden more fairly, then those of us who are subsidising more and more illegal immigrants might get some justice.
The government should decide their cases faster - say within a maximum of one year. The savings made in food and upkeep and medical expenses could be directed to increasing the efficiency of the refugee acceptance system. Anyone waiting more than one year should be released while their case is being examined. If they want to reject 99% of them that is their decision but let them know either way within a year so they don't suffer needlessly.
Of course the Australian government is justified. There may or may not be a case for considering some illegal entrants as political refugees and there may be grounds for granting residency on the basis of the economic contribution immigrants might make, but the simple facts are these. Firstly illegal entrants are not indigenous citizens. They have human rights that should be respected, but not the right to freely move around before their status has been established - and there must be question marks over the legitimacy of people who seek political asylum having passed through at least one stable democratic country to reach Australia. Secondly there is no automatic right of asylum, and many stable nations would be destabilised if the people of the world were allowed to cherry pick which nation they would like to settle in without there being good grounds for consideration. Thirdly, submitting to the demands of the asylum seekers where there are not good grounds for providing refuge is elitist because it is invariably the wealthy would-be immigrant who is able to travel half way round the world to seek asylum. Most people with genuine grounds for seeking asylum normally have insufficient means to make it further than the nearest border to their homes, if that.
Gary Lord, Australia
I don't see what gives us the "right" to detain these people - especially when they are then trapped and can't go forwards or backwards and don't know how long they'll be there and whether they'll get a fair hearing. While I enjoy my standard of living - I don't expect my government to protect it by trampling on those fleeing poverty or persecution.
First of all, the debate about what is an illegal asylum seeker is a nonsense. In countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, the police won't even let people into the compound of the Australian consulate, let alone hand them out asylum applications. The conditions to apply for asylum are so appalling that the only option for those desperate to flee is to pay dodgy 'people-smugglers'. This does not make their case any less compassionate than bona-fide asylum seekers. In fact, if anything, theirs is probably the more desperate lot. Second, many asylum seekers come (or are coming) from countries where the West has fought proxy wars. Afghanistan is the most recent example. Iraq is another case. It is about time we realise that these are chickens coming home to roost.
It is hypocritical of the Howard Government to have supported the coalition war in Afghanistan and then to treat Afghani refugees inhumanely by incarcerating them in remote detention centres such as the desert, and Pacific islands offshore. Their contempt for political democracy is evident by journalists repeated being denied access to asylum seekers.
Tamara, Sydney, Australia
I am astounded by the lack of compassion displayed here. Many of those first 'safe' countries that the refugees arrive at have enough problems of their own, and no spare cash to deal with them. If the shoe was on the other foot, all these people who are quick to condemn these unlucky refugees would also go to the first economically prosperous country themselves - it is a perfectly understandable act. It IS certainly in Australia's 'self-interest' to treat these refugees they way they do, but doesn't this kind of reasoning make it difficult to hold one's head up high?
I am a British migrant in Australia. I have grown to love this country and the generosity of its people. Yes Australians are all ultimately migrants themselves, but they are also intelligent people. It is clear to them that they are being blackmailed by a group of people who have come to Australia to take advantage of this generosity. If they wanted safety why didn't they stay in Indonesia? It's infinitely more safe than Afghanistan. They are economic migrants, and the Australian people know this and know they are being blackmailed. Howard and Ruddock are simply doing what any sensible politician does - following the will of the majority electorate.
I fully support the Howard government's decision on illegal immigrants. Australia has long been seen as one of the most multi-cultural countries in the world. It continues to lead by allowing substantial numbers of refugees on par with our population - Australia lets in the second highest amount of refugees per population. While these people are leaving countries of desitution, to be a legal refugee under U.N status you must claim for refugee status in the first country you arrive in. These illegal immigrants have come through many countries including Pakistan and Indonesia to illegally enter Australia. These people are not true refugees but instead people who have the money to afford these passages to where they wish to live. People who sew theirs and their children¿s lips together, stage violent protests and send their children alone on this arduous journey across the sea in order to claim family status have no right to be in Australia, where violent protests and child abuse are seen as a disgrace. This moral blackmail must stop, and Australia is simply protecting its democratic right to allow people of our choice to enter this country, while they do not claim refugee status. Detentions such as Woomera have been highly criticised but a independent tribunal has recently declared the conditions in Wommera to be extremely good. Children are taken to local schools; air conditioning and comfortable lodgings, as well as numerous leisure activities are supplied. Many facilities continue to be built but are constantly being destroyed by these violent protests. Congratulations Mr Howard and keep protecting our democratic rights.
It seems that many forget people that Australia's location puts it in a more precarious position with the developing world. Northern Europeans can afford be sanctimonious about the refugee "crisis" because there is no danger of them being inundated by people seeking to improve their economic conditions. What we all need to do, regardless of nation, is find ways to cure the endemic poverty and violence of these countries. Accepting economic refugees will always be a band aid solution.
Howard should be immediately put in a detention centre for committing crimes against humanity in his illegal and uncompassionate treatment of both Aborigines and asylum seekers.
And to those Australians who agree with his racist policies - don't forget that the majority of you are the descendants of economic refugees from Europe, who didn't even ask for permission to live in Australia. You should be ashamed of yourselves.
Australia has always made it clear it puts people who illegally enter it's country in detention centres, so why do people who illegally enter the country complain?
Don't get the Australian public's attitude confused with that of the government. Before people talk about "Australia's attitude" or "Australia's inhumanity" etc. they should keep in mind that the Australian public is deeply divided on this issue. There are more people against the government than most people think. Things have changed since the election last year.
Chris B, England
A state granting asylum is entitled to grant it on its own terms, subject to the observation of basic human rights. Asylum seekers are in no position to demand anything. If I were that desperate to leave my own country I would be willing to accept any terms of a state willing to allow me food water shelter and a lack of torture.
It must be remembered that Australians have a working immigration policy that offers residence to tens of thousands of potential immigrants every year. This includes a quota intended for legitimate refugees facing persecution, in varying forms, the world over. This policy requires due course, and formal process in order that a fair and equitable allocation of positions is adhered to. Simply jumping to the front of the queue is not acceptable. I know of no country on the planet that willingly allows free movement by unauthorised foreigners across its borders. That is tantamount to chaos. For better or worse we currently reside on a planet that is divided into neo political boundaries, this is the actuality, for a civilised society to grow, it must first establish internal security, this is achieved by the creation of laws and policies. Australia has a well thought out, equitable and just immigration policy and we have a duty not to be deterred from this policy by a handful of extortionate asylum seekers.
S Clarkson, Australia
The Afghans in question fled their own country to escape what the west has subsequently branded a terrorist regime, and successfully evicted at the cost of a great deal of money and a great number of lives. I don't understand how we feel able to outlaw a state on the one hand, and refuse to shelter dissidents escaping from that state on the other. Why should Afghan refugees go back to help "rebuild" their country? Their country has been demolished by the actions of another state, over which they had no influence or control. They aren't responsible - why don't the people who made the mess take responsibility for their actions and clear it up?
We might have won our own fictitious little war, but that doesn't mean that Afghanistan is suddenly a democracy. Personally, I think that those of us who enjoy the political and economic advantages of life in western democracies have an obligation to support escapees from other regimes whose actions we're happy to criticise from afar. And yes, Australia is a nation of immigrants, like Britain, and look what the current defenders of the nation did to the original inhabitants.
The Australian Government is entirely justified in it's actions. Their first duty is to protect the safety and continued prosperity of those who are in Australia legally. Were Howard to give in to what amounts to nothing other than emotional blackmail then they would be failing in that duty.
The Australian PM talks about open door policy - that would be immigrants should apply through the front door. That statement alone tells volumes; welcome if you are white and from the right sort of country, otherwise don't bother.
I would like to see the Australian PM spend a few days living in the camp in Naro, then I might take his opinion seriously.
If Australia wants to avail itself of international law and international funds, then it should also uphold international law. As it stands, it has acted illegally, irresponsibly and unethically and the people should be ashamed of themselves and their government. I for one would never visit or invest in Australia or anyone from that country.
As far as I am concerned anybody who claims Asylum should be housed and fed in safety and comfort in closest safe country to the one of origin, i.e. if you arrive in Australia from Afghanistan via several other countries including Malaysia (which has an Islamic culture and is safe) then you must be an economic migrant rather than a bona fide asylum seeker.
We in the UK are soft on immigration and it will hurt us in the long run as our cultural heritage becomes devalued. If we need people to boost our economy we should do what the Gulf States do and issue fixed term work permits which are cancelled at the end of the period and you have to leave that country. Basically 99% of asylum seekers are economic migrants.
Lucky for all those people from the "civilized" world that all Indians, American natives, aborigines etc, did not have "immigration policies" at the time. Otherwise they would have seen first hand how it is to live in misery and not be able to do anything about it. The only reason these "developed" nations are doing so well now is because they had free access to land and resources the world over, with no one telling them "go back where you came from". I think people should study a bit more of their very bloody history and then just shut up rather than coming up with moral stances.
The response of the Australian politicians and people are as expected. This is the normal response of most people in all countries. The difference is that the Australians are open about their choice. No other country had the opportunity to vote in a government on the single issue of immigrants. If they had the outcome would be the same. It is simply a characteristic of human nature that can only be overcome by deep thinking, reasoning and compassion. Clearly Howard, the Australians and most of the world have along way to go before rising above the caveman mind-set. Until then we truly are just naked apes dressed in suits with a fierce sense of superiority.
Australia like all countries has a legal procedure for asylum application. Those who arrive illegally and destroy their personal documents prior to arrival should expect to have a lengthy visa application. These people should apply through the regular channels like all who seem asylum or migration.
People who sew their children's lips together, attack guards, commit arson may attract lawyers, the media and do-gooders like moths to light but violently demanding visa's rather than asking doesn't get much sympathy from the average Aussie.
The asylums seekers are definitely right to carry out their hunger strike. Those from Afghanistan have suffered for 23 years and at the moment they suffer in Australia, but the Australian government doesn't care about them. They shouldn't be blamed, the international community could blame Australia for not treating them as refugees.
I strongly believe in Australia's immigration policy.
All EU countries should officially agree to follow
a similar pattern.
John O'Connor, Eire
Jackie McKerrell, clearly isn't in touch with "the larger Australian community". The reality is, the vast majority of Australian's strongly support the action taken by the Howard government. Just because a few hundred people are very vocal in their opposition to Australia's policy towards illegal immigrants, it doesn't mean that the rest of the community feels the same. Unlike many other democratic countries, our government takes actions that reflect the views of the majority, not the vocal "bleeding heart" minority.
I am really shocked that people from other countries are condoning the inhumane and indefensible treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. They are NOT illegal migrants, it is NOT illegal to arrive in a country and ask for asylum.
I'm disappointed that the BBC is constantly reporting the protests by the refugees but failing to mention the mounting protests and actions by the larger Australian community - from non governmental bodies to school kids taking over the ground floor of the Immigration Department in Melbourne.
As an Afghan I express my great gratitude to Britain, which has granted refugee status to our poor people who have
suffered since 23 years of continues war. Australia doesn't have human feelings.
Well, as there is no reason left for them to seek asylum, they should go back to Afghanistan and contribute to what's going on there. I totally supported Australia's stance on this issue from the beginning - these "asylum seekers" were trouble from the get-go!
How refreshing to see a democratic country stands by its decisions on immigration, despite all the pressures from the uninformed.
It is what happens
when we have a prime
minister who was in
politics in the 60s
and who gives the
impression that he
is still thinking
with the mentality
of that time, and
he has been "milking
as much as he could
at the last elections, playing
on the people phobias.
A. Byfield, UK
It is in Australia's best interest to keep its tough immigration policies.
Australians have forgotten their migrant roots. They have now become more old world than the Europeans in their attitudes and that is nothing to celebrate. Shame on Australia and its people.
Howard is merely obeying the electorate's wishes which were made very clear during the last election. To deviate from this course would be totally undemocratic. Besides, the asylum seekers stopped in Indonesia first where they were perfectly safe - their subsequent voyage to Australia simply makes them illegal immigrants.
The bleating British political class should put their money where their mouth is and offer to take these people into the UK. Then you can view first hand the sort of repugnant media stunts that disgusts this nation.
Australia's stance is justified. If these were genuine 'refugees', they would have sought asylum long before reaching Australia. All countries must have the right to decide who does or does not gain entry and citizenship. Illegal entry is exactly what it sounds like: illegal.
Mikko Toivonen, Finland
I think that everyone keeps forgetting that we are all inhabitants of the same planet. Unfortunately the resources of the world and the population of the world have not been distributed in a fair and equitable manner. I believe it is only common sense for all countries to strive to reverse these inbalances and improve all peoples standards of living. Only then will can we have a chance of solving the problem of refugees.
Australia is a big country, and most of its population are immigrants or descended from immigrants. Those who arrived from Afghanistan had reason to fear for their lives, as subsequent events have proved. Couldn't the resources now used for imprisonment be better devoted to education and integration of the 21st Century immigrants?
Al Yendall, USA
I expect the Australian prime minister has seen what a laughing stock Britain has become with its asylum seeker problem and is determined not to make the same mistake. I think he has listened to what the people want.
Yes, Australia's tough immigration policy should continue.
I'm absolutely disgusted at the behaviour of the Australian Government. How can anyone in their right mind think that it is acceptable to lock up innocent men, women and children out in the middle of nowhere, in a desert, for up to 2 years in some cases?! The places the refugees come from are ruled by brutal tyrants and oppressive regimes (as we all know now after Sept 11) and to treat these refugees as prisoners and inmates is just inhuman!
Just because economics and civil war in other countries make life unbearable for its inhabitants should not give them the automatic rights and citizenship to another prosperous country.
The government could break this cycle, by say, Prime Minister Howard, Minister Ruddock arranging to meet strike leaders on neutral ground, and put this matter above partisan politicking.
26 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
Australian hunger strike spreads
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