Paul P. Mealing

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Friday, 3 April 2009

Tampa revisited

I never intended this to be a political blog, but the front page of this morning’s Age (Melbourne daily) reignited a righteous anger I first expressed in writing in 2001 (before 9/11). The article tells of how 2 Asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Tour Gul and Mohammed Hussain have been confirmed killed by the Taliban, after their application for asylum was rejected by the Australian government and they were deported (in 2002). I’m not an expert on international law, but I suspect Australia has breached UN Human Rights obligations in this regard. The gory details are that Tour Gul was shot through the head, and Mohammed Hussain was thrown down a well in front of members of his own family along with a grenade (according to The Age).

The Age had previously reported that 11 asylum seekers on Nauru (part of the Australian government’s notorious ‘Pacific solution’, following the Tampa incident) had been killed by the Taliban following their deportation. According to Phil Glendenning, director of social justice agency, The Edmund Rice Centre, ‘who spent six years traveling the world to investigate the fate of rejected asylum seekers… 11 deaths was a conservative figure.’

The Tampa incident involved a Norwegian container ship, captained by Arne Rinnan, who picked up refugees from a sinking ‘people smuggler’ vessel, after being notified of their plight by the RAAF, if I have the story right (a proper account can be found here). Then after he picked them up he was instructed to take them to Indonesia, not to Australia. That's right: after Australian authorities requested for someone to pick them up, the 'good Samaritan' was then told to take them away from Australian territorial waters, and thanks for your help.

This provided a grandstanding opportunity for Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, on the eve of an election to show how tough he was with refugees and win the xenophobic vote for Australia, after they had been primed by Pauline Hanson. The gutless opposition, knowing which way the votes were running, became the non-opposition and sealed their fate. Arne Rinnan was awarded a medal, by the way, in his own country. I thought he was the one decent and courageous soul to emerge out of the whole affair (after all he stood up to the Australian Government, even when bullied by our military). I was in America at the time of the election, and consequently wrote a letter to the re-elected Prime Minister expressing my personal disgust – something I had never done previously. (For you American readers, John Howard was later tagged 'the man of steel' by George W.)

I alluded very vaguely to this incident, or the social dynamics that surround it, in my closing arguments on an early post, Evil (Oct.07). What galls me is that we live such a privileged life yet we feel so threatened by these people who are literally in desperate straits. It makes me ashamed to be Australian, but it doesn’t surprise me. The Attorney General of the time, Philip Ruddock, seemed to take all these cases personally, and was determined to make any refugee’s life even worse than it already was. It was his unstated goal to make their life an absolute misery – I referred to him as the Australian Minister for Misery – and he did an exemplary job. The mental health damage he did to innumerable vulnerable people, including children, cannot be overestimated. Of course, these people have no vote, and no one to stand up for them, with a few outstanding exceptions, so the Government knew they could treat them like chaff.

Ex Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser (same political party as Howard), was one of the few to speak out, and made the point in an early interview, well before Tampa, when Pauline Hanson first rose to prominence: ‘Evil always arises when we blame all of a society’s ills on one group of people.’

The irony is that we now have troops in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban, whereas in 2002 it was considered a ‘safe’ country for these political asylum seekers, fleeing the enemy we are now mortally engaged with.

Addendum: it would be remiss of me not to mention some of the advocates as well as Malcolm Fraser; in particular, Julian Burnside QC. In 2005, some Liberal party backbenchers (same party as Howard) including Petro Georgiou and Judi Moylan (whom I corresponded with) put a bill through parliament that stopped children being kept in mandatory detention (as refugees). John Howard liked to tout the virtues of his Christianity and Christian values. It should be obvious from other posts on this blog, that I'm definitely not a Christian, but Howard's policy towards refugees was the antithesis of the Jesus character depicted in biblical stories, whether he be fictional or real.


The Atheist Missionary said...

Paul, as you may be aware, Canada is in much the same position as Australia with respect to its mission in Afghanistan. Your point with respect to legitimate refugees is well taken. However, do you really see any sense in sacrificing the lives of our soldiers to bring democracy to a country that probably doesn't want it and, even if they did, will likely enact laws that we find repulsive (subjugation of women and the like)?

PK said...

As someone who would self-identify as a member of that religion, let me state emphatically that, based on your account, John Howard's malignant behavior is the farthest thing humanly imaginable from what could ever legitimately be described as "Christian," if Christianity still involves adherence to the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.

I am eternally consternated, exasperated, vexed and appalled by the Orwellian expropriation of the label "Christian" by politicians who advocate policies that are, to use your word, the precise "antithesis" of what the gospels prescribe. I confess reprehensible ignorance of Australian politics, specifically, but find myself distressed to hear that they so closely resemble American politics (at least, those of the prior administration). I'm moved to wonder about the Milgram indices of the populations of our respective countries.

For the record, TAM, at least this one non-atheist abhors xenophobia, victimization *and* sacrificing the lives of your soldiers (and Australian soldiers, and American soldiers, and human beings in general, whether soldiers or civilians). Holding the political views that I do, however, I've naturally been part of the marginalized minority for the past eight years, and can only hope that recent changes here will reduce our insane penchant for military interventionism (though I doubt it). What to do about the unspeakable mess we've already created... is imponderable.

Paul P. Mealing said...

I'm ambivalent about our intervention in Afghanistan. I know that the Australian military, and other nations as well, I suspect, have built schools and even given education in the way of teaching trades - not just engage in firefights.

So there are different means of 'intervention'. Certainly bombing the crap out of civilians is not the way to win hearts and minds - a policy that even the Howard government was critical of, at least, in Afghanistan.

I think leaving the country to the Taliban is an even bigger mistake, but that's my personal opinion. Education, and education for all, is the only way to bring countries like Afghanistan into the 21st Century. It just depends on how we go about it. It worries me that the Taliban have started making inroads into a politically destabilised Pakistan. I think it would be a serious mistake to stand by and not intervene, though it doesn't have to be militarily. But in Afghanistan you can't do one without the other, as I see it.

I admit it's easy for me to be an armchair critic, and I'm no expert in international politics, but all these countries have moderate voices and we need to support them any way we can.

Regards, Paul.

Paul P. Mealing said...

A related story, I just read today: Children living in Italian sewer We, in the West, really have no idea.

Regards, Paul.