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Saturday, March 1, 2014

Open the borders, close the camps, free the refugees

On 28 February 2014, hundreds of people gathered at a rally in Brisbane to protest against Australia's detention of refugees, particularly following the murder of Iranian refugee, Reza Berati, at Manus Island on 17 February 2014.

The rally kicked off in Queen's Park, under the austere gaze of Britain's colonialist Queen Victoria. Ironic given Australia's colonialist expansion into neighbouring countries to establish Gulags for the unwanted and ostracised asylum seekers who arrive by boat in our waters.

The rally was organised by the Refugee Action Collective, with other campaigns run by Socialist Alternative, Socialist Alliance and the Greens. Speakers included Sam Watson, aboriginal affairs activist, Andrew Bartlett from the Greens, and Ali, an asylum seeker who spent 13 months on Christmas Island and four months in a Brisbane immigration detention centre before being allowed to settle in Australia. There were also speakers from Labor for Refugees, Queensland Supporters for Democracy in Iran, and of course the Refugee Action Collective.

The speakers all highlighted the need for a more compassionate and humane approach to welcoming asylum seekers to Australia. The gathering then marched around the CBD, up George Street, along Adelaide, down Edward, along Charlotte St, back up George St to Queen's Park, noisily chanting 'Free the Refugees', 'Hey Abbott, we're talking to you, close Manus Island, close Nauru', 'Sack Morrison' and 'Open the borders, close the camps, free the refugees'. At various points the rally stopped so that people in the CBD could hear the message about why we were protesting and to encourage others to take up the cause. Photos taken at the rally are at the bottom of this article.

The military-run attack on asylum seekers with the grandiose title 'Operation Sovereign Borders', shows just how low Australia has slumped in human rights. Even human rights abusers, China and Iran, are criticising Australia. While it's a bit rich for either of those two nations to criticise anyone else over human rights, it shows just how much damage Operation Sovereign Borders, and for that matter former Prime Minister Gillard's 'PNG solution', has done to Australia's legitimacy. Who is Australia to lecture any other nation on human rights when it is committing gross human rights abuses itself. While the majority of Australians live in comfort and can afford the luxury of supporting xenophobic policies, the government is horrendously treating the most vulnerable of the world's people; people who have fled persecution for a safe country that is a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention.

The main-stream media is awash with ill-informed opinion on refugees. For instance, the claim that the UN Refugee Convention says that refugees must seek asylum in the first country they come to. To validate this argument would mean to look at which is the first country they come to who is a signatory the UN Refugee Convention. Oh, look, it's Australia! Between Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Iran, refugees who flee east will not encounter any signatory to the Convention until they hit ... wait for it ... Australia.

Then there is the argument that under the Labor government, thousands of refugees died at sea so the LNP policies have saved lives. Technically, this is true ... as far as we know. However, the Liberal government's secrecy means that we don't know if anyone has drowned. Operation Sovereign Borders hasn't stopped people arriving in Australian waters, although, it has prevented most, if not all, reaching Australia's shores as the Navy either turns the boats around or shoves the asylum seekers in life-boats and pushes them back to Indonesia.  Hundreds of asylum seekers have faced this callous treatment since the Liberal Party came to power only five months ago.

If Australia was so concerned about asylum seekers, it would not be imprisoning them indefinitely, denying them water, information, decent accommodation and a future. The LNP boasts that no asylum seeker has drowned attempting to reach Australia.What a straw-man claim that is! So they don't drown in our waters, but we are actively trying to return them to their country's of origin in which they will face persecution, torture, imprisonment and for many, death.

Operation Sovereign Borders is not about saving lives.

Manus Island and Nauru are not 'processing centres' as the government would have us believe. In the last 12 months not one asylum seeker held in detention has been processed. Earlier this week, Liz Thompson, former migration agent on Manus Island, blew the whistle on the lies the government is telling the asylum seekers. Disturbingly, the most telling description of the true aim of the Australian government's use of Manus Island, was her comment, 'It's not designed as a processing facility, it's designed as an experiment in the active creation of horror to deter people from trying'.

Again some are propagating the idea that refugees arriving by boat in Australian waters are 'illegal'. Australia's Migration Act does declare people who arrive in Australia by sea as 'unauthorised maritime arrivals'. This doesn't mean they are illegal. In fact, under Australia's rule of law, all people are innocent until proven guilty. Not one asylum seeker has been charged with entering the country illegally, so indefinite detention without charge is a breach of the presumption of innocence.

Besides if Australians are so concerned about the rule of law, then refer to Article 31(1) of the UN Refugee Convention(1) to which Australia is a signatory, which states:

The Contracting States shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees who, coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened in the sense of article 1, enter or are present in their territory without authorization, provided they present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence.

Further to this is the refoulement principle in Article 33(1) of the UN Refugee Convention(1):

No Contracting State shall expel or return ("refouler") a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

Yet, the Australian government is trying to force refugees held in detention centres, to sign documents that would return them to their country of origin. This is refoulement and is a breach of international law.

In fact, the United Nations has warned Australia that it is guilty of almost 150 breaches of international law in relation to its treatment of asylum seekers. The UN described Manus Island as Australia's Guantanamo Bay(2).

There are a number of things Australia can do if it really wants to humanely address asylum seekers:
  • Stop funding governments who are the cause of human rights abuses, such as Sri Lanka. Within weeks of coming to power, Prime Minister Tony Abbott provided Sri Lanka with a Navy vessel to round up people fleeing persecution. Instead, Australia should have been pressuring Sri Lanka to stop the persecution(3).
  • Increase the refugee intake. Australia is not over-populated, has plenty to share and refugees have shown themselves to be productive members of the community. Remember our own national anthem: 'For those who've come across the seas we've boundless plains to share'.
  • End the off-shore detention, bring all detainees to the Australian mainland and process their claims. Emphasis on 'process'; don't indefinitely detain them without hearing the claims that they are trying to make as described above in Article 31 of the UN Refugee Convention.
  • End the lies being told to asylum seekers. 
  • Treat asylum seekers as people. Remember the old adage, 'do unto others as you would have them do unto you'.
  • Provide asylum seekers with sanctuary from persecution.
  • Provide asylum seekers with a future in Australia.
  • Become a good example of how a humane country treats and protects the most vulnerable. 
  • Encourage other nations to improve their human rights and to become signatories to the UN Refugee Convention.
Back to the national anthem:

In history's page, let every stage 
Advance Australia Fair.

Australia is supposedly the land of the 'fair go'.  There is nothing fair about how we treat asylum seekers. Our national anthem is becoming a hollow, meaningless statement as Australia continues down this path of xenophobic persecution of people seeking our protection. This is a shameful stage in our history.


1. United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, adopted 28 July 1951, entered into force 22 April 1954,, accessed 1 March 2014.

2. International Business Times, Reissa Su, 27 February 2014,, accessed 1 March 2014.

3. Amnesty International, Sri Lanka: UN report must be call to action on war crimes investigation, 25 February 2014,, accessed 1 March 2014.

Photos of rally for refugee rights, Brisbane, 28 February 2014

Sam Watson

Labor for Refugees

Queensland Supporters for Democracy in Iran