How Gunboats Can Beat the Refugees; European Leaders Want to Copy Australia's Policy for Keeping out Asylum-Seekers: Armed Force, Mass Expulsions and Bribes to Poor Nations to Take Them. (Features)

By Cohen, Nick | New Statesman (1996), October 7, 2002 | Go to article overview

How Gunboats Can Beat the Refugees; European Leaders Want to Copy Australia's Policy for Keeping out Asylum-Seekers: Armed Force, Mass Expulsions and Bribes to Poor Nations to Take Them. (Features)


Cohen, Nick, New Statesman (1996)


The best way to understand how those big-hearted Aussies regard refugees is to think of pollution. Like oil slicks, other countries' refuse drifts on the oceans without a thought for national boundaries. The job of government is to prevent the incoming tide contaminating the pristine coastline. It's a national emergency. The armed forces must be mobilised to detoxify the seas. After Kyoto, companies and states have developed a market in which a polluter who is exceeding his quota can buy the right to pollute from a seller who is undershooting his. Canberra has devised an equally market-friendly solution to human pollutants. It is paying the developing world to take asylum-seekers who would otherwise foul its land.

The military and fiscal innovations are justified by the assertion that refugees are filth. No behaviour is beneath them -- including infanticide. Just two days after calling an election in October last year, John Howard, the right-wing Liberal prime minister, and his immigration minister, Philip Ruddock, broke the scarcely credible news that Iraqis on the run from Saddam Hussein were throwing their children into the ocean off Christmas Island. They hoped that a warship sent to intercept their boat would pick the children out of the water. If the gamble failed, and the Australian navy couldn't or wouldn't reach the drowning and take them to the Lucky Country, then the tots would be shark food.

"I regard this as one of the most disturbing practices I've come across," Ruddock declared. "It was clearly planned and premeditated", with "the intention of putting us under duress". Howard said that such monsters were unworthy to be Australians.

The news was scarcely credible because it wasn't true. All that had happened was that a boat had capsized and tipped its passengers into the water. Canberra circulated fuzzy pictures of children in the sea and invented the story of the murderous parents. Formidable efforts were made to cover Howard's back. The refugees were held incommunicado on Christmas Island. Military censorship required officers who knew the truth to keep quiet or face the consequences. A few eventually salvaged the Royal Australian Navy's honour by telling the press that no children were chucked over the side.

Exposure of the lie didn't damage Howard in the opinion of many Australians. Every pollster and pundit said his inept administration was heading towards certain defeat. Mendacity and racism turned the poll numbers around and delivered victory. Nor did Australians appear over-bothered by the arguments that: 1) about 80 per cent of the asylum-seekers it was receiving before the clampdown were undoubtedly genuine; and 2) the numbers reaching their borders were tiny by the standards of western Europe, let alone the developing world.

Everyone from the United Nations to Human Rights Watch has condemned Australia. Local journalists have developed a Serbian resentment of biased foreign broadcasters who show gunboats confronting rickety and overladen vessels while never once acknowledging that the real victims are the Australians.

In the European Union, Howard's brutal methods have aroused quiet admiration. They have been dignified with technocratic euphemisms -- "the Pacific solution", "control of secondary movement". At the time of going to press, Ruud Lubbers, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, was dropping large hints to the delegates of member countries meeting in Geneva that perhaps he would allow "the Pacific solution" to go global. Human Rights Watch and the London-based Refugee Council believe the UN's 1951 Refugee Convention has never been in greater danger. And all because John Howard, the fourth-rate leader of a second-division country, conned his gormless electorate into giving him a third term.

The convention set out the difference between immigrants and asylum-seekers. …

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