The Weekend Leader - 'Racism is making Australia turn back the boat people'

'Racism is making Australia turn back the boat people'

Radhika Giri   |  Chennai


Trevor Grant is a well known Australian sports journalist and an activist now working for refugee rights in his country. Author of the book "Sri Lanka's secrets: How Mahinda Rajapaksa gets away with Murder," which was published by Monash University in 2014, he has been delivering talks in Australia on refugee rights and advocating the need for change in government policies in his country. Excerpts from an email interaction he had with The Weekend Leader.

Trevor participating in a pro-refugee demonstration in Australia

On the refugee crisis in Australia and the Aussie government’s harsh treatment of refugees

Australia's treatment of refugees, by both sides when in government, conservative and labor, has become one of the most shameful episodes in the history of this country.

A Labor government began mandatory detention of asylum seekers in 1992 and when the conservatives came into power in 1996 they decided to use the issue as a means of garnering votes in a country that had a "whites-only" immigration policy for most of the 20th century.

A strong racist strain runs through Australian society and politicians find it easy to stir the "red-necks" into action. A critical feature of Australia's refugee policy, one that is not discussed much, is the racism at its core.

These people coming to our shores by boat have the wrong skin colour so it's easy to demonise and dehumanise them. They aren't "like us", they could be terrorists, they want our jobs, they want our homes, they want our welfare, they are queue-jumpers, they have come making a lifestyle choice, not as they claim, as victims of persecution... all these fears are spread by politicians and eagerly taken up by their racist supporters in the media.

The current Abbott government sees a political "win" in being able to stop the boats. They say they are stopping drownings by doing this, yet the evidence shows they are willing to risk people drowning by turning rickety wooden boats away from Australia on the high seas. Also Read: Caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, Sri Lankan Tamil refugees have lost a future

And as we recently discovered, despite declaring so-called people smugglers as "evil", the Australian government has been paying the same despised people running these boats to take their human cargo back to Indonesia. One such boat was found washed up on a reef -- so much for saving lives. The duplicity and hypocrisy here is quite astounding.

The Australian government is also determined to make thousands of people, including children, suffer in concentration camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, where they suffer from lack of basic medical care and irreparable physical and psychological damage.

If the Australian government really cared about innocent people drowning at sea, they would process them in Indonesia and let them come to Australia, if they are genuine refugees-- which Australia is required to do under the Refugee Convention.

On the campaign in Australia for refugee rights

Australia is in breach of a number of conventions it has signed, including the Refugee Convention and the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights.

The Refugee Convention demands that people seeking asylum are not returned to the country from which they fled if they are in fear of persecution back there. It demands that a proper process is in place to hear their claims for refugee status.

Australia routinely returns people without going through a proper process. This is especially so with Tamils from Sri Lanka. This is illegal. And yet Australia has the temerity to call asylum-seekers "illegals" when it has signed a convention that declares it is not illegal to seek asylum.

In August 2013, the UN Human Rights Committee found Australia guilty of 143 breaches of international law due to its policy of detaining indefinitely 50 or so asylum-seekers judged to be security risks by the country's intelligence arm, ASIO.

Some of these people, most of whom are Tamils from Sri Lanka, have been incarcerated for more than six years. Due to secrecy provisions, they are unable to know the precise charges against them, so they cannot challenge them in a court.

It is a blatant misuse of state power in order to scare off asylum-seekers by making examples of these people. The UN demanded Australia release, rehabilitate and compensate them. Australia has refused to even reply to the UN demands.

On the possibility of a change in the Australian government's stand on the refugee issue

Unfortunately there is no chance of change in the immediate future as the two major parties have virtually identical policies on asylum seekers.

On the role of the international community in protection of refugee rights

The international community must rally at the grassroots level, firstly by shaming countries such as Australia for its racist dehumanisation of some of the world's most vulnerable people. It must form an international collective to challenge these policies and show them up for what they are.

Those of us in Australia fighting for refugee rights would love to see the Australian government's shameful actions highlighted in the international arena by activists from other countries.

This could be done by regular coordinated protests at Australian embassies around the world. This would attract attention here and make ordinary Australians -- most of whom are willfully blind to this issue --sit up and take notice. The same thing could be done for other countries with similar policies.

On the role of the United Nations

The UN is only as effective as its controllers -- the biggest and most powerful states -- want it to be. As long as you have the power of veto in the hands of the US, Russia, UK, China and France at UN's most important body, the Security Council, you have little chance of wrong-doers being punished and real change being instituted for the downtrodden of this world.

After all, most of the heinous crimes on this planet can be traced back to those countries. When an estimated 70,000 innocent Tamils were being murdered by Sri Lankan military bombs and rockets in early 2009, the Security Council, which knew what was going on, refused to even discuss this outrage at the time.

Evidence has since emerged to show that a UK threat of veto was behind this inaction while China and Russia have consistently threatened to use the veto to prevent the Security Council from acting on a UN war crimes investigation into these atrocities.

All of these countries have various geo-political reasons to support the Sri Lankan regime. Innocent men, women and children being slaughtered by a government military machine is way down on their list of priorities.

On the change of guard in Sri Lanka, the Maithripala Sirisena Government and its relation with the Australian Government

What happened in January this year in Sri Lanka was regime change, orchestrated by India and the US, both of which had become, slowly but surely, unnerved by the Rajapaksa government's drift into the arms of China.

The new president, Maithripala Sirisena, has made a few cosmetic changes to try to prove to the world he's going to bring real change to the country. But he's cut from the same cloth as his predecessor, having been a senior minister in Rajapaksa's cabinet for 10 years, including a stint as defence minister during the closing days of the civil war when tens of thousands of innocent Tamil civilians were deliberately slaughtered by the Sri Lankan military.

Sirisena has failed to address the nation's biggest on-going issue, which is the Tamil genocide. If Sirisena was serious about addressing Tamil oppression, he would have started by ending the brutal military occupation of the Tamil homelands and cancelling the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

Yet he has declared his support for both, which means he's just another Sinhalese chauvinist ruler who believes Sri Lanka belongs only to him and his kind. And for Tamils this means more of the same.

The Australian government has no interest in the welfare of the Tamils. When Sirisena was elected, the Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott's only message to him was the hope that Sirisena would maintain the same relationship as did Rajapaksa on the asylum-seeker issue --,which allows Australia to return, illegally, to Sri Lanka people who have fled persecution which includes torture, rape, murder and jail. Sirisena duly affirmed that the status quo would remain. 

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