There were many powerful speeches at the March Australia event held in Townsville on Sunday 31 August and one particularly stood out for me.
‘J’ was introduced by the MC as “as ordinary citizen”. He told us he was a former officer in the Australian Defence Force (ADF) but stressed that his views were his own.
J had been brought up in a family and in the ADF to value and support a ‘fair go.’ The ‘fair go’ he said was about being fair to all and giving a lending hand to those that need help.
He could no longer accept how the vulnerable in our society were being treated by the Abbott Government – including, disabled veterans, young unemployed, elderly pensioners and asylum seekers.
J also said he could not support the position that the Abbott Government was putting young Navy personnel in – in relation to ‘turning back’ asylum seekers.
The crunch came for him when he heard that young seamen, acting through their chain of command, on the direction from Minister Scott Morrison, are required at times to tow back terrified asylum seekers including women and children, and put them into lifeboats and send them back over the horizon to an unknown fate.
For many sailors this would be a harrowing duty knowing that the people they were sending away from safety, including children, were just ordinary people like themselves. J said that a number of former ADF personnel including Naval Captains – were appalled at the direction that the Abbott Government was providing in relation to turn back, tow back and the misuse of ‘life craft.’ (1)
He remarked that this practice is a perverse twist to the usual function of a lifeboat – lifeboats are intended to take people from situations of danger and deliver them to safety. As part of Operation Sovereign Borders, people are taken from the safety of a naval vessel, forced into lifeboats and then put into a more dangerous situation.
I have thought a lot about what J said since listening to his words that day. I found a photo of one of the lifeboats – it might be called a lifeboat, but to me it looks like a giant orange coffin.
In one incident in February this year reported by the ABC, 34 people were forced into one of these vessels which were then cast adrift to hopefully reach the coast of Indonesia.
I can only imagine what it must have been like. These 34 people had already spent some days at sea in a crowded fishing boat. Indonesian sources told the ABC those on board came from Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal and that the youngest aboard was 18 months old.
For some of them it might have been the first time they had ever been on a boat, so it was already a terrifying experience. They would have been relieved to have been “rescued” by an Australian naval vessel – but some rescue this turns out to be.
Rather than being taken to safety they are taken back towards the Indonesian Coast – the same coast that they had left several days previously. They are then forced to go into what looks like a giant orange coffin to what end heaven only knows.
It was also reported that two people refused to board the lifeboat. Would you blame them?
These actions are not those of a country that respects human rights. It is no wonder that the new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein, has criticised Australia’s offshore processing of asylum-seekers and turning back of boats. He said it was leading to “a chain of human rights violations, including arbitrary detention and possible torture following return to home countries”.
It is a sad indictment on our government that they rejected these claims using the defence that abuses in Iraq and Syria are worse. What a tragic response from a country that was once recognised around the world as one of the champions of human rights, and was one of the key participants in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The Abbott Government is clearly not providing a ‘Fair Go’ for all, and certainly not for asylum seekers. For J and many of us, that is no longer acceptable.
- Since March in August, the former Chief of the Defence Force (CDF) - Admiral Chris Barrie, who was the CDF during the Howard years, has also condemned the Abbott /Morrison Immigration Policy as secretive, expensive and unnecessary. He called ‘detention centres’ for what they are – ‘jails.’