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by Marcus Browning Tuesday, Nov. 06, 2001 at 9:17 AM

In the past 12 months or so taxpayers have footed the bill for the Government's inhumane treatment of asylum seekers to the tune of more than 0 million. Refugees have been paying with their liberty, dignity, families and lives. The drowning last week of 353 mainly Iraqi refugees bound for Australia has been used as a political football by both Liberal and Labor Parties.

Their campaign trail is littered with the most contemptible policies towards refugees with lies, hypocrisy and the savage treatment of those attempting to sail to Australia on boats and those already incarcerated in various prison islands and refugee camps.

For months now, the Howard Government has been pursuing a policy that can only be described as racist as it is directed to refusing entry to those from Middle Eastern.countries and from Afghanistan. The US bombing has already created a huge wave of refugees but the Howard Government refuses to respond with any sympathy or even a minimal acceptance of Afghan refugees created by his and Bush's war.

The Howard Government's inhumane decisions are being used shamlessly to win the Coalition Government a third term in office.

Most of the men, women and children who drowned were coming to Australia to be reunited with their families. The Howard Government, with the support of the ALP, introduced laws in 1999 preventing family reunion. This forced people who want to be with their husbands, wives children and parents to resort to desperate measures, including dangerous attempts by boat.

"Refugee advocates at the time [1999] said the effect would be to drive the immediate families of refugees, into the hands of people smugglers, putting them at risk", said William Maley, Chairman of the Refugee Council of Australia.

Australia's chief Muslim cleric, Mufti of Australia Sheik Taj el Din Al Hilaly, also said it was Australia's immigration policy that caused the deaths. "Mr Howard closed all legal and safe means for these people to find freedom and safety."

Saying Howard had blood on his hands, the Mufti berated the Government for using refugees to garner votes. "He opened the gates of death for these people. It is unfortunate to see that innocent lives are now being used as a way to win a few votes.

"Winning votes should never be justification for the death of innocent women and children", he said.

Adding to Australia's growing international reputation as an inhumane country willing to flout international law, the Government announced last week that it is willing to take only 40 of the 500 asylum seekers in Indonesia approved for refugee status by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

The Commissioner's Australian representative, Ellen Hansen, said in response to the Government's decision that desperation forced refugees into the clutches of people smugglers.

"These are people who've stood in the queue, gone through the queue and can't make the last step", said Ms Hansen. "This is what is propelling them into the hands of the people smugglers."

The extent of the Government's ruthlessness in the lead up to the November 10 election can be found in Ruddock's attempt to blame the victims, those drowned at sea and their families, for the whole terrible and tragic incident. "People have some personal responsibility in relation to the circumstances in which they put themselves", he said.

He accused them of committing what he and his Government have made a criminal offence -- of seeking family reunion. "The great bulk of those on the vessel were ... I suspect, people looking for family reunion outcomes."

Now, on Australia's prison islands, in addition to 215 new arrivals near Ashmore Reef, there are about 800 asylum seekers on Nauru, 225 on PNG's Manus Island, 220 off the coast of Christmas Island and 71 on Cocos Island.

"It is hard to imagine a more inhumane and contemptible policy than that pursued by the Howard Government", said Peter Symon, CPA General Secretary in a comment to "The Guardian". "By pressurising and bribing the governments of Nauru, PNG and other countries, the Australian Government is obliging these small countries to do what Australia is not prepared to do itself.

"The Government's harsh measures do nothing to solve the huge refugee crisis which is of worldwide dimensions. Nor is it likely to deter desperate people who have been deprived of all hope from taking extreme risks to escape their situation when all doors are slammed in their faces.

"The Australian Government's policies are all the more reprehensible when it is known that even the small quota set aside for refugees has not been filled for several years.

"What has happened will not do anything for Australia's reputation as a friendly, welcoming country and although assembled Liberals may applaud the Government's 'hard line', it will sooner or later be responded to by other countries which will not forget Australia's inhumanity and selfishness.

"Why can't the Government take in many more refugees even if on temporary visas. Many will want to return to their homelands when the situations from which they are fleeing are improved", concluded Mr Symon.

(Footnote: It is par for the course that taxpayers are to foot the bill for an out-of-court settlement in a legal action against Immigration Minister, Ruddock and Australasian Correctional Management (ACM) brought by eight Chinese refugees who were bashed by guards at the Villawood detention centre in Sydney. ACM is the company that operates Australia's refugee detention centres under contract to the Government. The amount involved in the settlement will not be made public.)


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