AUSTRALIA: A refugee crisis – The denial of the right to asylum

ASIAN HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION - URGENT APPEALS PROGRAMME

Urgent Appeal Case: UA-31-2001
ISSUES: Refugees, IDPs & Asylum seekers,

UA-31-2001: 438 asylum-seekers remain on board on hunger strike

AUSTRALIA: A refugee crisis – The denial of the right to asylum

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The Norwegian freighter, Tampa with 438 asylum-seekers on board, primarily people from Afghanistan, remains just outside of Australia’s territorial waters off the coast of Christmas Island about 1,000 miles west of the mainland. The Australian government has refused to allow the freighter carrying these people who were rescued from a sinking Indonesian vessel late on Sunday to land in Australia. The Australian government has insisted that, although Australia is willing to offer humanitarian help, the ship should have taken the people to the closest port, which is in Indonesia. Thus, the Australian government now maintains that the issue is a matter between the Norwegian and Indonesian governments.

Conditions on board the ship are deteriorating, however. All of the boat people, except pregnant women and 43 children, are on hunger strike. They are adamant that they will not go back to Indonesia. The captain of the Norwegian freighter said that he was forced to bring the asylum-seekers to Christmas Island. They refused to go back to Indonesia, he said, and they are threatening to jump overboard.

Regarding this refugee crisis, the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) in Hong Kong is concerned about the conditions on board the ship after most of the asylum-seekers went on hunger strike. With tension rising, some of them might try to commit suicide, or the dangerous situation on the ship could lead to anarchy on the vessel. Therefore, AHRC strongly urges the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to immediately intervene in this crisis and for the Australian government to provide as quickly as possible refugee protection.

BACKGROUND

AHRC previously issued an urgent appeal to draw attention to the brutal treatment of asylum-seekers and the terrible conditions in detention centres in Australia. The Australian government, however, has not taken any positive actions to improve their deteriorating international reputation. Even worse, the government intends to reduce significantly the number of legal asylum-seekers it accepts.

Recently, when demonstrations erupted at the Woomera detention centre in Western Australia, anti-riot officers equipped with tear gas, batons and shields were brought in, resulting in tension between correctional service officers and asylum-seekers that still exists. There is also a report that asylum-seekers at the Curtin detention centre, even children, are on hunger strike.

Another serious issue is that a number of asylum-seekers in Australia are suffering from mental illness without receiving proper treatment. Some detainees are slashing themselves, bashing their heads against walls and overdosing on prescription drugs. The immigration minister of Australia though has insisted that all of the detainees have the same access to specialist health care as the general population in Australia and that the psychological problems afflicting detainees are the result of trauma experienced before their arrival in Australia. However, according to health workers who have treated these people and the detainees’ testimony, most psychiatric problems have developed since they were detained as a result of the isolation, disempowerment and desocialisation that is inherent in lengthy periods of incarceration.

The following testimony, which was recorded by one of the detainees who has been trained as a medical doctor, can verify why a number of asylum-seekers are suffering from mental illness:

\”During my time [in detention], I have become very concerned about the psychological effects caused by the long periods of detention that some asylum-seekers, including myself, have experienced. My training as a doctor has allowed me to observe these effects and to act as a point of contact for many of the other detainees to discuss their problems with me.

The experience of detention leads to a day-by-day increase in stress and tension caused by the environment of the facility where several factors – residential, administrative and judicial – converge to undermine an individual’s mental state. Detention for myself and other asylum-seekers has meant the instant loss of liberty for an indeterminate period of time in a prison-like environment and involvement in a time-consuming, legalistic and confusing refugee determination process that is adversarial and confrontational. The handling and treatment of detainees is done in a manner which appears arbitrary, deliberately harsh, culturally insensitive and highly disrespectful in a context where there is a significant lack of emotional and psychological support or care.\”

SUGGESTED ACTION

Express your concern and urge the Australian government to resolve this crisis as quickly and as reasonably as possible by writing a letter to:

SAMPLE LETTER (use this or write your own short message)

Mr. John Howard

Prime Minister

House of Representatives

Parliament House

Canberra ACT 2600

AUSTRALIA
 

Dear Prime Minister,

I was shocked to hear that a Norwegian freighter with 438 asylum-seekers on board people who were rescued from a sinking Indonesian vessel late on Sunday – remains just outside of Australia’s territorial waters off the coast of Christmas Island and that most of those on board are on hunger strike, demanding to land in Australia. Unfortunately, your government has refused to allow them to land in your country.

I am quite concerned about conditions on the ship after people on board went on hunger strike. As the tension becomes worse, some of them might try to commit suicide, or the dangerous situation could easily lead to anarchy on the vessel.

Regarding the recent brutal treatment of asylum-seekers in Australia, although many international and local human rights organisations have urged the Australian government to improve their policy on refugees, I am concerned because your government has refused to heed this advice and has not taken any positive action. This refugee policy will seriously harm your international reputation.

Even worse, a number of asylum-seekers in Australia are suffering from mental illness due to the terrible conditions in the detention centres, and they cannot get proper medical treatment. These are serious human rights violations. Even though they are asylum-seekers, they also have the same rights to receive medical treatment and to freedom of expression and assembly as citizens in Australia. Whether people are asylum-seekers or citizens, everyone is a human being and has human rights.

I strongly urge your government to deal with this refugee crisis as quickly as possible and to improve your policy on refugees. Appropriate measures to improve your governmentÂ’s refugee policy would be to abandon the current policy of mandatory detention and to place limits on detention times.

Yours sincerely,

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SEND FAXES AND EMAILS TO:

1. John Howard MP

Prime Minister

House of Representatives

Parliament House

Canberra ACT 2600

AUSTRALIA

TEL: +61 2 6277 7700

FAX: +61 2 6273 4100

SALUTATION: Dear Prime Minister

Also you can send your letter to his home page: http://www.pm.gov.au/your_feedback/feedback.htm

2. Philip Ruddock, MP

Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs

Suite MF 40

Parliament House

Canberra ACT 2600

AUSTRALIA

TEL: +61 2 6277 7860

FAX: +61 2 6273 4144

EMAIL: minister@immi.gov.au

SALUTATION: Dear Minister

SEND COPIES TO:

1. Prof. Dr. Ruud Lubbers

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

C.P. 2500

Geneva 2,

SWITZERLAND

TEL: +41 22 739 8111

EMAIL:webmaster@unhcr.ch

SALUTATION: Dear High Commissioner

PLEASE MARK: ATT – HIGH COMMISSIONER LUBBERS

2. Committee Secretary

Joint Standing Committee on Migration

Department of House of Representatives

Parliament House

CANBERRA ACT 2600

AUSTRALIA

Tel: +61 2 6277 4560

Fax: + 61 2 6277 8506

E-mail: JSCM@aph.gov.au

SALUTATION: Dear Minister

3. Con Sciacca, MP

Shadow Minister for Immigration

House of Representatives

Parliament House

Canberra ACT 2600

Tel: +61 2 6277 4548

Fax: +61 2 6277 8417

Email: Con.Sciacca.MP@aph.gov.au

SALUTATION: Dear Minister

4. Premier Geoff Gallop

Government of Western Australia

24th Floor, 197 St George’s Terrace

PERTH WA 6000

AUSTRALIA

Tel: +61 8 9222 9888

Fax: +61 8 9322 1213

Email: wa-government@mpc.wa.gov.au

SALUTATION: Dear Premier

5. Prof. Alice Tay

President of Human Rights & Equal Opportunity Commission

GPO Box 5218

SYDNEY NSW 1042

AUSTRALIA

Tel: +61 2 9284 9600

Fax: +61 2 9284 9611

Email: paffairs@hreoc.gov.au

SALUTATION: Dear Madam President

Document Type : Urgent Appeal Case
Document ID : UA-31-2001
Countries : Australia,
Issues : Refugees, IDPs & Asylum seekers,