A haunting legacy: Australia's rising tide of xenophobia

This week in Melbourne we saw another Tamil refugee quietly released into the community after being incarcerated for almost four years because of a negative ASIO assessment.

One day this 26-year-old man, who has never been charged with a crime in his life, was termed as such a serious threat to the security of this country that he had to be locked away without hope of release.

The next, without any proper explanation to him or the Australian public, his cell door was opened one evening, and he was told he was free to head back out into the community that was meant to be in such fear of him that he had to be treated worse that the worst of criminals.

The average sentence served for rapists in Victoria is four years 11 months, so you can see that this man has been subjected to a very severe penalty in the context of our justice system.

Worse, though, than any treatment given to a rapist or even mass murderer, he had to serve his time never knowing if he would ever be released, which mental health experts will tell you is a cruel and damaging extra burden to carry, especially for someone who has never been charged with any crime, or given the chance to defend himself.

Of course, it is highly misleading to describe the procedures under which he was incarcerated as a justice system, because there is not a grain of justice, as we know it, attached to it.

The presumption of innocence is a supposed pillar of our democracy. This was taken away from him at the outset, even though he was judged by the government to be a genuine refugee fleeing persecution and deserving of our protection under the Refugee Convention.

He wasn’t told of any laws he may have broken when he was arrested and imprisoned indefinitely, he wasn’t told how long he would be imprisoned, only that it was to be indefinite, and he wasn’t allow to see, let alone challenge, the full evidence presented against him by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation.

A proper system of justice demands that when a person is wrongfully imprisoned, he has recourse to legal action to clear his name, and, at the very least, he is offered some form of compensation for the loss of liberty and the pain and suffering inflicted upon him by a government that has clearly admitted its’ mistake.

Yet, none of this has happened. A man has lost four years of his life in which he has suffered immense, psychological damage, he has to live the rest of his life with the taint of being an ASIO suspect, and, somehow, he has to find a way to rebuild his life with nothing after enduring a double-dose of terror, firstly in Sri Lanka and then in a supposedly-free and democratic Australia.

Compounding it all, the Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, has declared the release of these people - when ASIO, without explanation, suddenly changed its’ view of them - is evidence that the system is working well. I shudder to think how illegal and unjust a system needs to be before the highest law officer in the country perceives any illegality or injustice. As with at least two other Tamils who have been released in the same circumstances, and another 50 still held in Australian detention centres, this innocent man is a victim of a system that would fit perfectly into the law of the land in Chile under Pinochet 40 years ago or Stalin in the 1930s. Sadly, though, we talking the 21st century and Australia.

And, of course, we cannot escape the obvious comparison with 21st century America, and Guantanamo Bay, a shameful hell-hole that encapsulates the illegal terror that so-called democratic governments openly inflict upon innocent people in this day and age.
As we head into the certainty of a return to conservative Government and even more draconian policies on refugees and human rights, Australians now face the prospect of slipping further and further into the mire of xenophobic intransigence that gave us the White Australia Policy and a racist legacy that still haunts us today.

This week Australia took over the presidency of the Security Council at the United Nations; a week in which the genocidal Sri Lankan government was condemned for its violations of human rights by the UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay. 
During her visit there, she complained that villagers, priests and journalists she had spoken with were targeted by military intelligence. She also highlighted the military occupation in the north, sexual harassment of women and girls, white van disappearances, killing of protesters by the military in the south and violence against religious minorities. In summing up, she said Sri Lanka was an increasingly-authoritarian country where democracy has been undermined and the rule of law eroded.

Yet, predictably, there was no reaction, or shame at all, from an Australian government that is complicit in all these crimes by helping prop up the brutal Sri Lankan regime through aid and active engagement.

Also, Australia appeared to have no shame about the fact that, at the same time as it prepared to assume the presidential seat at the UN Security Council, it was found guilty by a UN Human Rights committee of almost 150 violations of human rights over the treatment of the ASIO-rejected refugees. It demanded we release them and compensate and rehabilitate them. A government spokesperson dismissed the prospect of action, saying they would look at the findings within the next six months.

If this Labor Government had one shred of compassion and conscience left in its’ dying body, it would have released all of these innocent ASIO-rejected refugees.

I recently put this proposition to Labor politician and former cabinet minister Alan Griffin during a private meeting with him. He simply waved it off, as impossible.

Instead, Labor is leaving the issue of ASIO 50 to a likely Abbott Government, whose Attorney-General-in-waiting, George Brandis, has already signalled their approach by saying the Coalition would wipe out the Labor-installed Stone review of these cases and that “they had no-one to blame but themselves” (5) because they had entered Australia “illegally”.

Of course, Brandis ignores the fact that seeking haven from persecution is a legal right under the Refugee Convention, which Australia has signed, but that’s another legal obligation we couldn’t care less about.

This country may be relatively strong economically but, morally and ethically, and legally in so many cases, it is bankrupt. 


Trevor Grant is a former chief cricket writer at The Age, and now works with the Boycott Sri Lanka Cricket Campaign and the Refugee Action Collective.