Australia Wanted Asylum Seekers Put Into Lifeboats

By MarEx 2014-08-07 01:28:00

Op-Ed by Hugh de Kretser, executive director of Australia’s Human Rights Law Center

Lawyers for the 157 Tamil asylum seekers have revealed that Australian government officers told the group they would be forced to go to India in three orange lifeboats dropped into the ocean somewhere off the coast of India. 

The move happened on around 14 July while the High Court proceeding was on and after the group had already been detained on the Oceanic Protector for almost two weeks.

The government’s willingness to consider forcing 157 men, women and children as young as one onto lifeboats and dump them out at sea makes a complete mockery of its claims to care for their wellbeing and for safety at sea.

The clients we spoke to were terrified at the prospect of being dumped in the ocean on lifeboats but were told they had to obey. Whatever your personal views are on politics and refugee policy, this move was an affront to human decency.

We have been told that on around Monday 14 July, nine adults and two children were removed from the rest of the 157 in the group. The nine adults were taken to a number of orange lifeboats and told that they would be put in them and would need to navigate them to India.

They were instructed in English how to use the lifeboats. All of them speak Tamil and only one or two spoke a little English. They were told that each boat would have 50-60 people on it.

When they refused, saying they had no experience in operating or navigating a boat and couldn’t take responsibility for ensuring the safety of the people on board, the officers told them it was an Australian government decision and they had to obey.

The nine adults and two children were then separately detained from rest of the 157 for four or five days. Each day they were extremely fearful of what was going to happen to them. Then they were taken back into the three main rooms and reunited with the rest of the group. The entire group was then terrified that at any moment they would be dumped in the ocean.

It’s not clear why the government eventually decided not to proceed with the lifeboat plan, but the whole episode reveals the desperate measures they are prepared to use regardless of the human cost.

Secret detention on the high seas, trying to dump families in lifeboats in the ocean, secret overnight transfers, misleading the public, frustrating access to lawyers and to the courts – such behavior from the government is trashing the foundations of Australia’s democracy. Respect for the rule of law, open and transparent democracy and fundamental human rights are some of the things that have made Australia the great country it is, but this government is seemingly willing to trash them all for a few cheap political points in the opinion polls.

I was struck that despite everything they had been through, our clients thanked the Australian Government for bringing them to the Australian mainland. Now they’ve been secretly transferred to Nauru and given the reports of the state they arrived in, I’m deeply concerned about their wellbeing.

These 157 men, women and children have been subjected to a level of cruelty and callousness that has no place in modern Australia.

The Human Rights Law Centre has been told that:

The majority of the group are Christians.
They raised the Virgin Mary flag on the boat to seek her protection for the voyage.
They are Sri Lankan Tamils.
They are fleeing persecution in Sri Lanka.

The asylum seekers revealed a precarious existence in India where they were denied basic legal rights including being unable to lawfully work, send their children to school or have freedom of movement. (India is not a party to the Refugee Convention.) Some revealed safety fears in India also. 

While detained on the Oceanic Protector between around 29 June and 25 July, the asylum seekers were locked in three separate windowless rooms (the nine adults and two children who were separated for four or five days during the lifeboat incident were held in a fourth room). 

They were only allowed out of the rooms for meals and spent around 22 hours day inside the rooms. On a number of days they were locked in the windowless rooms for the entire day because the weather was rough. They did not know where they were.

Families were separated – fathers were placed in separate rooms from women and children. Fathers were only able to see their family three or four times during the on-water detention.

The Human Rights Law Centre has been working with Shine Lawyers and a team of barristers led by Ron Merkel QC to assist the asylum seekers.