Difficult territory of Australia’s response to refugees arriving without visas covered in inaugural Malcolm Fraser Oration

September 17 / 197

Refugees about to be rescued by crew of the Norwegian merchant vessel Tampa, 2001. Flickr/creative commons: Publik15
Refugees about to be rescued by crew of the Norwegian merchant vessel Tampa, 2001. Flickr/creative commons: Publik15

Barrister and vocal advocate for the rights of refugees Julian Burnside delivered the inaugural Malcolm Fraser Oration at the University last week, in which he cited some of the very many ways Australia’s treatment of ‘irregular maritime arrivals’ has fallen short of global standards.

Mr Burnside said Mr Fraser’s role in the 1975 constitutional crisis among other actions had rather overshadowed “what a great humanitarian he was”, but that his handling of the influx of people from Vietnam in the aftermath of war there was one of his great contributions, quoting Fraser’s statement that “since we have been part of the problem, we ought to be part of the solution”.

“Such moral leadership is sadly lacking now,” Mr Burnside said.

Mr Burnside began his analysis of Australia’s handling of asylum seeking refugees with an account of the so-called ‘Tampa episode’.

“Not many people from Generation Y or millennials remember Tampa,” he said, “but it was an important and curious event with long-lasting impacts for Australia.”

“The interesting thing is that is provoked litigation to resolve an impasse, because the (Norwegian merchant vessel) Tampa had rescued 438 Hazara Afghani asylum seekers, which, when it attempted to put them ashore at Christmas Island, was stopped by Australian SAS forces, who took over the bridge at gunpoint.

“The resulting matter was heard by Justice North in the Federal Court of Australia, who handed down his judgement at 2.15pm Melbourne time on 11 September 2001. Eight or nine hours later the attack on America in New York City happened and from then on, everything seemed different.

“All of a sudden in the west you no longer had terrorists, you had Muslim terrorists, and in Australia you no longer had boat people, you had Muslim boat people, and if I’m not mistaken that’s when the Howard government started calling boat people illegal, and called the exercise of shunting them offshore ‘border protection’, which created the mistaken belief we were under attack from criminals.

“And people seemed to overlook the fact that people fleeing terrorism are probably not terrorists themselves, people fleeing extremism are probably not extremists themselves.”

Mr Burnside said it was the Tampa episode that introduced him to the reality of the policy he had been previously unaware of, namely that of mandatory and indefinite detention of people arriving in Australia without a visa.

“As I got more and more involved, I realised that our government was trashing human rights, knowingly and deliberately.

After recounting three high-profile and disturbing cases of treatment of refugees on Nauru and Manus Islands, he said it was a matter of continuing shame that in this country the 2013 election was fought on the grounds of both major parties trying to outdo each other as to how cruel they could be to those seeking asylum. 

“I hope we never live to see that happen in another election campaign, that cruelty is the selling point,” he said.

Vice-Chancellor Glyn Davis acknowledged Mr Burnside’s presenting the audience with some “difficult territory”, and said it was incumbent on all present to consider “what we’re going to do about these things, and what our responsibilities are, having been given this information”.

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