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The assault on humanitarianism ... Stuart Rosewarne looks at Australia's celebration of fifty years of the UN convention on refugees. (letters and debate).

Among the many logical anomalies in the Howard Government's approach to refugees, surely the most spurious is the argument that the clandestine entry of asylum seekers breaches Australia's territorial boundaries and undermines Australian political sovereignty. The way in which the present government has sought to manage onshore applications for asylum by boat people has completely blurred the meaning of territorial integrity. Exactly where Australia's boundaries lie becomes a somewhat contentious matter when one compares the ruminations over the boundaries of the `migration zone' -- framed in terms of the low water line which the asylum seekers on the Tampa failed to breach, and thereby justifying the `push off' policy -- with, for example, Australia's determination to exercise its rights over mineral and petroleum deposits on the continental shelf. Then there is the question as to the territorial status of the decks of the HMAS Manoora.

The redefining of the territorial status of Christmas Island, Ashmore Reef and the Cocos Islands, placing them beyond the `migration zone', suggests a rather more fluid concept of territorial integrity. An even more anomalous situation has emerged with Australia's agreement with Nauru to set up a detention centre to accept asylum seekers where they will be assessed. A bevy of Australian personnel, from the Departments of Defence, Immigration and Foreign Affairs, have been instrumental in the setting up and staffing of the centre. The guards employed to patrol the detention centre have been contracted through an Australian security company. All expenses and more are to be met by the Australian government. The detention centre is based on an outsourcing of processing detained asylum seekers. It is organised under Australian authority. It is, in effect, an Australian enclave, and it is subject to the exercise of Australian political authority.

The extra-territorial reach of political sovereignty has not, of course, been limited to Nauru. Australia has been making strenuous efforts to get Indonesia to establish detention centres, the cost of which would be met by Australia. There is nothing new in this insofar as Australian immigration policy is concerned. Australian Immigration Department officials have been deployed overseas, at airports for instance, securing surveillance operations and visa checks to make shoring up the first lines of defence against the clandestine movement of people.

The Border Control and related legislation seeks to re-establish some degree of integrity in this mire of people movement management. It does so by strengthening the power of the state to regulate the movement of people as well as limit the civil rights of people. It represents a further institutionalising of the retreat from the long-established principle of nations providing sanctuary to those seeking to escape persecution and oppression. The xenophobia that is driving these moves makes it even less ethically and morally defensible. The retreat has to be challenged if our commitment to human rights is not to be jettisoned.

Stuart Rosewarne is in Political Economy at the University of Sydney. He is presently conducting research on migration management in Europe.
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Author:Rosewarne, Stuart
Publication:Arena Magazine
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Dec 1, 2001
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