"I regard this as one of the most disturbing practices I've come across", Australia's Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, Philip Ruddock told media at the time.
He was referring to an incident last 7 October which never actually happened. Iraqi people seeking asylum in Australia were alleged to have deliberately thrown children into the water from a boat on the Indian Ocean prior to being picked up by Australian naval vessel HMAS Adelaide.
Former Defence Minister Peter Reith said that Navy video footage showed up to fourteen people on the boat, including children, jumped or were forced into the sea as part of a desperate plea to get into Australia.
Prime Minister John Howard expressed immediate outrage at what he described as "emotional blackmail". "Quite frankly...I don't want in this country people who are prepared, if those reports are true, to throw their own children overboard", he told the Alan Jones radio show.
Defending the video's credibility against sceptics, Ruddock told ABC News: "There are a number of people out there who want to try and make heroes of people who come to Australia by boat. And they use all sorts of means to try and push us to give them outcomes to which they're not entitled."
The Navy and the government were painted as heroes and saviours grappling with a difficult, desperate situation; the asylum seekers as barbaric, coldhearted animals with no regard for their children's lives.
Just prior to the 10 November federal election, in response to doubts raised about the truth of the alleged incident, Howard claimed that on the 9 October he had received a report from the Office of National Assessments stating that: "Asylum seekers wearing life jackets jumped into sea and children were thrown in with them. Such tactics have previously been used elsewhere, for example by people smugglers and Iraqi asylum seekers on boats intercepted by the Italian navy."
It turns out that this report was based entirely on statements to the media made by Ruddock and Howard. Their other "evidence" to back up the children overboard claims, photos and video footage, spectacularly failed to substantiate them in any way. A Senate inquiry has just begun into the incident. Kids, lies and videotape helped Howard back into power. The truth took a back seat.
In my previous commentaries which touched on this issue (Suspicious Minds and Advance Australia Fair?), I wrote that the Howard government's draconian treatment of asylum seekers, the Tampa "crisis", and its cynical "Pacific solution" - using small Pacific nations as detention centres for people seeking asylum in Australia must be seen in a historical context. So must its disregard for children.
Australia likes to pride itself on matters relating to the rights of children. Yet they have been used and abused shamelessly by various Australian governments.
Visiting the Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute in Adelaide last week, a painting by a Pitjantjatjara woman, Christine Houston, reminded me once again of the context for these latest disturbing episodes in Australia's history. Called "Terra Nullius" (the legal fiction used to describe the notion that Australia was uninhabited at the time of white invasion and settlement), her canvas includes words such as "massacre", "discrimination", "suppression", "assimilation", "protection", "religion", "denial". It is a powerful testament to the deep scars of colonization which are etched deep into today's Australia..
Kevin Buzzacott, from the Arabunna people says: "In the first hit of the invasion we were dispossessed by the pastoral industry becoming refugees in our own country, and yet throughout the genocide we have always maintained contact with our country. Today our country is threatened by the largest uranium mine in the world - Roxby Downs and the proposed radioactive waste dump at Billa Kalina, in the Lake Eyre basin."
Naomi Klein, after visiting Australia last year dubbed its treatment of asylum seekers as a new incarnation of the "same genocidal logic" behind the dispossession of Australia's Indigenous Peoples.
Despite massive popular pressure, the Howard government has consistently refused to apologise to Indigenous Peoples for the government policy of forcibly removing Aboriginal children from their families and their lands which lasted for a century until the 1970s. They were effectively imprisoned, enslaved and institutionalised, fostered into white homes, government or church missions where many of them were physically and sexually abused.
Their cultures, identities and languages were often beaten out of them. Tens of thousands of children were victims of this process done in the name of civilisation, Christianising the "heathen" and assimilation. In some cases successive generations of the same family were victims of forced removals and separation. This has deeply impacted Indigenous communities across the country, contributing to high rates of family breakdowns, drug and alcohol abuse, violence and mental anguish. "It clearly was attempted genocide. It was believed that the Aboriginal people would die out" said Sir Ronald Wilson, former president of Australia's Human Rights Commission.
In 2000, Ruddock, as Minister for Indigenous Affairs, told Le Monde Diplomatique that Aboriginal people in Australia were disadvantaged because they had come into contact with "developed civilisations" later than other Indigenous Peoples. But there is nothing "civilized" or "developed" about Ruddock's views on Aboriginal people or his immigration policies.
On its own, the "child overboard" incident fabrication is bad enough. But against the gaping wound that its refusal to address the irrefutable truth of the genocide waged against Aboriginal people continues to rub salt into, the Howard government's concoction and manipulation of this highly emotive, fictitious fairytale begs some very serious questions about the kinds of values that it puts on children's wellbeing.
With the same callousness which underpinned its handling of the stolen generation issue, it has sought to portray the Iraqis - and other asylum seekers - as less-than-humans who cannot be trusted even to protect their own families. And must be locked up. Or shut out altogether. Yet precisely the opposite can be said to be the case. Seeking a better future for their children is a driving force for many who flee their countries of origin in this way. Meanwhile, successive colonial governments in Australia have conspired to deny Indigenous Peoples the rights to determine their own futures, even refusing to truly acknowledge the past.
Now thanks to Australian immigration policy, young children, some of them orphans, are imprisoned behind razor wire in detention centres in remote areas across the country. Australia imposes mandatory detention of child asylum seekers and other children arriving in Australia without visas. Article 37 (b) of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child stipulates that detention be the "last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time" is not reflected in Australian law. They are often denied access to schooling, despite this being an inalienable right for all children according to both Australian law and international conventions on children's rights. A select few go to local schools during the day, but their parents cannot visit the schools. Otherwise education and recreation for children occurs on an ad hoc basis inside the camps, which are run as a private enterprise by a subsidiary of Wackenhut, Australasian Correctional Management Party Limited.
As of November 2001 there were 574 children in Australia's detention centres - 330 of them at Woomera alone. The Australian government cares little about the impact of prolonged detention on children's physical, emotional and psychological wellbeing. Australia's Human Rights Commissioner has expressed concern about the impact of detention on children. Ruddock says it is none of his business. He and Howard clearly think that this is all worth it, if as they claim, such treatment deters others from attempting to enter Australia.
On 22 January, a senior adviser to the Howard government, Neville Roach, Chair of the Council of Multicultural Australia and Business Advisory Council of Migration, quit his position, accusing the government of whipping up racism by its treatment of asylumseekers. "Every time a humanitarian issue is raised in relation to the asylum seekers, their deviousness and even criminal intent is proclaimed....Compassion seems to have been thrown out the door".
Last Sunday, rallies were held across Australia in protest at the Howard government's shameful mandatory detention of people seeking refugee status. As I write, five hundred kilometres from Adelaide, mobilisations are taking place at Woomera, the site of Australia's largest onshore internment camp for people who have arrived by boat and without papers. On both sides of the fences, inside and outside of the detention centres, people are showing spirited resistance and opposition to Australia's unjust mandatory detention policies.
In a letter to the Woomera 2002 participants posted on the website for the Woomera actions, Kokatha elder Eileen Wingfield writes: "We have nothing against the refugees. We don't mind people from far away coming here, but the Government hasn't even asked us Aboriginal people. They never have. It makes me upset to see those people locked up in cages, like animals on our country. Being punished and hurting themselves, sewing their lips up. It's terrible. And the children, we feel really sad about them being in there. We are like them people, fighting for our country, our culture."
It's high time the Howard government stopped playing with children's lives.
This article first appeared over at ZNet, and is reproduced with the permission of the author.