Cowboys and Indians: shooting at Detainees

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21 March 2011

Police fired tear gas and synthetic bullets at a group of 250 asylum seekers who had burned down accommodation buildings

Cowboys and Indians: shooting at detainees

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Gerard Oosterman

Gerard Oosterman

TV footage shows tear gas and ‘soft’ bullets tracing through the night sky, aimed at the rioting Christmas Island boatpeople, fired by armed police force from the back of trucks.

One wonders how long it will be before we will finally admit that the present way of handling and treating boat people is not working, and that our detention or care for those unfortunate people with families is cruel in the extreme?

Don’t we care, is that why we now shoot them? For how much longer will the UN commissioner point out our failures?

The overcrowding, the isolation and the length it takes to process the claims are given as the main cause for the riots.

Of course dealing with people landing on our shores has often been accompanied by riots. Back in 1952 it took 200 soldiers to restore order at Bonegilla Migrant camp. Three young men had committed suicide. The reasons for the riot then were the same as the present discontent today: overcrowding and inhumane living condition.

The Nissan hut migrant camps have long disappeared… only to be replaced with a more modern variety, but with still the same aim: to provide housing but also to isolate and to keep detainees separate, away from ‘normality and if possible from scrutiny.

What more proof do we need that the process is de-humanizing? Why do we persist in our punitive way of dealing with boat people and refugees? The detainees are desperately trying to tell us something. Why are we not listening and taking it in? They have done nothing wrong. Why are they being detained and separated from other people and normality? While violence and riots are not tolerable, neither are keeping people detained who have done nothing unlawful.

Rest assured though that TV footage of the shootings has raced around the world and that our treatment of detainees would have sunk a notch lower, if that was still possible. The tension amongst the asylum seekers is never far from the surface. Mix that in with isolation, the despair of endless waiting for progress about their claims, the utter boredom, heat and cold, the sheer deliberate forbiddingness of surroundings, jail-like architecture, fences, guards and you have created very tortuous conditions that no one could possibly accept as normality.

The response by our Immigration Minister Chris Bowen must be very encouraging to the detainees when he stated that the fire arms used were a bit like shooting ’mini bean bag pellets’ coming from ’gun-like weapons’. They might cause a bit of bruising, he added.

However, David Manne of the Refugee Legal Centre said police had used a modified shotgun ‘that can cause serious injury or death’.

With just a few thousand trickling in per year, we can hardly claim to be overwhelmed by boatpeople and as we have some experience in settling migrants for some decades it is indeed surprising the whole issue has became so unmanageable.

What is the problem and why can’t we settle them in normal circumstances in assessing their status? I mean, Australia is an Island and after harrowing and hazardous boat journeys, they are hardly likely to jump on a boat again and escape. Escape from what? What Governmental stupidity and obstinacy prevents them to not just do what most countries are doing and simply have them living amongst other people, letting them work, earn money, go shopping and process their applications. European countries are coping with thousands of refugees on a daily basis. We have trouble with a few thousand a year, spend hundreds of millions to keep them detained and separated from a functioning society. Why?

How often does the UNHCR have to put to Australia that we are in breach of basic Human Rights by keeping them in detention when no crime has been committed?

Of course, the real reason apart from the ingrained xenophobia by some of political parties’ leaders and the usual ramping up by hysterical coterie of radio and other media flotsam is the risk of losing votes. It’s all about that, isn’t it?  Let human suffering continue but not risk upsetting the voters who for years have been indoctrinated with ‘our shores’ are under siege from hordes of ‘illegal queue jumpers’. We mustn’t be seen to take sides of humanity and change course midway, must we?

Is it still preferable to continue to de-humanize a few thousand boat people than to losing voters and an election?

Come on Australia. Enough is enough. Our minister for immigration looked genuinely uncomfortable discussing the riots on Christmas Island. It shows he still has a heart. Perhaps over half the population still have hearts as well. We can’t shoot boat people just because they happen to have come to our shores and need a leg up from misery and wars.

They want a leg up from their misery, not to be shot at.

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2 Responses to “Cowboys and Indians: shooting at Detainees”

  1. lonia scholvinck Says:

    indeed, whats the difference between the immigration of english and dutch people in earlier decades and these refuges???
    There is plenty of in land in Australie I suppoose.

    Like

  2. gerard oosterman Says:

    Gee, that was quick. You are right, we have plenty of land. It’s just that our hearts have become small and shrivelled..

    Like

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