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Australia’s war on people smugglers has other “forgotten” victims, writes Edwina Lloyd, namely the impoverished Indonesian crew members onboard the boats.
Australia’s treatment of children in detention has been brought into focus by the release of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s report titled The Forgotten Children.
While the children of asylum seekers may fit the description of “forgotten”, there is another group of people intimately connected to this story who are not merely forgotten, but their entire existence has almost wiped from the national consciousness.
They are the impoverished Indonesian crew members, lumped together with the wider group known as people smugglers.
Theirs is a shameful, untold story in our recent political history – how a group of people from the outer reaches of Indonesia became collateral damage in an Australian political battle.
At the height of Australia’s national hysteria over people smugglers, asylum seekers and border control, these crew were collectively demonised by politicians and the media.
They were denied basic human rights and treated with an almost pathological lack of compassion.
I was one of the many Australian lawyers representing the Indonesian people smugglers. My first client was a young boy who was being charged, and detained, as an adult.
Like many others, he had little education, and the chance to make a few dollars crewing a boat was an opportunity he could not refuse.
He knew nothing about people smuggling, let alone Australian politics’ pre-occupation with “border security”.
Our clients were, at the time, facing mandatory five-year sentences, with a minimum non-parole period of three years if they were found guilty of people-smuggling offences.
It was an extremely harsh penalty, especially for people for whom the whole concept of people-smuggling was foreign and perplexing.
It was former Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd who told that nation that:
“People smugglers are engaged in the world’s most evil trade and they should all rot in jail because they represent the absolute scum of the earth.”
These sorts of ignorant comments fuelled public perceptions about asylum seeker boats, and justified the draconian sentences facing my Indonesian clients.
Many lawyers campaigned for a change in government policy.
We fought it in the courts, and we fought it in public.
Good people in the Government came to understand the human tragedy that was unfolding as an unintended consequence of the “war on people smugglers”.
Finally, then-Attorney General Nicola Roxon intervened and issued a directive instructing the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions (CDPP) to use its discretion when prosecuting the Indonesian crew of people smuggling vessels.
Suddenly, hundreds of Indonesians waiting in Australian detention centres for their cases to come to trial were free to go home.
Then came the 2013 Federal election and everything changed again.
If you believe the hype, then the issue of the Indonesian crew of the people smuggling vessels has now been resolved once and for all.
Life is not always that simple.
The boats are still coming, even if they don’t make it all the way to Australia, and even if they are coming in smaller numbers.
The directive to the CDPP has been reversed, and Indonesians caught up in the people smuggling net are once again facing the prospect of severe sentences.
It seems the lessons regarding the treatment of Indonesian children who are recruited to crew the boats have not been learned either.
Just last month, a story emerged about two teenage boys who have been kept in detention and adult jails for two years since the boat they were crewing was intercepted.
This time around, the issue of people-smuggling is less prominent because we have supposedly “stopped the boats”.
They were, and are again, being treated this way by an Australian Government acting in our name.
Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton, and I dare say some on the Labor side of politics blithely dismiss any criticism of our approach to the broad issue of asylum seekers by arguing that the ends justify the means.
Following the release of the Australian Human Rights Commission report, Tony Abbott again trotted out the same old excuse to justify the treatment of children in Australian detention centres.
Sadly, President Jokowi is also using the same argument about ends and means to dismiss claims for clemency for the two Australians on death row in Bali – Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran.
If you believe in basic human rights, then the argument that the ends justify the means must be rejected.
If we treat people so badly, then we cannot consider ourselves to be a just, caring and compassionate society.
The golden rule of reciprocity says that we should treat others the same way that we would like others to treat ourselves.
When it comes to Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers, our treatment of the Indonesian crew of asylum seeker vessels and our treatment of children in detention, we seem to throw that principle out the window.
As we despair the way that two of our own citizens are currently being treated by the Indonesian justice system, it’s worth reminding ourselves of our own responsibilities to treat people justly, to respect basic human rights, and the importance of resisting the temptation to scapegoat foreigners in order to gain domestic political advantage.
Vilifying the vulnerable is a zero-sum game. In the end, no-one wins. It’s time to put humanity first and politics last.