THE March in March protesters last Sunday raged against Tony Abbott and his government on a range of issues — including the treatment of asylum-seekers.
There were many “Free the Refugees” posters, along with suggestions the Abbott government is some kind of fascist dictatorship. Yet the empirical evidence suggests that the Coalition’s hard line on border protection is working and that, as a consequence, lives are being saved.
Few would accuse ABC or Fairfax Media reporters of being soft on the Abbott government. Yet in recent months journalists from both organisations have shown signs of having being mugged by reality when reporting asylum-seeker stories.
In introducing ABC1’s 7.30 last Monday, Sarah Ferguson conceded that Operation Sovereign Borders was working. But she declared that “the ABC has penetrated” the “veil of secrecy” which prevails over the operation and had obtained “rare access” to the asylum-seekers’ “side of the story”.
It was not a good look as far as the “Free the Refugees” movement is concerned. The main character in the program was an educated Iranian named Arash Sedigh. He told 7.30 journalist George Roberts, who previously reported claims Australian Navy personnel had taken action which led to asylum-seekers burning their hands, that he had been refused access to Australia under the skilled migration program.
In other words, Sedigh applied in Iran to migrate to Australia. When his application was refused, Sedigh flew to Indonesia and applied for resettlement in Australia as a refugee. When this did not work out, Sedigh told 7.30, he “decided to go there in (an) illegal way to make them accept us”.
Sedigh bought a place on a boat from people-smugglers and made two attempts to reach Australia, but was turned back by the Australian Navy and/or Customs. On the second occasion, as Sedigh was being escorted back towards Indonesia by the Australian Navy, he declared: “F . . k Australia … you are criminals.” Sedigh added that “the cause” of terrorist attacks on the US on September 11, 2001, was America’s “very deeds” and told Australians to “remember 9/11”.
On March 1-2, Fairfax Media reporter Paul McGeough wrote an “exclusive” report from Tehran about Reza Berati, who was killed during a disturbance at the Manus Island detention centre. Berati’s tragic death is being investigated.
McGeough is one of Fairfax Media’s bevy of left-wing journalists who, like many of his fellow comrades at the ABC, tend to criticise both the Coalition and Labor from the left. But, in writing on the Berati case, McGeough was overwhelmed by the facts.
Berati was an Iranian Kurd. McGeough attended his memorial service at the Al-Mahdi Mosque in the Tehran suburb of Nabard. He reported the dead man’s family came from Sirvan in the Iranian province of Ilam. According to McGeough, “as many as a dozen Sirvan locals are in detention at Manus Island.”
The family’s story is a not uncommon one in the Middle East and north Africa. Berati, an architect, had been unable to find work in Iran and, according to McGeough, had set out for Australia hoping to further his architectural studies. The fact that Berati’s memorial service was held in Tehran suggests that his family is not in fear of persecution. Some of Berati’s friends and relatives suggested that the Australian government had killed him and one claimed Australian leaders were worse than the murderous dictator Saddam Hussein.
On November 18 last year, Sarah Ferguson did a story for Four Corners, “Trading Misery”, on the boat that capsized off Java in November last year in which 44 people (including 18 children) drowned.
Presenter Kerry O’Brien’s line was that Operation Sovereign Borders had stopped many boats, but that “people-smugglers were already establishing new ways to keep their lucrative trade going”. The suggestion was that fake visas are being produced for asylum-seekers to travel to Australia by air. There is no evidence to confirm this prediction.
However, the essential point of the Four Corners report turned on the revelation that many of the asylum-seekers on board the boat that sank were Lebanese from the village of Qabeit in northern Lebanon. They were seeking to join their relatives who have been migrating to Australia since the mid-70s. The bodies of the dead were returned to Lebanon accompanied by some survivors — suggesting they were not facing an imminent threat of persecution.
On February 21, The Age published two articles critical of Australia’s border-protection policies. Monash University academic and ABC Radio National presenter Waleed Aly asserted Australians “find something cathartic” about the “official form of violence” found in Operation Sovereign Borders. Aly seemed to be saying Australians rejoice when asylum-seekers are killed or harmed. And former prime minister Malcolm Fraser suggested that Australia should accept a “significant number” of asylum-seekers who made it to Indonesia.
Aly seems blind to the horror involved in death by drowning — a fate suffered by more than 1000 asylum-seekers during the time of the Labor government. And Fraser seems unaware that refugees in camps in Africa, Asia and the Middle East have as much claim to Australian assistance as asylum-seekers who fly into Jakarta or Kuala Lumpur and engage people-smugglers.
“Free the Refugees” is the three-word slogan that leads to drownings while giving preference to asylum-seekers who can afford to pay people-smugglers. The March in March protesters marched in ignorance.