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We're good at giving guns but not at taking in victims of war

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Australia has followed the U.S. into the invasion of Iraq and numerous other conflicts (Screenshot via YouTube)

People are fleeing wars in which Australia is deeply involved, so our responsibility to provide asylum seekers with a safe home is not an abstract one, writes Sam Brennan.

ON PALM Sunday thousands will march in solidarity with refugees and people seeking asylum, condemning the Australian Government’s abysmal treatment of the most vulnerable.

However, the government has not only denied such people the ability to live in peace and build a life once they arrived in Australia, but has been complicit in the warfare and arms dealing that forced these people to flee in the first place.

People fleeing from violence and persecution in Iraq, Syria, Myanmar, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Sri Lanka, collectively made up nearly 70 per cent of our humanitarian visa applications last year.

It is an odd collection of countries spanning from south-east Asia, across the Middle East and to Central Africa. However, a common factor across all these countries is that at one point over the last decade they have been on the receiving end of Australian guns, bombs or soldiers — sometimes all three.

It is not a coincidence that the countries to which Australia exports violence become increasingly violent, whereby people flee — sometimes to Australia. What makes this link shocking is not its existence, but the almost complete silence from most politicians.

It is the norm to see policy platforms on both sides of the aisle claim in one breath to be “deeply concerned” about the violence that forces people to seek asylum, while the next promoting the expansion of arms exports.

Foreign policy has domestic implications and while the need to offer refugees a permanent home should be guaranteed for numerous reasons, one often overlooked is that the Australian Government is partly responsible for creating refugee crises.

Iraq and Afghanistan

This year will mark the 20th anniversary of the war on terror, with the invasion of Afghanistan on 7 October 2001. Australia would follow the U.S. into the invasion of Iraq and numerous other conflicts throughout the Middle East, fulfilling former Prime Minister John Howard’s role as the U.S.' deputy sheriff.

Beyond the thousands of direct deaths this resulted in, the number of people displaced during these wars is estimated to exceed all those displaced by every war since 1900, with the exception of World War II. At least 37 million – and possibly up to 59 million – people were displaced as a result of the war on terror. Conservatively, nearly 15 million people have become displaced since Australia joined the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan alone.

To this day, hundreds of Australian troops are still stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite the former country calling for all foreign troops to leave.

Meanwhile, the Morrison Government reduces its refugee intake and indefinitely detains those fleeing the war on terror, denying them peace in both their country of origin as well as Australia.

Australia’s Weapons Industry

It should not be surprising that any government pouring Australian-made weapons into warzones, is not going to be a government that is sympathetic to people running away from said weapons.

Back in 2018, the Turnbull Government committed to spending $200 billion over the next decade on the military and arms. While it – and unfortunately many reporters – passively called this "defence spending" a significant portion was based on setting Australia up as a weapons dealer.

The goal for Australia to become one of the world’s top ten gunrunners resulted – to nobody’s surprise – in our selling weapons to killers. The Guardian reported last year that in 2018 Australia had issued $5 billion worth of permits to export weapons and military technology to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

This is despite Saudi Arabia and the UAE waging a brutal and bloody conflict in Yemen; despite armed violence in the DRC being so rife that in 2003 the United Nations (UN) unanimously imposed an arms embargo, and regardless of the UN currently collecting evidence of war crimes in Sri Lanka during its civil war.

Australia was also one of the few countries to continue providing military training and education to Myanmar’s armed forces as they waged a campaign against the Rohingya in 2016-2017 that basically amounted to ethnic cleansing. It was only this year in the face of a coup d'etat and repression of protests that the Australian Government stopped its military support, which has amounted to $1.5 million since 2016.

Bringing the war home

While the connection between Australia’s foreign policy and the refugees fleeing to Australia is not often voiced by politicians, that does not mean that politicians are unaware of it. In fact, they are hyper-aware of it and none more so than John Howard.

Before Howard sent Australian troops to Afghanistan and Iraq, he authorised another devastating military action that would ripple throughout future governments. He sent the Special Air Services Regiment (SASR/SAS) to confront pregnant, malnourished and ill people seeking asylum.

In August 2001, a Norwegian tanker – MVTampa – came across a slowly-sinking fishing boat. The captain of the Tampa, Arne Rinnan, followed international law and common decency in saving the lives of the 433 people seeking asylum, and five crew members, on the dilapidated vessel and began taking them to Western Australia. However, Rinnan was denied the right to dock there and was threatened by the Howard Government with prosecution if he tried.

Caught between the moral rock that was Arne’s conscience and the hard place of Australia’s Howard Government, there was a stalemate. To break this, Howard ordered SAS soldiers to board the ship.

As Mohammed Ali Amiri (a refugee on the Tampa) later said:

“We run away from the guns to be safe and we come to the country that says ‘we are humanitarians’, and now, pointing guns to our head, [we are told] ‘don’t move.’”

After suffering in detention on Nauru, Ali Amiri was later granted asylum in New Zealand.

However, 186 people seeking asylum who were on the Tampa had to return to their country of origin. One hundred and seventy-nine of those were from Afghanistan, meaning – with horrific irony – that most would return to a country now occupied by the very same soldiers that confronted them on the Tampa.

This event was not separate from Australia’s foreign wars, but an extension of it.

In the wake of the Brereton Report – finding that SAS soldiers committed war crimes in Afghanistan – former Australian army officer Jonathan Hustonwrote:

'The Tampa affair was the beginning of the slippery slope that has got us to where we are now.'

Refugees do not emerge from circumstances beyond our control, people flee wars in which Australia is deeply involved. As such, Australia’s responsibility to provide those fleeing wars with a safe home in which to rebuild is not an abstract one.

Sam Brennan is a freelance journalist. You can follow him on Twitter@samkbren. You can learn more about the IPAN 'A People’s Inquiry: Exploring the case for an Independent and Peaceful Australia' and make a submission HERE.

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