A 15-year-old refugee boy who grew up in an Afghan cave is desperate to go home even if it's just to "spend two days with my family and then be killed" rather than stay here. Dressed in her best clothes, a girl sits primly on a chair waiting to be interrogated. Each day she bravely comes and waits. One day, a visitor leans over to comfort her. The girl begins to cry uncontrollably.
These anguished stories come from kids in a prison campnot in Guantánamo or Kandahar, but in the most desolate stretches of the Australian outback, where thousands of refugees from Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan have been jailed by the government of Australia. They have had to wait at least a yearsome, more than three yearsto have their asylum applications processed. In large demonstrations across Australia, activists have been clamoring for fair treatment of these people, who are being held indefinitely and incommunicado. The detainees include numerous women, babies, young girls and boys, and teenagers trying to escape Middle Eastern terror.
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Their fate gained renewed attention last August, when a Norwegian cargo ship named the Tampa rescued 433 mainly Afghan refugees from a sinking boat and attempted to take them to Christmas Island, a remote Australian outcropping in the Indian Ocean. Australia has one of the most restrictive immigration policies in the world, aimed at protecting this Commonwealth outpost against the yellow hordes from Asia. So it was not especially surprising that John Howard, the conservative prime minister, refused to allow the refugees to come ashore and instead ordered the captain to dump them in nearby Indonesia. But the captain refused. The government then quickly passed the Border Protection Act, which changed the status of Christmas Island and Ashmore Reef (another place many refugees land) so as to make it impossible for anyone ending up there to seek asylum.
The measure became part of the government's much criticized new Pacific Solution, whereby it refuses shelter to refugees while cleverly trying to bribe different island nations into creating prisons to hold them. To give this policy the fig leaf of respectability, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees was brought in to process the helpless survivors. The first nation to take the bait was the tiny island nation of Nauru, a place once made enormously wealthy by its phosphate deposits. With phosphate reserves running low, Nauru now lives on realty investments and by hosting numerous Middle Eastern banks under protective laws that keep prying outsiders at bay. When Aussie officials tempted it with $30 million in public funding to set up a prison, the tiny nation jumped at the chance. The Aussie military built the camp and provided private security guards to run it. It now holds 1159 refugees, kept off-limits from the press.
Next, Australia cut a deal with Papua New Guinea to house refugees at the Lombrum Naval Base there, and as with Nauru, the press was banned. However, one journalist got in and reported that these desperate people had originally been told they were being taken to Australia and, when they discovered differently, threw themselves into the barbed-wire fences trying to escape, at which point guards put guns to their heads and ordered them back inside. Such was the despair that one man tried to commit suicide by jamming his fingers into a light bulb socket. Some 350 people are in this camp. Some, including children, are reported to have come down with malaria and tuberculosis and typhoid.
Australia then tried to convince Fiji and Tuvalu to take refugees, but they refused. So did the former UN trusteeship of Palau, whose U.S. ambassador Hersey Kyota told the Voice last week that the Aussies had offered $20 million from their coffers.
Within Australia itself, another 236 young people have been locked up in the desolate Woomera Detention Center, some for more than a year. Recently almost all of them went on a hunger strike, some sewing their lips closed. Others slashed themselves, including a 14-year-old boy who cut the word "Freedom" into his arm. Afghan and Iraqi teenagers formed a suicide pact and said that if not let go, they'd kill themselves. On January 29, guards stopped a 16-year-old boy from hanging himself. "I am getting crazy, I cut my hand, I can't talk to my mother," a 12-year-old girl told Australian human rights workers. "There is no solution for meI just have to commit suicide. There is no choice."
Finally, reluctantly, the government acted, cutting some kind of dealthe details remain secretwhich apparently promises faster processing and more interpreters. Some of the kids have been sent to the social services bureau for placement in foster homes.
While the faint of heart may be appalled at all this, the wreck of the Tampa was a godsend to the pathetic Howard, who was down on his luck and seemed likely to face defeat in the upcoming election. Suddenly he was resurrected as one tough dude ready to kick the yellow and brown varmints out of Aussie land. September 11 stiffened Australia's resolve to keep the kids locked up as part of the fight against terrorism. The government was determined to demonize these people, claiming that crazy Iraqi boat people were committing monstrous acts like throwing their babies into the sea, and as the defense minister put it, trying to "blackmail the Australian people." (Actually, people had jumped into the sea after an Aussie naval vessel fired on the ship.)
As the public gradually became more aware of this situation, opinion turned against the government, and there were protests in every major city over the last weekend. The repressive policy appears to have eased to some extent, although Prime Minister Howard still takes a nonchalant view, as when Mary Robinson, the UN high commissioner for human rights, suggested the country might be in violation of treaties and sent an envoy to inspect the Australian camps. Howard told her to go fuck herself. "We'll look at it [meaning the situation in the camps]," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, "but I mean, I'm not particularly bowled over by a request from Mary Robinson."
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In little-noticed testimony before Senator Ted Kennedy's Health, Education, and Labor Committee last Thursday, Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao said the department launched a still ongoing examination of Enron's 401(k) pension scheme before the company went bust in December, but has taken no action. Many workers lost their life savings when their plans, heavy with company stock, crashed.
"We were on the ground investigating Enron even before it declared bankruptcy," Chao said. Under questioning by Connecticut senator Christopher Dodd, the secretary said the department then had considered taking administrative remedies, but didn't do so because the law was so complex.
This is just one more indication the administration was fully aware of what was happening at Enron before the bankruptcy, but did nothing.
Now the Democrats want to tighten 401(k) rules by insisting on independent investment advice and diversification. Last year 255 companies went bankrupt, some of them reneging on 401(k)s, according to Senator Barbara Mikulski. Many companies dump as much as 43 percent of retirement funds into their own securities. "We don't allow even sophisticated financial participants, like banks, to lend more than 10 percent of their capital and surplus to one company, or securities firms to build up concentrated asset positions," New Jersey senator Jon S. Corzine, former co-chair of Goldman Sachs, told Kennedy. "If we believe such diversification requirements are appropriate for sophisticated financial firms, why would we leave ordinary investors exposed to such inordinate risks?" The public has a right to act, he noted, pointing out that federal tax subsidies to 401(k)s exceed $330 billion in the president's budget. He and Senator Barbara Boxer are sponsoring legislation to place a 20 percent cap on company holdings.
But Chao came down against such changes, arguing Washington shouldn't place "arbitrary restrictions" on 401(k)s. She supports disclosure laws on investment advice, but not formal legal restrictions. Let's get the "bad actors," she said vaguely, turning aside questions with refrains of "let's work together," and "our primary concern is for the workers."
The Bush administration is trying to outmaneuver Democrats in the Senate by offering modest reforms, such as disclosure laws. After weekend hearings on Enron, the Labor Department said it would seek to remove company officials overseeing the retirement plan, replacing them with independent expertsa step the government might have taken months ago.
From a list of awards given to Enron (Motto: "Natural Gas. Electricity. Endless Possibilities."):
100 Best Companies to Work for in America
The Global 500
Worlds Most Respected Companies
Financial Times, 1998
Most Admired for Innovativeness
Additional reporting: Gabrielle Jackson, Adrian Brune, and Michael Ridley
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