The new government of Kevin Rudd announced a dramatic change in Australia’s policy of handling refugees. Under the John Howard administration, asylum-seekers were sent to remote Pacific islands where they spent years behind razor wire before being declared for the most part genuine refugees. The new Labor government granted asylum to seven Burmese men held on the island of Nauru for over a year. Under Howard, the Australian government made financial arrangements with the government of Nauru to handle refugees, a “Pacific Solution” which invariably resulted in miserable living conditions for those who had escaped problems in their native land. A few months before the recent election, Howard would not allow 438 Afghan refugees to land on Christmas Island even though their boat had sunk. Most of the ship’s passengers were sent to Nauru island. Yesterday, Chris Evans, the Immigration Minister said the Burmese Muslim refugees “should have been processed some time ago.”
It is easy to understand why John Howard was such a close friend of George Bush. Both shared a disdain for human rights and the plight of people caught in the cauldron of hate and violence. It is fortunate for human rights advocates that a new Labor government in Australia will adhere to higher standards of human decency.