Australian Prime Minister blames asylum seekers for "Children Overboard" scandal

Monday, February 27, 2006

The "Children Overboard" controversy of 2001.
Image: Government of Australia, Defence Department Media Centre.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard says the refugees he falsely accused of throwing their children into the ocean deserve no apology because they did the next worst thing - "they irresponsibly sank the damn boat, which put their children in the water".

The "children overboard" affair became a controversial focus in the 2001 federal election campaign, when the Prime Minister was roundly accused of cynically exploiting Australia's fears of illegal immigrants by demonising asylum-seekers. Mr Howard and senior ministers falsely claimed on the eve of the election that children had been thrown in the water to guarantee their rescue by the Australian navy.

The boat sank, and the crew of HMAS Adelaide saved 219 asylum-seekers. The then Defence Minister, Peter Reith, released dubious photos of the rescue as evidence that children had been thrown in the water. The Australian government only corrected the record after the election.

Mr Howard says: "They irresponsibly sank the damn boat, which put their children in the water. I'm sorry, if I had have been told definitively, if I had been told that that story was completely wrong, I would have said so, but I wasn't," he says in the book 'The Howard Factor'.

"And my last act before the election was to put that video in the public domain so that I wasn't accused of concealing it, because it was ambiguous. Watching that video, you couldn't tell whether people were being thrown in the water or not, it was just impossible. But after all, they did sink the boat." Mr Howard said the refugees "don't carry any visible signs of being demonised".

Figures from the Department of Immigration (DIMIA) about the 219 mainly Iraqi asylum-seekers, shows the group wound up with the highest success rate for all refugee claims made under the so-called Pacific solution. DIMIA 96.5 per cent of the Iraqis who were awarded humanitarian protection, though most have since been settled in New Zealand, not Australia.

Refugee rights advocate, Jack Smit, from the West Australian-based group Project SafeCom says: "Refugees don't sink damned boats, Mr Howard!" He said in a media statement: "The Prime Minister remains one of the very few politicians in Australia who maintains the slandering descriptive word 'illegals' to denote boatpeople."

"Refugees rarely sink their boats," said Mr Smit, "Usually it is the people smugglers who do the sinking, sometimes the sinking is due to physical sabotage by sting operators working from countries such as Indonesia, and sometimes these sting operators are contracted by countries such as Australia."