Humanitarian aid, arms trade and refugees.

This is the story of how the Syrian war reached out 5,000 miles across the globe and destroyed at least 29 Lebanese lives in the Indian Ocean. It is a story of tragic irony; the destitute Lebanese families who wanted to live in Australia and left their arid villages in the hills of the northern Akkar plateau had been warned by their relatives not to leave their homes, and they died just off the coast of Indonesia – Robert Fisk

But it is also a story of how the Australian government supports the US government which helped fatten the Islamic State to take on the Assad regime in Syria and now wants to curtail its power in Iraq trading arms to the Kurds in exchange for fighting the Islamic State (IS).

A group (pictured below) of Lebanese refugees drowned off the coast of Java on 7th Oct 2014.

At the time international journalist, Robert Fisk, wrote in The Independent:

“A photograph survives of the passengers aboard their boat, sitting on rough, wooden benches in the choppy seas off Java. The picture is spotted with raindrops, but you can clearly see the doomed Lebanese aboard. One smiles broadly, another waves at the camera, most stare at the camera. Behind them is a bleak, grey sky and a sinister, frothing sea. They are only minutes from death.

We know that in the last moments, one Lebanese used his mobile phone to call a relative in Melbourne to seek help. The relative called the Australian naval authorities, who later launched helicopters and jets in a hopeless search for a boat that had already sunk.” See A tragedy off the coast of Indonesia that should shame Lebanon’s neglectful government. The migrants’ boat sank – but the blame must start in Beirut.

‘People Smugglers’
This tragedy was the subject of an ABC Four Corners show by Sarah Ferguson about ‘people smugglers’. The show placed the blame on people smugglers who, according to Sarah Ferguson, were trading in human misery.

But what happened to the survivors?

Refugee and Detention Rights Advocate from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) in Melbourne, Pamela Curr reports:

“I met family members who lost family in this tragedy. One man lost his 8 children – his brother told me that he was holding the 3 year old in the water when the boat went down – he grabbed her top and she slipped right through and he lost her. It was the saddest group of people. They had family in Australia and we got them out to family. One woman who lost her sister and family just had a baby. These people came on an earlier boat and were lucky. The survivors in Indonesia all went back (to Lebanon) – absolutely broken. “

According to the article by Robert Fisk the people aboard borrowed $60,000 to pay to an Iraqi and Lebanese people smugglers to be transported to Australia. The ABC’s four corners characterises ‘Abu Saleh’ as a typical people smuggler.

So what happened to ‘Abu Saleh’ (pictured below on the left)?

“Abu Saleh was sentenced (in Indonesia) to seven and a half years in jail for stabbing a man to death. He’s telling anyone who’ll listen he will be out in one.” – ABC Four Corners

Abu Saleh (on left)

An alternative view on people smugglers is expressed in The Conversation:

Most of those convicted of human smuggling crimes globally are not the feared Abu Tarek or Abu Saleh of last night’s show. As of March 2012, more than 400 people were facing sentencing for people smuggling. Only four of those arrested had ties to criminal syndicates, revealing refugee lives are not the only ones “devastated by the callous greed of a smuggler” – nor are smugglers the only actors to blame.

Meanwhile Robert Fisk is critical of the failings of the Lebanese government for failing to help the people who fled their village in northern Lebanon.

Robert Fisk writes:

“It is a story of tragic irony; the destitute Lebanese families who wanted to live in Australia and left their arid villages in the hills of the northern Akkar plateau had been warned by their relatives not to leave their homes, and they died just off the coast of Indonesia. And it is a story of a country whose authorities take no responsibility for the deaths of their own people.”

And where does the fault really lie?

Who armed the opposition in Syria that caused misery to spill across the region? Who provided logistical support to the fighters who came to Syria from nearby countries – Turkey, Jordan, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt?

But what of the Australian government following the US and Britain into another war in the Middle East, this time back into Iraq?

Illegal Arms?
arms to iraq
On 31 Aug 2014 the Australian government provided humanitarian aid by airdrop and handed over arms to fighters in Iraq without debating the action in the parliament. Is the hand-over of arms to Iraq legal?

The Attorney General, Brandis, did not answer the question put by the Greens and tried to make it a question of whether to provide humanitarian aid which nobody is going to refuse. Worse still the Australian parliament refused to allow debate on providing arms in any conflict.

So who are the arms to protect? SBS reports that Australian military are providing weapons to Kurds fighting Islamic State (IS) in the north of Iraq.

“We want to make sure that we know where the arms… and the munitions go when we deliver, so at this stage there won’t be a drop. We’ll be landing and handing them over to officials from the peshmerga,” RAAF Air Marshal Binskin said.

Professor Don Rothwell, a leading expert in International law, says trading arms to the Kurds could be illegal because no request from a recognised government has been made for arms or aid.

Arming the opposition?
The Australian government claims that the weapons being handed over by the RAAF are necessary to prevent a possible genocide. But no effort was made by the same government to prevent Israeli bombs raining down on Gaza killing over 2000 civilians in July/Aug 2014. And where is the Australian humanitarian aid to alleviate further suffering in Gaza? There is none because Israel still has Gaza under siege with all its borders shut.

There has been some debate (outside parliament) about supply of arms by the US and its allies into Syria. This arms trade resulted in a wider conflict causing a humanitarian crisis far greater than if the opposition in Syria had not been armed. Over a million refugees in Lebanon and another million into Iraq

The US, Turkey, France, Britain, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have for a long time been heavily arming militants along both Syria’s border with Turkey in the north and within Jordan in the south. – IS and Washington’s War Drive

Clearly there is a link between the actions of the Australian and other governments and the human tragedies that follow – even those as far away from the middle east as the Indian Ocean. It is time for Australia to take an independent foreign policy position and not follow the US mindlessly into Iraq or Syria or anywhere else. Sure, provide humanitarian aid, but why place more weapons in already blood soaked lands.

The Australian parliament cannot be relied upon to properly address important human rights issues as in Syria and Iraq. And this, coupled with the government’s support of Israel in its horrific bombing of civilians in Gaza, means extra-parliamentary opposition to successive government’s actions is required.

Pamela Curr points to the hypocrisy of the Australian government in her message about an Iraqi family that the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) is helping:

” Well off to work now. My Iraqi family is falling apart – mother cut herself to stop being sent back to Christmas Island.”

Ian Curr
September, 2014

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