Opinion: Al-Kateb v Godwin

Posted on May 7, 2016 Under All, Opinion 2 Comments

-Philip Matthews

Earlier today, I was sitting in an Australian Public Law lecture trying to think of a compelling topic to write about when something caught my attention (which has become an increasingly rare occurrence throughout a semester of APL lectures). The case that caught my attention was Al-Kateb v Godwin. For those unfamiliar with the case, it involved a Palestinian man born in Kuwait (Al-Kateb) who moved to Australia in 2000 and applied for a temporary protection visa.When Al-Kateb’s application was denied he declared that he wished to be removed to Kuwait or Gaza. Kuwait would not accept him and it was too dangerous to have him extradited to Gaza due to the political situation there. Following this, the High Court of Australia it ruled that the Migration Act 1958 was constitutional and applied in full force to persons such as Mr Al-Kateb, allowing his indefinite detention.

Australia claims to be one that upholds human rights and it routinely lambasts governments that do not, but how can any regime in the developing world seriously take criticism from a rich Western ‘democracy’ that is known to hold asylum seekers, including children, in detention open-endedly? It’s very easy to look back on past mistakes and decry the heinous actions of our forefathers, but once we are forced to examine what is happening right next to us it is as though we are wearing blinkers. The same could be said for civilian casualties incurred by drone strikes in the Middle East: yes, we know it’s happening, but Obama seems like a cool guy so we’ll let it slide; all these (other) terrorist attacks sure are terrible though.

Meanwhile, people all over the world save their money in an attempt to escape the rockets, poverty and other hardships facilitated largely by centuries of imperialism. Bad luck for anyone trying to seek refugee status in Australia, though, because if you don’t make the cut based on some dodgy criterion you may well be in for an indefinite stay at Christmas Island (which as we all know is nowhere near as much fun as its name suggests). Yet somehow Australians are able to conjure up arguments such as, ‘They’re only economic refugees’ or, ‘The queue-jumpers should’ve come here legally!’. Indeed, as if these people were leading rather well-to-do lives in their home countries, but thought they could do a bit better in Australia, so they uprooted their families and risked their lives on rickety boats chartered by ruthless people smugglers purely for economic gain. Likely story.

I don’t think many of us who have been fortunate enough to live most or all of our lives in this country could truly imagine the conditions these people are trying to escape, ‘economic’ or otherwise. How we can subject children to what are effectively indefinite prison sentences with no better reason than, ‘It’s the law’ will never cease to amaze and appall. I hope that this is something that will be looked back on with contempt in our history, but until then the lives of those who wanted nothing more than a decent life are ticking away in wholly undeserved cages. In this matter, Australia stands firmly on the wrong side of history.