Australia harms refugees, and itself

Police and demonstrators in Melbourne recently. Nick Seidenman Twitter picture

COLUMN

I READ a story by Ursula LeGuin when I was a kid, about a near-perfect society, a virtual Shangri La where no one wanted for anything. Everyone’s needs and wants were met. Nature was beautiful and the cities were wonderfully liveable and humane. Everyone was happy, all were fulfilled.

But this society had a dirty secret.

Locked away somewhere, out of sight — although not out of mind because most residents of this society knew about it — was a group of prisoners. They had done nothing wrong, but they were held because the society believed that its welfare depended on this group being locked up. They were not to be released or else the society would collapse.

Occasionally people would see these prisoners, shake their heads then continue with their lives. Even more occasionally, some who saw them were shaken to the core and withdrew from their society, realising what a hollow lie they were living; that it was unjust, unforgiveable, that their pleasure should depend on the misery of others who had committed no crime.

Perhaps they started plotting to release the prisoners, or to overthrow their rulers. I don’t remember how the story ended, but it is an apt metaphor for Australia and its dirty, not-so-secret prison camps on Manus and Nauru.

Government ministers from both major parties have used the “stop the boats”, “stopping people smugglers” and “stopping people drowning at sea” mantras for at least a decade to justify heinous treatment of some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

The refugees on Manus Island and Nauru, who have committed no crime other than fleeing war, torture or persecution in their homelands, have been locked up indefinitely, repeatedly denied medical treatment, been beaten with metal rods, had essential services denied to them and been forced to move into accommodation that was not habitable. They have been continually lied about, and Australia’s Immigration Minister Peter Dutton (wrongly) branded them child molesters.

Australian authorities refer to them not by their names but by the number of the boat they arrived on. Manus Islanders, who have strong kinship ties within their own community, generally don’t want them there, and they and PNG defence forces have attacked them and killed at least one. They feel unsafe on the island.

Australian governments have obsessed that these refugees will not settle in Australia, and have desperately sought a third country to take them. Hence the shaky deal with the United States, which has taken around 70, and a fiasco of a deal with Cambodia, where Canberra handpassed $55 million to Phnom Penh to take some. The immigration department even produced a propaganda video for the refugees about what a beaut country Cambodia was to settle in. Cambodia eventually took five or six, and I understand they have all now left. For $55 million.

But Australia’s desperation to find a third-country solution does not extend to New Zealand, because settling here would offer a “back door entry” to Australia.

So I wonder what the continued imprisonment of innocent people is really about. In the latest piece of abject cruelty — bastardry — Australian Border Force (the militarised version of Customs) officials have told male refugees on Nauru they must separate from their wives and children, and face never seeing them again, so they can apply for resettlement in the US.

Australia is a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which recognises the right of people to seek refuge from persecution in other countries. Australia was also one of the nations that wrote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile. The term “illegal” should not even figure in the discussion, unless applied to successive Australian administrations.

Beyond the treatment Australia has dished out to these vulnerable people, many of whom now suffer psychological problems and illnesses because of their continued imprisonment, is what Australia has done to itself. Over the past 10 years the political environment has become increasingly toxic, and that's having wide repercussions.

I’ve been dismayed to see pictures from Melbourne, where I grew up, of a militarised police force in black riot gear, throwing around unarmed demonstrators demanding justice for the men on Manus, and blood on the ground in Swanston Street.

Australia is becoming, or has already become, that Shangri La of LeGuin’s story — bright and shining on the outside, but hiding a dark, unspeakable misery.

And when you treat a group of people in the way Australia has treated refugees, its own citizens must surely follow. History is full of such precedents.

I READ a story by Ursula LeGuin when I was a kid, about a near-perfect society, a virtual Shangri La where no one wanted for anything. Everyone’s needs and wants were met. Nature was beautiful and the cities were wonderfully liveable and humane. Everyone was happy, all were fulfilled.

But this society had a dirty secret.

Locked away somewhere, out of sight — although not out of mind because most residents of this society knew about it — was a group of prisoners. They had done nothing wrong, but they were held because the society believed that its welfare depended on this group being locked up. They were not to be released or else the society would collapse.

Occasionally people would see these prisoners, shake their heads then continue with their lives. Even more occasionally, some who saw them were shaken to the core and withdrew from their society, realising what a hollow lie they were living; that it was unjust, unforgiveable, that their pleasure should depend on the misery of others who had committed no crime.

Perhaps they started plotting to release the prisoners, or to overthrow their rulers. I don’t remember how the story ended, but it is an apt metaphor for Australia and its dirty, not-so-secret prison camps on Manus and Nauru.

Government ministers from both major parties have used the “stop the boats”, “stopping people smugglers” and “stopping people drowning at sea” mantras for at least a decade to justify heinous treatment of some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

The refugees on Manus Island and Nauru, who have committed no crime other than fleeing war, torture or persecution in their homelands, have been locked up indefinitely, repeatedly denied medical treatment, been beaten with metal rods, had essential services denied to them and been forced to move into accommodation that was not habitable. They have been continually lied about, and Australia’s Immigration Minister Peter Dutton (wrongly) branded them child molesters.

Australian authorities refer to them not by their names but by the number of the boat they arrived on. Manus Islanders, who have strong kinship ties within their own community, generally don’t want them there, and they and PNG defence forces have attacked them and killed at least one. They feel unsafe on the island.

Australian governments have obsessed that these refugees will not settle in Australia, and have desperately sought a third country to take them. Hence the shaky deal with the United States, which has taken around 70, and a fiasco of a deal with Cambodia, where Canberra handpassed $55 million to Phnom Penh to take some. The immigration department even produced a propaganda video for the refugees about what a beaut country Cambodia was to settle in. Cambodia eventually took five or six, and I understand they have all now left. For $55 million.

But Australia’s desperation to find a third-country solution does not extend to New Zealand, because settling here would offer a “back door entry” to Australia.

So I wonder what the continued imprisonment of innocent people is really about. In the latest piece of abject cruelty — bastardry — Australian Border Force (the militarised version of Customs) officials have told male refugees on Nauru they must separate from their wives and children, and face never seeing them again, so they can apply for resettlement in the US.

Australia is a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which recognises the right of people to seek refuge from persecution in other countries. Australia was also one of the nations that wrote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile. The term “illegal” should not even figure in the discussion, unless applied to successive Australian administrations.

Beyond the treatment Australia has dished out to these vulnerable people, many of whom now suffer psychological problems and illnesses because of their continued imprisonment, is what Australia has done to itself. Over the past 10 years the political environment has become increasingly toxic, and that's having wide repercussions.

I’ve been dismayed to see pictures from Melbourne, where I grew up, of a militarised police force in black riot gear, throwing around unarmed demonstrators demanding justice for the men on Manus, and blood on the ground in Swanston Street.

Australia is becoming, or has already become, that Shangri La of LeGuin’s story — bright and shining on the outside, but hiding a dark, unspeakable misery.

And when you treat a group of people in the way Australia has treated refugees, its own citizens must surely follow. History is full of such precedents.

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Frederika Steen AM - 9 months ago
Yes, Australians stand condemned for allowing the bipartisan persecution of men, women and children who came by boat and crossed its border to seek protection from persecution. Thank you NZ, for being our "better selves".

You successfully settled the 2001 Tampa refugees - the unaccompanied kids and the families. You have offered 150 settlement places for each of the past three years, and our misguided Parliamentarians turn it down. The moral sickness continues with the sentence of indefinite life in limbo in Nauru or PNG for human beings who need a humanitarian solution after four years of suffering and deprivation. They did not commit a crime. Why so cruel, Australia?

Sue Scott, Sydney - 9 months ago
So very ashamed to be an Australian. So heartsick at this treatment. Doing all I can to end it - those of us who care are in an uphill battle with our hard-right Turnbull Government, who become more like fascists every day. Please help us bring about their demise so we may end these cruelties.

Peter Tereshchenko, Byron Bay - 9 months ago
What you now see in Australia is a kind of moral decay where no one has the courage to stand against this absurd, illegal and cruel imprisonment. The "stop the boats" mantra has become the touchstone on which the government bases its credentials of supposed strength. The opposition is now firmly wedged and knows any change of heart will unleash a savage attack from the govt for being weak on border protection, which they have slowly associated with terrorism in the public eye.
Many are beginning to see this shameful incarceration for what it truly is . . . an abhorrent abrogation of human rights. However, in their wisdom the coalition has elevated a man who has a sociopathic personality and seems to gain great pleasure from tormenting asylum seekers and those who argue their case - to the level he will lie and distort and manipulate to maintain his position. Now this nastiness is filtering down through the community, where racial abuse is seen as normal and acceptable. Australia, we are in trouble.

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