Our Asylum Seeker Policy Is Brutal


The asylum seekers at Christmas Island continue to be deprived of their liberty. The laws of our society have been explicitly rewritten against them, and they have been imprisoned against their will by an impersonal and callous bureaucracy that operates under a cloak of legal nicety. Not only do they lack access to justice or a safe environment, they suffer from a corrosive uncertainty, as men and women who have never met them decide their fate according to a set of rules that make no sense, as demagogues rail against them from the soap-boxes of talk radio shows. 

And when those who were locked up and oppressed tried to escape, what happened? Squads of riot police shot tear gas and bean-bag bullets at them. Christmas Island looked suddenly like Bahrain, or any other country where an authoritarian regime needs to impose force on protesters.

But, being Australia, the concentration camp at Christmas Island is not even run by the government. It’s run by a private contractor called Serco. In the cosmic wonderland of Australian immigration policy, the incarceration and possible mistreatment of asylum seekers is now a legitimate profit-making activity. Serco is currently the beneficiary of a five-year, $370 million contract to manage seven detention centres.

Serco is not doing a very good job of it. It is under investigation for using unlicenced security guards and a leaked police dossier claims many of its staff have received "minimal or no training". Despite the chronic overcrowding at the Christmas Island centre — thanks to the government’s policy of locking up each and every person who arrives on our shores in an "unauthorised" manner — the centre was "typically 15 staff short per day". Serco has been fined more than $4 million in contract breaches.

And why do our governments keep acting like this? The historical roots of mandatory detention of asylum seekers are complex and run all the way back to the Hawke-Keating government, but at its core, it’s simple: oppressing asylum seekers is popular. As in any society, there are plenty of Australians who are openly and confidently racist and xenophobic.

The harsh reality is that many of us are uncomfortable with people who are different to us. And we tell politicians and opinion pollsters this. Hard-line policies on asylum seekers are very popular in certain sections of the community; every time Labor tries to soften its policies, the Opposition attacks, and Labor’s support drops. As a result, we have absurdly oppressive immigration policies.

After all, politicians make policies which they hope will gain them re-election. It doesn’t matter that both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott immigrated to Australia by boat. What counts was Labor’s election loss in 2001, which the party continues to believe was the result of the Tampa affair. Hence we have a race to the bottom where ludicrous arguments about "queues" and "border integrity" are used to justify what is essentially a kind of exemplary cruelty. Australians seem to like the fact that our government locks up asylum seekers. There’s no getting around it: detention centres are popular.

I know this because every time I write an article about asylum seeker policy, out come the racists and the hate-mongers. Some of the them blame it all on the people smugglers, but most seem quite happy with hating asylum seekers themselves. One commenter on an article I wrote for the ABC even suggested the government shoot arriving boats with machine guns. That would surely deter illegal entries, he wrote.

Opposition Immigration spokesman Scott Morrison takes a frighteningly similar position. Doing anything to alleviate the cruel and unusual conditions at Christmas Island will only send a message that Australia is "putting the white flag up", he said this week. According to Morrison, not detaining people offshore — where they are excised by a special part of the Migration Act from the due process of Australia’s legal system — effectively means "all you have to do is get to Australia and you won’t even be detained anymore".

Can you imagine that? According to Scott Morrison, there is a grave risk that asylum seekers might escape injustice and oppression in Afghanistan or Sri Lanka, travel thousands of kilometres in a leaky boat on the open ocean and legally claim refugee status in this country under a 60-year international treaty that Australia is a signatory to — and won’t even get locked up.

No wonder Immigration Minister Chris Bowen rushed to assure the media that "in all cases they are regarded and treated as offshore entry persons".

Sometimes public policy is a difficult and complex thing to explain. Emissions trading, or tariff reductions, or the operation of the proposed mining tax are like this. In all of these cases, complex technical issues cloud the over-arching moral calculus we might bring to the rights and wrongs of pricing carbon, removing trade protections for local industry or asking mining companies to pay more tax.

Sometimes, however, public policy is easy to explain. Sometimes the technicalities of the issue are at heart quite simple, and the moral clarity of the issue stark. Asylum seeker policy in Australia is like this. The facts of the matter are simple: our government is locking up innocent people. The moral situation is just as clear. It is a great injustice.

The liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin once wrote, "everything is what it is". He meant that liberty was not equality or fairness or justice. It is liberty.

Let’s be just as frank about asylum seeker policy. It’s not "border protection", it’s oppression. It’s not "processing", it’s incarceration. Asylum seekers are not "illegal" or "unauthorised" — they have a legal right to claim asylum in Australia. It’s not about "stopping the boats", it’s about inflicting great harm on innocent people to satisfy the vicious hatreds of racist and xenophobic voters in marginal seats.

Berlin was talking about liberty, and he distinguished two kinds. One was what he called "positive liberty", in other words, the ability of a person to make her own life choices or to attain a kind of self-mastery. Berlin called the other kind "negative liberty", and this is the sense in which most of us understand it today: freedom from coercion or interference by an external body. When Hayek wrote The Road to Serfdom, he was talking about this kind of liberty: the liberty of individuals to be free from government control.

It’s seems like a long way from the philosophy textbooks to the situation inside razor wire at Christmas Island. But perhaps it shouldn’t be, because the situation there now resembles almost exactly the 20th century totalitarian societies about which Berlin and Hayek were writing. In the Cloudcuckooland of Australian asylum seeker policy, treating people decently and humanely according to international law is "putting the white flag up". Alexander Solzhenitsyn would have found it all too familiar.


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Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.