The Right Response To Villawood


The widespread description of last week’s riot at Villawood as simply a criminal act is remarkable. In what was described as a "stern" warning to asylum seekers, Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen said that "Australians have a right to be angry at those who have conducted this sort of damage", and invoked the possibility of criminal charges. His opposition counterpart, Scott Morrison, agreed. Early on the morning of Good Friday, 22 asylum seekers were forcibly removed from their beds by police and transferred from Villawood to Silverwater jail, a move strongly criticised by the NSW Council for Civil Liberties.

The suggestion that the Villawood detainees are the appropriate objects of public anger is a precise reversal of the truth. People who are genuinely concerned about right and wrong only need ask themselves the following straightforward question to reveal just how misplaced is a focus on detainees’ possible crimes: What matters more, offences against property, or the long-term imprisonment, without charge, of nearly 7000 innocent and vulnerable people, most of them fleeing amply documented conditions of war and persecution in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Sri Lanka? (See the latest DIAC detention statistics figures, for 11 March 2011 here.) 

It is absurd to fixate on possible offences committed by detainees at Villawood or Christmas Island amid the far more serious human rights violations of the Australian refugee policy to which they are subject. This policy has led to five suicides since September, recurrent hunger-strikes, and an epidemic of self-harm. In the face of wrongdoing of this amplitude, any offences committed by detainees at Villawood or Christmas Island are inconsequential.

Political leaders’ attempts to criminalise protesting detainees are, then, a major distortion of the truth. But they are also strikingly inconsistent with the principles they defend in other contexts. The Prime Minister’s expression of anxiety that China is taking a "backward" step on human rights rings particularly hollow in the same week that the government announced a further tightening of the very policy consistently condemned by the UN Human Rights Committee. 

This double-standard runs throughout political reaction to asylum seekers. Earlier on the day of the riots, in response to which he said that protesting asylum seekers "will certainly feel the full force of the law", Wayne Swan told a Queensland media club lunch in Brisbane that his involvement in politics springs from his belief that "there are people who need a bit of compassion, a helping hand from the rest of us". In a keynote speech to the Migration Institute in October of last year Chris Bowen said he was aware that when it came to asylum applications, "behind every discussion, every briefing note, every case, are real people with simple hopes and dreams."

The public is entitled to ask what, if anything, these declarations of principle actually mean. We have seen nothing remotely like an attempt to consider asylum seekers’ human rights, still less to take account of their "hopes and dreams", to offer any "helping hand", or to show "compassion". Having pushed asylum seekers to the brink, government and opposition are now seizing on the riots as confirmation of the implicit premise of their mandatory detention policy: asylum seekers are basically criminals.

In this situation, it is crucial for refugee supporters to remember whose side they are on.

Like many refugee advocates, sections of the Greens have responded to last week’s events by calling for limits on the timeframe for detention and for management of the detention centres to be returned to government. For anyone committed to refugee rights, this is a serious tactical mistake. What refugee advocates should be demanding is that mandatory detention be abolished, not that it be restricted or managed better. Refugee supporters cannot afford to compromise over those key demands.

Countenancing mandatory detention — even with time-caps, even in nationalised and fully transparent facilities, even just for adults — in itself concedes the major parties’ point that detention is the correct response to refugees arriving by boat. If prominent voices in the pro-refugee camp endorse limited-timeframe detention as an acceptable option, the government of the day will always be able to find reasons to extend the time-period beyond the initially agreed parameters, and Australia’s detention policy will not have changed.

The risks for any kind of compromise-approach to refugee advocacy are evident in a remarkable recent column in the Sydney Morning Herald. Under the cover of a commitment to a "humane" approach to refugees and a genuine concern for asylum seekers’ mental health, Tanveer Ahmed, a regular Herald columnist as well as a psychiatrist, mounted an unprecedented and highly disingenuous attack on refugees.

Ahmed tried to discredit asylum seekers on multiple grounds, claiming that they are out to manipulate "white man’s guilt" and that self-harm in detention is often malingering by people without any real mental health symptoms. He also cast doubt on refugees’ bona fides by emphasising that their "circumstances are almost universally impossible to verify". Since he thinks that abolishing detention will "surely increase the number of boats," the "most humane" solution "with regards to reducing distress" is to reinstate the Coalition’s Pacific Solution.

We can leave aside the questions of what qualifies Ahmed to comment on the verifiability or otherwise of asylum applications; what actual relevance the Canadian studies on which he based his claims have to the Australian situation; and how the most humane solution could possibly involve incarcerating desperate and traumatised people in a bankrupt, remote and tiny Pacific state without any of the support infrastructure available in Australia. What Ahmed’s column shows is how easy it is to appear to have refugees’ best interests at heart while promoting policies that are only hostile to them.

There is no question about the genuineness and good intentions of refugee supporters who assume that the only viable argument that can currently be made is for detention to be limited in some way rather than wholly abolished. But by implicitly endorsing detention as an appropriate option, those supporters find themselves dangerously poised over the top of Ahmed’s own slippery slope.

Weak or qualified opposition to mandatory detention only strengthens the hand of those whose real agenda is to stop the boats, but who want to do so with an appearance of high-minded compassion. Australia should not be trying to dissuade refugees from coming here. Our current exposure to international refugee movements is minuscule on any measure. Asylum seekers want to come here because they are trying to escape unjust persecution. As a detainee in Villawood described the irony of Australian policy when I spoke to him by phone last week, "Big country — no room".

Our response to asylum seekers could be a matter of national pride, not an international disgrace. We should make room for asylum seekers by ending their persecution, not compounding it. The only way to do so is to abolish mandatory detention immediately, without compromise.


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