A Warehouse For Human Beings


Australians generally do not discuss early white history. It seems to have been collectively wiped from historical memory. Many have forgotten that this country was founded as a human warehouse so that the prison hulks on the Thames could be emptied and the overcrowded English prisons vacated.

From such brutal beginnings transportation began. This ended when those transported and those who came freely in turn pressured authorities to end it. The treatment of many of the transportees was brutal and harsh.

It is disturbing and depressing to see an Australian government in supposedly more enlightened times return to this brutal past with Pacific Solution mark two. Mark one was a catastrophic failure that negated its own purposes — asylum seekers came to Australia in the end, but only after detention had destroyed their human spirit. Mark two has not stopped people getting in boats. Rather it has seen an unprecedented run on boats. I asked a man preparing to set out by boat why so many were coming. His answer — "Nauru is last chance — after this Australia will close the door".

Certainly the refugee and human rights sector advised the Expert Panel in written submissions and appearances that an offshore policy would not stop people embarking on dangerous boat journeys, the first objective in their terms of reference. The long term Secretary of the Immigration Department, Andrew Metcalfe, had directly advised that Nauru would no longer be a deterrent and would not work a second time. His unwelcome advice earned him a move to another department.

While none predicted the record increase in numbers which the policy announcement would cause, it is emblematic of refugee policy that it seems no risk assessment was made by the government or department in the event of adverse outcomes.

Since 13 August, nearly 6000 people have arrived by boat. This is more than ever before in a similar time frame. They are now warehoused in overcrowded detention centres across Australia.

There are Rohingya families who have survived up to 14 years in Malaysia being trafficked, beaten and detained in conditions which are heaven compared to a tent on Nauru. These are stateless people who are described by the UNHCR Commissioner as among the most persecuted on the earth. I met a young woman pregnant with her second baby, so thankful that she did not give birth on the boat but in safety in a Darwin hospital.

Among the Hazaras, now the largest group of asylum seekers in the world, is a man who must be the unluckiest in Australia. He was detained on Nauru in 2001 as a teenager and forced back. He arrived on the first boat after the 13 August announcement and is dreading a second term on Nauru.

Even refugees from African camps are finding their way to Australia by boat, including a young woman who grew up in a Yemeni UNHCR camp, where she learnt excellent English but was not protected from kidnapping and worse. Her courage in surviving may be tested in indefinite detention on Nauru. Many of these people are verified UNHCR refugees who have already waited too long for resettlement.

The human rights sector advised the government that the deterrent effect of an offshore policy would not work because no matter how harsh we make the conditions of detention, asylum seekers know that the Australian government will not kill them and will ultimately take responsibility for them. Australia’s good name reduces the deterrent effect.

The fear of being killed or tortured is the root cause for people leaving homes, family, land and businesses. Having made the soul-destroying decision to leave all that is dear and head off into uncertainty, people feel that they have no choice but to keep moving and striving for safety and security. Australia offers this. Malaysia and Indonesia do not. It is not the "people smugglers business model" which is driving these people on to risky boat journeys as the government would have us believe. That flawed argument guaranteed the failure of the Pacific Solution mark two. No amount of spin can change this fact.

Even attempts to make Nauru a fearsome hellhole have failed so far to deter. The government underestimates the conditions suffered by asylum seekers when they are running. I asked an asylum seeker in Indonesia if the Government’s attempts to spread word of Nauru by DVD to stop people would work:

"I saw that film. If Nauru like this people come more than before. Cus the place for live in Nauru is more better than Indonesian detention and also Australia take responsibility for them." — Asylum seeker in Indonesia who has tried two boats to get to Australia.

Having failed to deter boat arrivals, the Government now seeks to force a "voluntary" return. It is this new strategy which strikes fear in the hearts of those Australians clinging to ideals of human rights. Asylum seekers arriving on Christmas Island are told that they will be sent to Nauru for an indefinite time, that their cases will not be assessed for a long time and that legislation has been passed which means that they may never see their families again. The darkest picture is painted of their lack of a future. The Government has been careful to ensure that their language only implies punishment. The Opposition has been more foolhardy in naming a five year term of detention/imprisonment on Nauru.

The Minister for Immigration Chris Bowen visited Nauru recently to deliver this news, including that detainees would remain in tents for the foreseeable future. The most recent "transferees" have been placed in makeshift tents with dirt floors. The toilets and water supply are limited and sickness and skin diseases pervade the camp. The immediate result of the Minister’s announcement was not men volunteering to return but one attempted hanging and two other attempts at self harm. So far no human rights agency has visited to monitor and audit the conditions or exact a timetable from the Government for the processing of refugee claims.

Since the number of possible places on Pacific Islands has been exceeded three times over, the department has implemented an emergency plan. All people who arrived by boat before 13 August, except those facing negative ASIO assessments, character assessments and POI (persons of interest) will be released on Bridging visas by the end of December. Their places will be taken by post 13 August arrivals who cannot be sent offshore. Once again, no risk assessment has been done to explain what will happen when these desperate people are sent to the "factories for producing mental illness", as described by leading psychiatrist Professor Patrick McGorry.

These people, while unable to be transported to the Pacific, will remain in indefinite detention in Australia on the basis that one day they can be transported to Nauru or Manus as "transferees". The government aims to induce voluntary returns by making conditions as harsh as legally possible, but past experience has shown that people in this limbo situation spiral downwards into a terrible depression such that some will kill themselves. Even the six month suspension of processing of the Hazara cases in April 2010 caused suicide attempts, depression and psychosis.

The Government has trumpeted 36 returns but these have been mainly Singhalese Sri Lankans who may have less to fear than the Tamils, Hazaras, Rohingyas, Iraqis and Iranians who have not volunteered.

At a time when there are more people crossing borders in flight than ever before, Australians and their government expect immunity from the responsibility to accept asylum seekers. Australia is in a unique and privileged position; without land borders we are able to monitor and organise arrivals as no other nation can.

We forget that many countries are hosting thousands of people fleeing violence and persecution. Many are doing it with generosity and discomfort to themselves. But Australia, while accepting as our right a place on the UN Security Council, shirks the responsibilities of a good global citizen and of the refugee convention:

"Contracting states shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees who, coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened … enter or are present in their territory without authorization…" 

The refugee sector has called for an orderly program of refugee assessment and timely resettlement from Indonesia, which would save lives and save Australia from the ignominious position of becoming a moral pariah in the Pacific. Australia proceeds with this offshore dumping of human beings at our peril. A humanitarian solution is called for — not this political solution, which has failed.

New Matilda

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