What 'No Advantage' Really Means


On Friday afternoon, Omid, an Iranian asylum seeker on the 35th day of his hunger strike on Nauru, was transferred to hospital after he started excreting blood. For several days, doctors have been warning of the danger of permanent organ damage, heart attack, blindness, and death. With every hour those warnings come closer to reality.

There are now 401 asylum seekers on Nauru, 99 short of its full capacity. During the 38 days of Omid’s strike, detainees have protested continually and staged a concurrent hunger strike lasting several weeks. A second hunger-striker was hospitalised on Sunday. Psychotic episodes have become more frequent; three asylum seekers have attempted suicide, with one trying to hang himself from a light pole; two other detainees have mutilated their heads and necks; and four have dug symbolic graves. As of today, five asylum seekers are on their 19th day without food.

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen has insisted that he will remain deaf to protest: processing under the "no advantage" principle on Nauru and, soon, Manus Island will continue regardless of how many people commit suicide or starve themselves to death. This is how modern Australia — the Australia of mateship, of the fair go, of the "boundless plains to share" — treats the damned of the earth when they appeal for our help.

Nothing justifies Bowen’s intransigence other than his refusal to forfeit perceived political advantage. Determination not to give in may be understandable when terrorists are holding a government to ransom. This is not the case here. What are the Nauru detainees asking Australia to do? Just to process their refugee applications in a timely manner and under decent conditions, nothing more.

For many, Labor’s return to Howard’s policies shows the futility of trying to win any improvements on this acutely politicised issue. As GetUp put it in an email to its list on August 16, "many of us are weary, many are angry and many just want this issue to go away".

In this context, one common reaction among refugee supporters has been to adjust their demands in order to acknowledge the reality of resumed offshore processing. GetUp, again, immediately refocussed its message in light of the reopening of Nauru, effectively declaring the battle against offshore processing lost, and urging its supporters to campaign to win improvements for refugees removed from Australia.

The Salvation Army, which also has an official position against offshore processing — though not, to judge from their 2010 election statement, against mandatory detention — has signed a government contract to supply humanitarian support services on Nauru, a decision which has led to criticism for complicity and forced them into long justifications.

However desirable it is to ensure that conditions on Nauru are as bearable as possible, refugee supporters should never concede, even just implicitly, the acceptability of offshore processing. Calls limited to improving conditions on Nauru are fundamentally incoherent: refugees cannot be processed in a way that respects their rights on disease-ridden, impoverished islands with no support infrastructure. And regardless of the conditions, processing refugees anywhere offshore is inherently unacceptable, since it undermines the international principle of refugee protection Australia is obliged to uphold.

The brutality of Australian policy has already gained an export market: in reforms directly inspired by Australia, mandatory detention of boat arrivals will begin in Canada in December, and New Zealand has recently announced the near automatic imprisonment of asylum seekers arriving in groups of 10 or more.

In the packed domestic detention network, the vice continues to tighten. The period of Omid’s hunger strike has so far witnessed two suicide attempts, a rooftop protest in Villawood — thanks to last ditch efforts by advocates, the protesters’ imminent deportation was eventually halted by an injunction — and the ever present, continually mounting toll of madness, frustration and despair. Despite a recent High Court decision, 55 asylum seekers alleged by ASIO to pose a "security threat" are still detained indefinitely.

Last week, DIAC announced tighter restrictions on visitors to mainland detention centres, with visits to some sections now needing to be booked 24 hours in advance. The government continues to spare no effort to sever asylum seekers from contact with the community — this new measure will increase detainees’ isolation from the outside world, and make it impossible to get asylum seekers’ signatures on last-minute legal documents preventing deportations, as refugee advocates regularly need to do.

Chris Bowen’s Facebook page records his favourite quotation as a short passage attributed to Emerson. It ends with these words: "…to leave the world a bit better whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know that even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded."

Political success for Bowen, though, apparently means the imprisonment of thousands of people who have committed no crime.

No increase to Australia’s humanitarian intake, no professions of concern for refugees in camps, can cancel out these horrors. And what is it all for? To avoid "deaths at sea". On that count, too, the plan is a failure, with 7600 extra people undertaking the dangerous voyage the government’s plan was meant to prevent since it was announced in mid-August, all of them now no longer risking death at sea, but death by starvation, despair and suicide.

One week into Omid’s hunger strike, and fresh from a UN win, Julia Gillard spoke of Australia’s "big heart", its commitment to "strengthen the global rules-based order" and its track record in taking a "humanitarian" and "fair-go perspective" around the world. These ridiculous lies should not be tolerated. Australia’s commitment to human rights abuses of the first order makes its Security Council seat richly deserved, giving us a place at the same table as such dogged guardians of human rights and of the "rule-based" international order as Azerbaijan, China and the United States.

On the 19th day of Omid’s hunger-strike, on 31 October, Fata, the Iranian cyberpolice, arrested Sattar Beheshti, a critic of the Ahmadinejad regime. They took him to Evin prison in Teheran, where he was tortured and beaten to death. He was 35. These are the kind of conditions that Iranians on Nauru are escaping.

The reality of our political system is that nothing in the short term can prevent a government from pursuing whatever policies it deems in its political interests. Only the most naive could imagine that protests against offshore processing will bring immediate improvements. But only a determined, persistent campaign of public pressure, through demonstrations, individual lobbying and public advocacy, can shift public opinion far enough to compel a response from politicians.

Arguing for reforms to the current arrangements will only entrench them. The campaign to end offshore processing for good has to start in earnest now, before the "fair go" and the desire to "leave the world a bit better" wantonly visit more tragedy on refugees. Australia’s acute human rights abuses are not happening in some other country: they are happening here, now, and Australian society is ultimately responsible.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.