The country’s refugee debate won’t change overnight, but with humane voices rising we can start making gains, writes Ben Eltham.
The glimmer comes from the medical community, after doctors and nurses at Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital announced they would refuse to discharge children back into immigration detention.
Medical staff held a rally outside the hospital on the weekend, holding a prominent banner that read “Detention harms children.”
The well-established literature on the mental and developmental health impacts of detention places medical professionals in an invidious position. Doctors are famously charged with an ethical duty to “do no harm”, and yet allowing children back into the clutches of Australia’s brutal immigration gulag will almost certainly harm them.
A Royal Children’s Hospital paediatrician, Paul Monagle, said in a statement that “what we see from children in detention is a whole range of physical, mental, emotional and social disturbances that are really severe, and we have no hope of improving things if we’re sending those children back to detention.”
“Many of the children we’re seeing have spent more than half their life in detention,” Monagle continued. “This is all they know and it is not what children should know. Children should be safe in a community with their family, not in detention.”
The Australian Medical Association and Victorian Labor government backed the protest. But in recent days it appears as though the hospital has backed away from its vow not to release children back into detention.
For his part, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton was having none of it. “I understand the concern of doctors, but the Defence and Border Force staff on our vessels who were pulling dead kids out of the water don’t want the boats to re-start,” Dutton told journalists in a statement. “My support is with the Defence and Border Force staff and I won’t be supporting a change in the policy.”
The brave action of the Royal Children’s Hospital is one of the strongest protests in recent times against Australia’s horrific offshore immigration jails, which have seen well-documented incidents of murder, rape, and the sexual abuse of children.
For refugee advocates, it is a rare moment of hope in an otherwise gloomy atmosphere. The government has comprehensively lost the debate about the dangers posed by immigration detention to children, with a large body of doctors, psychiatrists, prison guards and human rights inquiries testifying to the brutality of the detention camp system.
In a breathless display of hypocrisy, Labor’ Immigration spokesperson Richard Marles even introduced a private member’s bill to require mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse in immigration jails. Astonishingly, the bill comes just four months after Marles and Labor voted with the government to pass the Australian Border Force Act, which prohibits whistleblowers from disclosing information about immigration jails, at the risk of a two-year jail sentence.
Even Liberal politicians are beginning to feel squeamish. Moderate Victorian Liberal Russell Broadbent told the ABC this week that “the Australian people, through the Royal Children’s Hospital, have shifted. And they’ve said: ‘Our detention policies are not good enough’.”
The respect enjoyed by doctors and hospitals in the community meant this was a powerful action, Broadbent argued. “When the people shift the politicians will shift,” he said.
Broadbent may be right: perhaps there is a groundswell of public revulsion at the barbarism of Australia’s gulag.
Rapid shifts in public sentiment on these issues can happen. The Syrian refugee crisis, for instance, quickly shamed Australia’s normally truculent major parties into offering more than ten thousand refugee places for Syrian refugees. And a public campaign against the extra-legality of the jailing of David Hicks in the United States’ terrorism compound at Guantanamo Bay caused the Howard government quite a lot of trouble in 2006 and 2007.
Immigration policy is always volatile, and there are occasional breaks in the race to the bottom. But a look at the past fifteen years of Australian politics suggests that the Royal Children’s Hospital protest is not the start of a general rebellion against the government’s harsh border security policies.
Labor’s election in 2007 brought a short-lived commitment to a more humane policy of mandatory detention. Labor’s Chris Evans even had a seven-point manifesto, aiming to treat asylum seekers better.
But Labor lost control of the asylum seekers debate (along with everything else) mid-way through 2010, abandoning the seven principles. Both Rudd and Gillard then hardened their line on seaborne asylum seekers. Labor embarked on its own quixotic policy adventure, first to Malaysia and then to Manus Island.
Along the way, Labor also jettisoned much of its moral authority on refugee and immigration policy, explicitly siding with the Coalition’s position that stopping seaborne asylum seekers was all that counted, by any means necessary.
The Abbott government made “stopping the boats” an obsession, and treated it like a military emergency (which, of course, it wasn’t). A general was put in charge and a veil of secrecy was draped over the entire business of “on-water matters.”
The government claims it has stopped the boats and saved lives, and it would appear that fewer asylum seekers are drowning in the waters to our north.
But one of the consequences of this has been to collectively punish entirely innocent people. It is not and never has been a crime to seek asylum on Australian shores, despite the tortuous legal chicanery of several federal governments since 2001.
Tremendous cruelties are being inflicted to create a deterrent effect, and the pawns are real men, women and children condemned to limbo in tropical Pacific hell-holes.
There is no sign that either major party will ratchet back the core philosophy of immigration detention, which is that innocent people must be tortured to protect the integrity of Australia’s borders.
Tough border protection policies remain popular, as many opinion polls over a sustained period show. In June, for instance, despite the real unpopularity of the Abbott government, voters in one Essential poll favoured turning back boats by a margin of 36 points – 60 per cent to 24 per cent.
There is a bedrock of popular anti-refugee sentiment in Australia that is undeniable. That doesn’t mean that attitudes can’t change. But it does mean that the public debate about asylum seekers and refugees has a long way to go.
Recent history shows that public sentiment on immigration – a debate saturated, as it always is, by race – and that things can get worse before they get better.
As Jason Wilson argued today in The Guardian, Australia’s immigration debate is deeply racialised. “Cold racism builds a gulag in the name of an orderly immigration system that will retain broad popular support, or in the name of defeating the people smugglers, or, most perversely of all, in the name of the safety of refugees,” he writes.
If Russell Broadbent is right, and the Royal Children’s Hospital protest really is a straw in the wind, then we should welcome it. Those of us who believe in the just treatment of people seeking refuge in Australia should seize the opportunity to pry open the debate.
The only way that refugee advocates and the broader rump of progressive Australia can succeed on immigration policy is by reframing the debate. So far, that hasn’t proved possible. But that doesn’t mean we should give up.
Convincing (or shaming) Labor into abandoning collective punishment, and returning to humane policies on immigration would also help. Perhaps Chris Evans’ seven points could form the basis of an immigration policy reset for Labor, under a new Immigration spokesperson who is not Richard Marles.
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