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Australia’s off-shoring of asylum seekers is just plain cruel

August 13th, 2016

This is my article which appeared in The Irish Times, Saturday August 13, explaining the Nauru detention centre scandals to a non-Australian audience

The Black Armband has come back to haunt Australia. Twenty years after conservative prime minister John Howard brushed off national guilt about mistreatment of Indigenous people, revelations have emerged of cruel and unusual sufferings of asylum-seekers whom “the Lucky Country” had dumped offshore. The appalling conditions imposed on people – especially children – has angered and ashamed many Australians.

While western Europe this summer saw queues of refugees at the borders of the EU, and has become hardened to mass drownings after perilous sea journeys, Australia has long adopted a bi-partisan attitude of zero tolerance to its refugee problem.

(A person is not technically a refugee, under the UN Convention of 1951, until they have been recognised as such by a host country. So most of the fleeing people mentioned here are actually asylum-seekers.)

 The scandal of Nauru is not new, but the sheer enormity of the files released this week by The Guardian newspaper is horrifying. There are around 500 asylum-seekers in the detention centre on the island, about one-tenth of whom are children. People being abused, physically, sexually, emotionally, driven to attempt suicide, is described. And the key point: these 2,000 reports were not written by “bleeding heart” liberal luvvies from do-good organisations. They are written by actual staff at the detention centres , which were privatised in the 2000s.

Minister for Immigration, Peter Dutton, responded that some reports referred to fake incidents made up by refugees. (Another member of the federal parliament called this statement “abhorrent”). The government department responsible issued a bland statement, leading off with a pious declaration of concern for “the health, welfare and safety of all refugees and transferees in Nauru”. With an apparent lack of irony, it noted that the allegations were not new and had been examined in at least four major inquiries, including a 2014 report by the Australian Human Rights Commission, The Forgotten Children: National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention.

Michael Boechenek of Human Rights Watch, who visited Nauru last month, says all the material released this week is accurate, and Australia should immediately close the detention centres on Nauru, and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. Writing for SBS, the multicultural Australian broadcaster, he added: “And it should begin a reckoning for the abuses its agents committed and its officials condoned.”

To understand this story, political sensitivities have to be absorbed, and the fact that Australia, with a population of 24 million, accepts around 10,000 refugees a year. The country has an effective two-party democracy, with only the Labor [correct no U] and Liberal, ie conservative, parties having realistic chances of governing. But the voting difference is always wafer-thin, so neither side wants to alienate a large, vocal, chunk of the population which worries about refugee numbers. “Stop the boats” has been a rallying-cry of extreme right figures such as Pauline Hanson for years, in response to an influx of desperate people from Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries. Thousands of asylum-seekers heading for the northern tip of the continent followed a tradition started in the aftermath of the 1962-1975 Vietnam War. In those days, Australia, more morally conscious and aware of its role in devastating Vietnam, accepted many refugees, also from Cambodia and Laos.

But 40 years later, the tables were turned when Canberra identified Cambodia as another “offshore” detention destination. The reasons are similar to and an independent : here was a poor country which would take money to be the holding centre for people seeking asylum in Australia. Think of it it Irish terms – it’s as if the Government contracted the Isle of Man to be our waiting-room, then turned a blind eye to whatever went on. Nauru, more than 4,000 kilometres from Australia, is a dot on the map, a coral island just south of the Equator. Its previous wealth was based on the phosphate which was plentiful, and earned the island almost all its income in the last century. But when the phosphate ran out, Nauru had to look for other resources. John Howard’s government came to the rescue with its boatloads of unwanted humans. It was euphemistically termed “the Pacific Solution”.

In Nauru, under the auspices of a company which is now known as Broadspectrum, having changed its name from Transfield last year, what was going on included sexual violence, self-harm, assaults, and hunger strikes. But you had to be pretty dogged to find out about this back in Australia.

The government of Tony Abbott made it virtually impossible for independent reporting from Nauru. When Abbott was “rolled” and replaced by Malcolm Turnbull a year ago, nothing changed, despite the new prime minister’s vaunted more liberal tendencies. Media organisations were told by Nauru officials (read Australian officials) that each journalist had to pay A$8,000 (€5,500) for a visa. Some were told no visas would be issued for journalists.

“It’s become an out-of-sight, out-of-mind policy,” Melissa Phillips, a migration researcher at Melbourne University, told human rights website IRIN. Former judge of the Court of Appeal in New South Wales, Stephen Charles, was more blunt: “Australia’s policy towards asylum-seekers is one of deliberate and calculated barbaric cruelty.”

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has repeatedly told Canberra it is flouting obligations under the 1951 convention, to which Australia is a signatory. The response was a full-scale military-led operation to turn back refugee boats at sea, so the passengers never even manage to make footfall on Australian soil.

When John Howard made his “black armband” comment, very deliberately, back in 1996, he also had this to say: “I believe that the balance sheet of our history is one of heroic achievement and that we have achieved much more as a nation of which we can be proud of than which we should be ashamed.”

What has happened on Nauru has no place on a balance sheet of any sort. It’s a human tragedy and a disgrace.




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