A simple take on Nauru
If your policy leads to institutionalised child abuse it’s a bad policy

The latest round of revelations of abuse and other “incidents” from our immigration detention centre on Nauru, published by the Guardian this week, make for grim reading: violence, self-harm, despair, cover-ups, sexual abuse of children.

None of this is a surprise. It has been almost a year since a Senate inquiry reported on the “insupportable” conditions in the camp and recommended that all children be removed immediately. A year before that, the Human Rights Commission reached similar conclusions. No one can say we didn’t know.

Peter Dutton, the minister currently responsible for our dismal immigration regime, gave a fair impression of a greased weasel in the face of the reports, rapidly contorting himself into risible rhetorical postures in an attempt to evade taking ownership of any specific abuses or the architectural inhumanity of the system as a whole. He attempted to minimise the number and severity of the reported incidents, he cast aspersions on the truthfulness of sexual assault allegations, and he resorted to the tried and true method of handballing responsibility to the government of Nauru. He should be ashamed, but he won’t be.

The details are in a sense beside the point – not for the victims, who have suffered exactly what they have suffered – but for us spectators, because we already knew that indefinite immigration detention is extremely harmful to inmates, and particularly to children. The children on Nauru are “among the most traumatised children the paediatricians have ever seen”; their detention amounts to systematic violation of the Convention Against Torture.

The specific details of these specific incidents are beside the point because the whole system that produced them is completely beyond the pale of civilised behaviour. The great effort that has gone into creating a structure to deflect responsibility – from the individual politicians and bureaucrats who made the decisions, to the larger framework of the Australian government, to the Nauruan government, to the companies hired to run the centres, to the individual staff they hire, until finally it dissipates as a fine dust that settles in a thin layer over us all – this effort and this structure, too, are beside the point.

The chain of events that has led us here is also irrelevant; it can function only as an excuse.

The basic point is that this is intolerable, or that we cannot claim to have any moral boundaries if we accept this treatment of asylum seekers. No other goal can be worth this.

And if you would say that this is simplistic, or doesn’t appreciate the nuances of the issue, I would say that an excess of pragmatism can hide the fact that there are actually some fairly simple rules of thumb that might apply here.

If your policy leads to institutionalised child abuse – it’s a bad policy! If your argument tells you that deliberately inducing human misery is necessary to achieve some other goal – it’s a bad argument! If you find yourself in a dark place where it seems necessary somehow to lock people up on a distant island, for reasons – turn around! You’ve come the wrong way. It’s not too late to get back to sanity.

Michael Lucy

Michael Lucy is a writer based in Melbourne.


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