Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Today by Michael Lucy


Shut it down
Australia’s offshore immigration detention system is intolerable

Source

Politics rolls along as usual today: politicians attack newspapers, newspapers attack politicians; unions attack the royal commission, the royal commission attacks unions; the government attacks itself, the government defends itself from its own attacks. Meanwhile, a human catastrophe of our making slowly grinds on to our north.

Late yesterday afternoon, a Senate committee delivered its report into conditions at Australia’s “regional processing centre” in Nauru. The headline recommendation was that all children should be removed from the centre immediately. The report also repeats many of the claims about the centre that we have heard in recent months – that women and children live in fear of sexual assault by guards and other inmates, that self-harm and suicide attempts are common, that disease is rampant and medical treatment poor.

Perhaps the worst thing about it is that the conditions the report describes have come to seem hardly noteworthy. We know, more or less, what it’s like on Nauru: very bad. (This is not to say that we don’t need more transparency and detail about actual incidents and conditions.) A lack of information is not the problem.

The Senate committee had five members – two from the ALP, one from the Greens, and two from the Liberal Party. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Liberal senators regard the report as seeking “to advance the political perspective of those opposing”. There is no indication that anyone else in government will take it more seriously. (This is not so much a Labor vs Liberal issue as a government vs Opposition one.)

The report will not lead to any changes, because all the report does is show that the centre is working as planned. The logic is fairly straightforward (if repugnant): in order to deter refugees, the camps need to be worse than what the refugees are running from. As long as we are committed to this model of offshore detention, there will be no such thing as too much maltreatment or abuse of the inmates.

Governments Labor and Liberal have created and maintained this system, and have created a legal apparatus – outsourcing to the dysfunctional government of Nauru, and the amoral corporates at Wilson Security and Transfield Services – whereby they can absolve themselves of responsibility when abuses occur. Whether anyone really believes this is irrelevant; it appears to be enough to let MPs sleep at night, and Nauru is far enough away to prevent much public empathy for the inmates. (Distance plays a great role in this – if asylum seekers were washing up on the beaches of Sydney or Melbourne rather than our remote northern approaches, we might see a more humane response.)

The steps that led us here can be traced, and the decisions made at each point make a kind of sense. As Paul Keating’s immigration minister Gerry Hand said when introducing mandatory detention of asylum seekers in 1992,

The Government is determined that a clear signal be sent that migration to Australia may not be achieved by simply arriving in this country and expecting to be allowed into the community

and the current state of affairs is little more than a reductio ad absurdum (or horrificam, I suppose) of that idea, under the pressure of increased numbers of arrivals. A side-effect of this gradually ratcheting maltreatment of asylum seekers is that we have gradually grown numb to it. Nauru would have been intolerable to the public of 1992; to the public of 2015 it’s just how things are.

At some point the justification for the existence of the system becomes irrelevant, because the system is intolerably bad in itself. We’re well past that point. We, as a country, are effectively running overseas prison camps filled with people who have committed no crime, camps where abuse and neglect and maltreatment are routine, where the exercise of power is arbitrary and accountability is non-existent. It’s time to shut them down, and do our best to make amends. In a just world those responsible would be held to account, but clearly that is some other world.

 

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Michael Lucy

Michael Lucy is the online editor of the Monthly.

@MmichaelLlucy

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