Whilst in London a couple of years a go, I came across a sign which reads, “Begin your dream today, emigrate to Australia!” (see below). A warm invitation indeed: unless of course you are an asylum seeker – in which case our Government will revoke this welcome and abscond its responsibility to the United Nations Convention Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.
Since 2001, the Australian government has passed several laws that allow the detention of asylum seekers in offshore centres located on the islands of Nauru and Manus. This was first established by excising islands from Australia’s territory; attempting to pay off people smugglers; and a series of other policy changes known as the “Pacific Solution.” In the first seven years of the scheme, over 1,600 people were held in detention. They arrived predominantly from Afghan, Iraqi and Sri Lankan backgrounds. While this program was initially wound back by 2008, it was reintroduced in 2010. Offshore detention reached its peak in 2014, with over 2,400 people held in detention centres, including 222 children. At the end of March 2016, almost 1,000 people remained in Manus and up to 1,200 people on Nauru.
These actions contravene international law, with our “paltry commitment to the Refugee Convention” deemed one of the worst in the world. Detention makes little sense, given that 90% of cases are found to be “genuine refugees.” The majority of asylum seekers have been in detention for at least two years. Even after they were released into the community, they were initially not allowed to work.
In 2014, the Government offered migrants up to $10,000 to go back home to face certain persecution; a scheme that was resolutely condemned by human rights experts. The Government simultaneously cut legal aid to refugees, making it even harder for them to receive informed support.
The ensuing health damage suffered by asylum seekers is woefully inhumane. Australia’s humanitarian program has been criminally pared back, along with our collective morality. We must not accept this unfair system in the name of so-called “Australian values.”
Over the past 16 years, there have been various deaths due to medical neglect, as well as death by suicide, including self-immolation, and attempted death by immolation. There have been other incidents of self-harm as well as protest. The most widely reported is by award-winning cartoonist and asylum seeker Eaten Fish, who ended a 19-day hunger strike in February 2017. The Iranian artist was protesting the mishandling of his report of sexual assault and abuse whilst in detention.
Patterns of self-harm are the culmination of torture compounded by indefinite limbo in Australian detention.
By 2012, medical experts raised the alarm about the poor medical conditions in detention. In 2013, the Government disbanded the medical experts providing care to people in detention, replacing them with military staff. The Government also sought to imprison professionals who spoke out against child abuse in refugee detention centres, including medical and health practitioners who are otherwise required by long-standing law to report such abuse of all other children and their families.
The national inquiry into asylum seeker children in detention centres found that they live in prison-like conditions, and that they disproportionately suffer from mental and other health problems. Parenting in these conditions is severe, and only sets up families for inter-generational trauma. It is undeniable that for the better part of two decades, Australia has failed in our duty of care to these children.
The institutional abuse of children has become normalised, in the words of a teacher who worked at the detention centre school. The conditions of the school are described as: “Gratuitously cruel, insensitive and punishing.”
Refugees are dying in these detention centres and denied adequate healthcare, even while pregnant. This issue has been ongoing for years. In one case, it took one week of social protest, media and political debates to get a pregnant woman medical care.
Over 2,000 cases of child abuse have been leaked to the media. Women who are raped are forced to remain in the same detention facilities as their attackers. Rape victims are also denied abortions. More generally, women constantly feel unsafe, even after leaving the detention camp.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer asylum seekers also face additional legal and mental health problems, as their cases are rarely heard with compassion.
Deterioration of humanitarianism
Australia has one of the world’s largest proportional migrant populations (48% of the national population is a first or second generation migrant) but one of the lowest refugee intakes. Australia had a more generous humanitarian program at other historical stages, but political grandstanding linking refugees to political conflict and so-called problems with “social integration” has brought us to this low point as a nation.
Australia’s humanitarian program has been steadily deteriorating. The Government has considered indefinitely stopping asylum seekers from entering Australia by boat, even though most refugees arrive by air. The minority who arrive by boat come from Muslim-majority nations. Australian society has become numb to the inhumane treatment of asylum seekers, so much so that senseless violence and the death of refugees barely registers.
No wonder the media often slips into dehumanising refugees, including in its use of language, such as through the term “illegals,” a term that the Australian Press Council discourages.
Australia has long attempted to shift asylum seekers to other nations. A deal with Malaysia was rejected in 2011. In 2016, the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea ruled that Australia’s detention of asylum seekers on Manus Island is illegal. Detainees remain on Manus and Nauru, with the centres due to close by the end of 2017, yet the fates of these people are unknown. Rather than relocating refugees to the mainland, in late 2016, the Australian Government reached an agreement with the Obama Administration to relocate people to the United States. The deal has run into problems under President Trump.
The Acting CEO of the Refugee Council Australia likens our national policy dealings to “a cruel human ping pong“:
We know that there is a culture of physical and sexual abuse in these centres, we know that there is a mental health crisis so acute that even children have attempted to take their own lives, and we know that numerous people have died due to inadequate medical care. This is why we are calling on [Prime Minister] Malcolm Turnbull and [Leader of the Opposition] Bill Shorten to come together and make a bipartisan commitment to bring these people to safety immediately, at least until a permanent, safe solution is found.
Even when Australians want to support people seeking asylum, such as the community of Armidale, which was set to support 12,000 refugees, they are denied the chance.
As our policy system continues to fail these asylum seekers, a massive class action lawsuit is currently underway.
Now the Government has introduced a language and “Australian values” test requirement for citizenship and lengthened the waiting time. This especially discriminates against asylum seekers who already face many hurdles. In Australian history, under the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 (commonly known as the “White Australia Policy”), English language tests were used to deny entry to people of colour from 1901 to 1958. The latest changes to citizenship requirements in 2017 are especially designed to disadvantage asylum seekers from Muslim-majority nations.
What does our treatment of people seeking asylum say about our country’s moral fibre? Professor Julian Burnside argues our morality has withered, to our collective detriment:
A person’s character is measured by their conduct; a country’s character likewise. At present, Australia is seen as a country that is wilfully cruel to people who are frightened enough and courageous enough to risk their lives at sea to seek safety here. We deliberately mistreat innocent people to ensure that others will not come asking us for protection.
How you treat a defenceless person is, first and last, a moral question. The fact that the question becomes a political plaything does not convert it from a moral question to a political one. The moral question remains, even if the answer is contaminated by politics.
Professor Burnside wrote these words in 2014. Three years later, our national character remains largely unmoved by the plight of fellow human beings looking for safety. How did we get here, given Australia prides itself on being the “lucky country” for migrants?
Research traces the Australian public’s complacency on asylum seekers to political discourses set up in 2001. Politicians and conservative commentators capitalised on public fear of “the Other” (Muslims specifically) after the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York and the Bali bombings on 12 October 2002. The Australian national imagination prides itself on its ideals of egalitarianism (not withstanding ongoing problems stemming from colonialism that continue to impact Indigenous communities, and other forms of racism). Australian national narratives focus heavily on the notion of a “fair go;” and so public discourse on refugees was centred on gaining “fair” entry by joining “the imagined refugee queue.”
Sadly, many Australians form their opinions about refugees from the media, and as such, they believe that asylum seekers are violating Australian values and norms by not “coming by the proper channels.” This rhetoric explicitly paints boat arrivals as a threat to the nation, without comprehension of the reality of forced migration patterns.
The idea of a queue that asylum seekers can join is a fallacy. It can take one year to even be interviewed in an overseas refugee camp, proceeded by years waiting for resettlement and learning the outcome of an asylum application. The mental health toll of this process can be seen in the photos and video further below, painted by a group of refugees. (From the Art Gallery of New South Wales exhibition led by Sydney artist Safdar Ahmed and the Refugee Art Project).
History shows that Australia has strong capacity to resettle refugees on the mainland, with the largest intakes arriving in the mid-1940s, up to the mid-1990s. Our economy remains relatively strong relative to many other nations, despite events such as the global financial crisis. The economic argument for welcoming asylum seekers is very strong. As asylum seekers are generally younger and unable to work, welfare expenditure is an investment. Refugees have an excellent track record of success in business, and they also boost morale and local economies in regional areas.
Irrespective of the economic and social benefits, Australia has an ethical obligation to fulfil our international commitment to human rights. We are failing our humanity by eroding our responsibility to people in need of asylum. The lives of thousands of new Australians are at stake, while we allow our collective humanity to be whittled away by our acceptance of these inhumane policies.
The question that we must continue to ask ourselves is: where has our national compassion gone? The answer cannot be despondence. We must strip away the language of the “fair queues” and “Australian values” that are being used to deny basic rights and freedoms to fellow Australians waiting, not too far away across the sea, for our empathy and kindness to reawaken.
Refugee Art Project, led by Sydney artist Safar Ahmed, the drawings and watercolours made by mostly untrained asylum seekers imprisoned at the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre in Sydney. The artists use food such as instant coffee mixed with water as they do not have access to at materials. The refugees are locked up indefinitely in some cases due to our callous immigrating policies in Australia that have been deemed unlawful by international agencies including the United Nations. Ahmed's sketchbooks and zines are also on display.