It has been a terrible week in Australia if you happen to be one of the thousands of desperate individuals or families seeking asylum here. What has happened sickens me to my core and I am ashamed that such a great country could come to this low point. But it is not something that just happened this week, it has been happening for weeks, for months, with this, the death of a 23 year old Iranian asylum seeker in the care of one of our government’s offshore detention centres, the inevitable outcome.
The harsh line the Coalition, and previous Labour, Governments have taken on boat arrivals, was sold to the Australian people by claiming that it was more humane than letting people drown at sea, which has happened. But this is and always was a complete furphie. It fails to admit that long-term detention and the absolute hopelessness and helplessness such a policy leads to also inevitably leads to self-harm, violence and suicide. In other words it damages people and causes death. It also fails to acknowledge the risks to health and safety of people stuck in refugee camps or living in danger, in extreme poverty or under persecution, people that might otherwise have sought safety in Australia, these also result in deaths. And what of the asylum seekers who have, reluctantly and knowing the fate that awaits them, agreed to return or are forced to return to the very places they fled – how do we know they are safe, or even still alive. Having watched the most recent series (now a couple of years old) of “Go Back to Where you Came From” it has become clear that at least some asylum seekers who return home are killed – more death. So while we may not have the bodies at the bottom of the ocean or being brought ashore on Christmas Island, it does not mean that this hardline policy is not still leading to death, many, many deaths. Is out of sight, out of mind for Australia? I would certainly hope not.
The hundreds of Light the Dark vigils last night and the thousands that attended is a glimmer of hope. For many last week’s events signaled the lowest point, a point at which we demand a more humane policy from our political leaders, on both sides. This lowest of lows also saw us lectured about our human rights abuses BY CHINA! And condemned by the UN. And yet our Prime Minister “stands by his man” and his policy. He says we don’t want a “wimp” in control of border protection (although it’s only ever been boat arrivals – the smallest category of ‘illegal’ arrivals – that has been on the border protection hit list). He says we want our offshore processing centres to be run “fairly, if necessary firmly”. And he says his government has succeeded in “stopping the boats” – bugger the cost, financially, morally and by any other measure, in doing so.
The implications of the policy are not limited to these tragic events on Manus Island, they have far reaching effects on our standing internationally and on our responsibility within a global community. The only resettlement option currently available to those found to be genuine refugees (if they are ever processed that is) is Papua New Guinea. A developing country whose capital city, Port Moresby, has been listed as one of the three most unlivable cities in the world, a title it has held consistently for many years. This is not a place of refuge, safety or opportunity and certainly does not have the capacity to deal with the health, education or other needs of large numbers of refugees – particularly not once Australia has damaged them further by holding them in detention indefinitely. What is that going to do to the already vulnerable population of Papua New Guinea? The other option for resettlement being bandied about – but not confirmed by foreign minister Julie Bishop – is Cambodia. Boy we know how to pick ’em.
There are also reports that international diplomats are concerned the Australian Government is going to work against a probe into human rights abuses in Sri Lanka, particularly during the final stages of their civil war in 2009. You might wonder what this has to do with current border protection policies in Australia but it does relate. Firstly, many asylum seekers arriving in Australia are Sri Lankan. There has been some dispute over whether they are fleeing real persecution or are so-called ‘economic refugees’. If the human rights abuses are to be confirmed it would also strengthen the case for asylum for those coming from Sri Lanka. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Australia has partnered with Sri Lanka (giving them two boats, costing $2 million) in the fight against people smugglers, the boats to be used to detect illegal departures and return them to Sri Lanka – what if these people are then returned to danger or persecution, apparently that doesn’t matter. In order to secure the cooperation of the Sri Lankan Government it is feared Australia with stand in the way of an investigation into these alleged human rights abuses. Abbott has openly stated in reference to the situation in Sri Lanka that “in difficult circumstances, difficult things happen”, which might just include the killing of between 40,000 and 70,000 civilians. Really?
This is where we are at. The death of one detainee (circumstances yet to be revealed, but considering ONLY detainees, unarmed at that, were injured or killed and there was little damage to property, there is reason to suspect they were not the only ones, or even in the instigators involved in ‘riotious behaviour’), but with much, much wider implications. This government stood primarily on a hard stance on borders (as well as taking advantage of the farce that was the Labour Party at the time), and this is the result. The fact that they were elected comfortably suggests most Australians agree with this position – this frightens me. I wonder, given this, if there is any way out from this policy position, sadly I think probably not.