The monsters we feared, we have become

By Judith Reen

With the US and countries in Europe struggling to develop appropriate policy responses to the refugee crisis Judith Reen looks at the approach of another country of immigrants –Australia- in dealing with the growing numbers of the desperate and war-weary.

In Part 2 next week, Judith provides a first hand, harrowing account of the detention center on Nauru set up by the Australian government, where asylum seekers- including children- wait indefinitely in deplorable conditions while their claims are being processed. In tomorrow’s post, as part of our Special Series on Refugees and Immigration, we’ll look more closely at the human rights impacts of Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers in isolating them indefinitely on remote Pacific islands.


Part 1

Australia has led the world in current refugee crisis- in a race to the bottom on conversations around the treatment of asylum seekers. The dialogue in Canberra could not be more toxic or politicised and the resulting xenophobia is the fruit of ten years of toil convincing Aussies that they are under siege. Our sovereign borders, we’re told, are under threat and asylum seekers deserve our derision and contempt.

A hard-line response is necessary.

And that’s what they get.

Ironic for a nation of migrants who arrived a little over 200 years ago – by boat. One of the lines from the Australian National Anthem is ‘For those who come across the seas, we’ve boundless plains to share. Ironic in a nation built on the blood, sweat and hope of migrants. Australia, who was once known for its generosity and ‘fair-go’ egalitarian principles, has become famous for its disproportionate measures to punish those who come across the seas without waiting their turn in the imaginary metaphorical queue.

Can Australia, a peaceful and prosperous nation, afford the luxury of criticizing the decisions of asylum seekers and describing their choices as risky or opportunistic? Not many Australian citizens have ever faced a well-founded fear of persecution and perhaps their reaction to uninvited guests is odd because they are so isolated and indeed strangers to the rest of the world. Or is it that Australia simply does not deserve the squeaky clean image it has enjoyed until recently?

Does Australia need more than four decades to truly outgrow its white Australia policy which favoured European migrants over… well brown ones? Deep-rooted Islamophobia and Orwellian fears of otherness have not gone unnoticed or untapped by Australia’s populist leaders. Australian politicians have taken up this distorted ideological agenda with great righteousness and zeal, but neglected to ask whether it was a fiscally sound policy. Off shore processing costs $1.2 billion per annum and whilst I am loathe to draw attention to plane arrivals lest they draw the same callous response or meet with the same dreadful destiny, let’s just say the vast the majority of Australia’s asylum seekers do not come by boat.

So what does a nation with aspirations of playing a more pivotal role in world affairs do about a once advantageous and now vexatious home-grown obsession with stopping boats? Export the problem to its poorest regional neighbours.

They need the business, we need their silence.

Nauru is the second smallest nation in the world, a dot in the South Pacific 4500 kilometres north-east of Australia and 40 kilometres south of the equator. The 21 square kilometre island has sold-off all of its fishing licences, degraded its landscape with strip mining and has no sustainable source of income. Nauru is in tatters. It is a country where opposition MPs are arbitrarily arrested or prohibited from returning to the tiny Pacific outpost. Local media censorship abets Nauruan President Baron Divavesi Waqa in stamping out political rivals, and controlling the judiciary, and so too does the AUD$8000 visa application fee for foreign journalists.

Nevertheless Australia does not call the world’s smallest republic out for being embroiled in corruption scandals, or for basically staging a coup, because doing so would necessitate the termination of aid payments and prompt the closure of Australia’s detention camps (In 2013-14 Australian Aid was 20% of Nauru’s GDP). It would also render the farcical local resettlement program for refugees null. So in simple terms Australia financially supports a small dictatorship in order to have them run concentration camps. Even more conveniently, Nauru’s physical isolation helps to perpetuate the average Australian constituent’s ambivalence to the suffering of the men, women and children held in those camps. Most expedient of all is the way in which this monumental bribe abdicates Australia from legal responsibility for vulnerable people who arrived on its shores seeking asylum.

The Australian run detention centre, or Regional Processing Centre (RPC) on Nauru was first opened under the ‘no advantage’ policy in 2001 and operated for the purpose of third country processing until 2007. Many lessons should have been learned from this dark episode in recent Australian history.

Conditions in the ‘Topside’ camp were likened to those of a gulag and asylum seekers were not processed in a fair, swift or transparent manner. However the camp was reopened in August of 2012 in a measure to stop so-called illegal maritime arrivals. The detention centre on Nauru is not only considered uniquely cruel due to its remoteness and substandard conditions, but its detainees experience overwhelming despair as they face uncertain futures. Asylum seekers reside in shared canvas tents within a reclaimed phosphate mine. They are caged in the centre of the island where temperatures average 30 degrees Celsius. Since reopening there have been 67 reported allegations of child abuse within the Nauru Regional Processing Centre. Investigations of such abuse are subject to Nauruan law and needless to say the legal system on Nauru is hardly robust or even well-equipped enough to manage child protection issues of this scale. Children are incarcerated in the RPC without adequate protections or safeguards for their well-being.

When an Amnesty International team made a three day visit to the RPC on Nauru in 2012, they described it as a human rights catastrophe where Australia was failing spectacularly in its duty of care to asylum seekers with a toxic mix of uncertainty, unlawful detention and inhumane conditions.

As a first generation Australian and the daughter of a refugee who has lived and worked on both Manus Island and on Nauru, I believe that Australia, more than any other nation has a responsibility to treat those fleeing war, political and religious persecution as our brothers and sisters. As family. That is how my grandparents were welcomed to this great country. And humour me when I say that family, is not about making investments proportionate to return it is simply a generous outpouring of amity in which the feeble regain their strength. I do not believe that Australians can insure their comfortable lifestyle or protect their rights as citizens by restricting or denying the rights of others, least of all those who reach for us in their time of deepest need.


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