Lauren Smith saw the Department of Immigration’s handling of asylum seeker cases from the inside. Now free from the bureaucracy, she wonders whether she should have spoken up.
Why did ordinary men participate in the killing process during the Holocaust? This essay question in a university subject put me on the path that I am on today. I have travelled the world analysing the behaviour of people involved in war.
People react differently to war. A range of emotions take over: anger, pain, grief, loss, sadness, frustration and denial. But in every person I have seen fear. Then I have heard blame: someone else is responsible for these killings.
Usually, the people I am talking to do not feel responsible, including the perpetrators. People on all sides believe they are “the goodies” and that their actions were justified: the perpetrators, the victims, the bystanders.
And I was the same when confronted with being involved in the war on refugees. Believing I was doing a “good” job helping support people escaping war, I took work with the protection visa section of the Department of Immigration. I was providing administrative support to people determining who was a “genuine” refugee and who was not. Our team was determining which “boat people” could stay in the safety of Australia and who would be returned.
Shortly after joining this section I realised that the Australian government and some of my colleagues were seriously endangering innocent people by returning them to unsafe countries.
Throughout all of this I convinced myself that it was not my fault, I wanted to do good things but couldn’t. I blamed everyone else — I blamed the government, I blamed the officers. I blamed the Australian public for electing the government.
In May 2013, I went to Christmas Island; an experience that began to unravel my comforting alibis. I began to understand my participation in these callous and life threatening processes. I was there to organise screening interviews for Sri Lankan clients. Many of these clients were poor fisherman, coming to Australia as they would die of starvation if they stayed in Sri Lanka.
As they were viewed as “economic refugees”, the government saw an opportunity to send a strong message: they were not wanted in Australia. A secret process was created: enhanced screening. This denied these asylum seekers access to legal representation and proper protection during interviews. The aim was simply to send them back as quickly as possible. Sri Lanka is one of few countries to which Australia has the right to forcibly return asylum seekers. This opportunity was seized, ignoring much evidence that, for these asylum seekers, a return to Sri Lanka could imperil their lives.
In the north of Sri Lanka, there is still mass corruption and discrimination. This is affecting people’s livelihoods and starving desperate fisherman. These “economic refugees” are still imperilled by war’s prejudicial aftermath. I saw starving mothers holding newborn babies come off these boats. No matter what anyone says, there must be very serious reasons why they had risked their lives and the lives of their children to come to Australia. Their starvation was directly linked to the political climate of their country. However, Australia refuses to recognise this as a valid reason to claim refuge. So we returned these people, very possibly to die.
For a while I continued to delude myself that this wasn’t my fault. I didn’t make these decisions, the protection visa officers did. These people, these Sri Lankans, chose to take this journey. They understood the risk. And if they didn’t understand, the “people smuggler” did. The people smugglers were surely to blame.
However, the day I returned from Christmas Island I was told 28 life jackets had washed up on the shores of Cocos Island, an Australian island. Some 28 Iranian refugees had been killed in Australian waters.
I was devastated to learn this, but I begun to put together the pieces of the puzzle. For a week while I was on Christmas Island, I had been waiting for that boat to arrive on shore, so we could assess their claims for asylum. Hearing the news they had died sent me into a state of shock. I realised it was not the dangerous journey or the people smugglers that had killed these people, it was we Australians.
“We knew for a week they were close to our shores, we were constantly monitoring them, and we let them die.”
We knew for a week they were close to our shores, we were constantly monitoring them, and we let them die. We knew they were in trouble, and we chose not to save them. Furthermore, this was published in the newspaper, and Australian citizens just ignored the fact that our government believed it had the right to choose who lives or dies.
As I grappled with the seriousness of the situation, I had to ask myself some tough questions. Could I justify continuing to work for this department? I finally realised that although my intentions were good, my involvement had implicated me in these deaths.
Ultimately, I chose to leave the department rather than to continue to implement policies that: sent people back to their homelands risking their death; allowed people to drown in Australian and Indonesian waters; and detained people indefinitely in harsh conditions, with limited access to water, food and medical treatment. Unequivocally, we Australians are causing severe mental and physical harm to fellow human beings.
In the American justice system, if you witness a crime and do nothing to try and stop it, you are guilty by association. However, Australians do not have this obligation. This perplexes me, as the legal system should be a reflection of our morals and values. Protecting the vulnerable in society should not be choice but a moral obligation. In the end, if you do not help save someone’s life, you are, in some measure, responsible for their death.
Amid all the proud flag-waving this Australia Day weekend, I was unable to raise my flag. I did not feel comfortable celebrating the current pain Australia is causing other human beings and I know I was not alone.
Many Australians cannot frankly face the implications of our governments’ policies that deny others’ human rights and terrorise vulnerable people seeking our help. But we pretend we are not involved, that we do not know what is happening or we deny responsibility.
Every Sunday, Catholics like Tony Abbot attend church to remember Jesus’ life and his struggle to spread peace and stop unnecessary suffering. On Anzac Day we remember all those who have died at war and we say “lest we forget”. However, we appear to have forgotten what it means — that we should not forget the past: that people have died in many wars to help bring peace.
We can remember our past and learn from it, we can remember our journeys and celebrate our achievements. And, living in the present, we can forgive past mistakes and commit to not repeat them. When we see a problem we should try to resolve it quickly so it does not escalate into a crisis and harm us or others.
A civilisation is judged by how it treats the most vulnerable. I fear Australia has been found guilty of crimes against humanity, and no one seems able to talk about it, to reflect on what is being done.
If someone is in trouble it is our responsibility to help them out. We should not let people drown at sea; we should bring them safely to our shores. Once here, they should not be left to languish in interminable limbo, but helped to get on with their lives and to contribute meaningfully to Australia, like so many migrants who have come before them.
*Lauren Smith worked as an administration officer for the Department of Immigration. She now works in refugee support services, and is the co-founder of non-profit group Learning & Ideas for Tibet. She is calling for signatures on a Change.org petition to protest government policy.