Our appalling treatment of asylum seekers is not only bad for them — but it is bad for us. When asylum seekers die in detention centres, we need to take a hard look at what kind of democracy we want to be.
This week it has been all about Manus Island and so will most of this column. And for me, no one summed up the horrible dilemma we have put ourselves in as a country better than Waleed Aly, in a this wonderful, logical and ruthlessly plain-speaking article in The Sydney Morning Herald. He argues that brutality is the point of our offshore processing policy and that we have had to become very brutal indeed to create any kind of workable deterrent.
That’s why I, for one, cannot celebrate the fact that the boats have stopped coming. We have had to become almost as cruel as the tyrants the asylum seekers are fleeing to achieve such a result. Call me a bleeding heart or a do-gooder if you like, but I can take no triumph from that.
Once politicians on both sides of politics decided to end the unspoken agreement that stopped either side leveraging racism and xenophobia for political gain, it was inevitable we would end up in this brutal place. Thinking back over the last 20 years, I think it all started with Pauline Hansen, helped along by 9/11, and John Howard taking advantage of both to win the Tampa election. Once we let racism out of the bottle there has been no stopping it, and now a young man in our — ahem — care has been killed.
The fact that this government has tried to limit the amount of information available about our offshore processing centres is indicative that our pollies also know what they are doing is wrong. If what is happening there is reasonable, civilised and humane, why the secrecy? Why not let the cameras and the press have access? We are not obsessive about secrecy in our normal prisons because we know that while they may not be exactly nice places, they are not actively cruel, and we are not ashamed of what goes on there. Moreover, the convicted criminals inside (as opposed to asylum seekers, who have committed no crime and have had no day in court) know how long they will be incarcerated.
I am not the only person (not by a long shot — as the Light the Dark vigils honouring Reza Barati showed on Sunday night) who worries about the effect our cruelty towards asylum seekers will have, not only on them, but on ourselves and our system of government. Malcolm Fraser summed it up pithily here via @forthleft:
And many others saw fit to comment wryly on the length of time it took to get any information, let alone the the right information, from Immigration Minister Scott Morrison. I was also disturbed to see that those who did talk about what they had seen on that terrible night would only do so anonymously for fear of their jobs and of reprisals. Again, is this the sort of democracy we want to be?
“One of my long-standing crime research contacts informed me of what happened on Manus Island the day it happened. He is currently stationed there and worked on the now deceased young Reza Berati for 20 minutes before he passed. He described Mr Berati as an ‘exemplary human being’ showing ‘all the hallmarks of someone who would be an asset to any community’. My contact, who wished to remain anonymous because they all sign confidentiality contracts, gave me a full run down on the events, before they’d become public: the 20+ shots fired. (not ‘a couple’ as previously claimed) The spent shells. The evacuation of staff (but not asylum seekers) before the violence began. The fact that people from outside came in and opened fire on the people there. The fact that it all happened deep within the compound where people were trapped, far from the entry gate. All of his info has proved true so far. Every last detail. And though he is stationed there, and can’t speak publicly, he wanted me to know that many of the staff there are excellent expat Australians doing the best they can in bad conditions, but that Manus Island detention centre should be shut down as unsafe. Since this conversation, my contact has been unreachable.”
Here are some of the other comments and observations inspired by the events on Manus Island and the official responses to it that caught my eye:
And this in response to Tony Abbott’s remark that you couldn’t have a wimp running border protection:
Quite rightly, social media was not letting the complicit ALP off scot-free:
I also liked this one in response to a delayed media conference. It had the ring of truth:
Finally, to move away from Australia’s shame, I leave you with two excellent articles about education. They are not exactly cheery, but they do offer a little hope. And I, for one, could use some. An article from US site Alternet reminds us that harsh regimes don’t actually benefit anyone, except the already fortunate. And a lovely blog piece from a teacher much closer to home is a lovely tribute to never giving up.