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Caro’s Flotsam and Jetsam: on asylum seekers and intolerable cruelty

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?

Author Tara Moss shared the eyewitness account from a contact of hers on Facebook while carefully protecting his anonymity:

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:

And I admired these two cartoons, one from Michael Leunig via @The Murdoch Times:

 And this one from Cathy Wilcox via @JennyEjlak:

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.

17
  • 1
    klewso
    Posted Wednesday, 26 February 2014 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    Unfortunately Labor was too weak to resist the pressure they came under, in their quest for what they saw as electoral favour. Lose, lose.

  • 2
    MarilynJS
    Posted Wednesday, 26 February 2014 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    Klewso, the ALP believe in and actually applaud what Morrison is doing which IS WHY THEY LEGISLATED IT ALL.

  • 3
    Observation
    Posted Wednesday, 26 February 2014 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    As the government keep saying “We have a mandate from the Australian people from the last election to conduct these operations”. So we are to blame and I feel the only way that we will regain enough morality to reverse this trend is for the government to go too far so as to disgust the general population so much that it shocks us into reality. This however will take time and regrettably will result in much more misery.

  • 4
    klewso
    Posted Wednesday, 26 February 2014 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

    You know what a mandates for?

  • 5
    MarilynJS
    Posted Wednesday, 26 February 2014 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    No government has the mandate to break the law.

  • 6
    Saugoof
    Posted Wednesday, 26 February 2014 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

    @Observation - I used to think that too but every time when you’d expect that surely this has gone too far and people will come to realise that we are the bad guys here, it has only ended up being another milestone on the way down. This really seems to be a bottomless pit and the further down we go, the more willing we are to keep going.

    There is a good column in today’s Guardian about the current lack of empathy and how many people are even proud of being “hard”. I moved to Australia some 25 years ago after travelling the world for a fair bit. For the first decade or so of this I always marvelled at how much better Australia handles that whole integration of other cultures thing and how it was generally far less racist than just about anywhere else in the world. Then came Pauline Hanson and soon after Howard gave up any pretence and went headlong for the bigoted vote. 15 years later and we’re worse than most of the world now and I can’t see an end in sight.

    Most of the western world has gotten worse as well, but nowhere, except maybe Greece, has it gone as quickly and as bad as in Australia. Really makes me weep for what has become my country.

  • 7
    Alan Power
    Posted Wednesday, 26 February 2014 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

    The subject of Abbott/Morrison and the govt’s treatment of persecuted freedom seekers was brought up in a tour I did last week of the Sachenhausen Concentration Camp outside Berlin. There was no comparing with the Nazi regime directly of course but remarks were made in the context of not allowing persecuted people to be imprisoned in camps like Manus Island. Australians should not allow these things to happen. Also that Australians should not believe the Govt propaganda which it uses to try and justify its actions. The tour group were all young people as well. The actions of Abbott/Morrison (mentioned by name) have spread far and wide.

  • 8
    Johny Swank
    Posted Wednesday, 26 February 2014 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

    No asylum seekers have a mandate to break the law either:

    Convention and protocol relating to the status of refugees
    http://www.unhcr.org/3b66c2aa10.html
    Page 18/56
    Article 2
    General obligations
    Every refugee has duties to the country in which he finds himself, which require in particular that he conform to its laws and regulations as well as to measures taken for the maintenance of public order.

  • 9
    Danno of Arabia
    Posted Wednesday, 26 February 2014 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

    I am in the Middle East and I heard about the Manus island riots as I sat down to eat my breakfast.

    A sign of the cynical nature of our times, that our family could see that this newsflash broadcast around the world would actually play out nicely for the LNP.

    A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on”

  • 10
    Patriot
    Posted Wednesday, 26 February 2014 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

    We are sick of these illegal intruders. We voted for a coalition who promised to stop them by using measures that were clearly advertised before and during the election. Have you no respect for our democracy?

  • 11
    Ken Lambert
    Posted Wednesday, 26 February 2014 at 10:55 pm | Permalink

    Caro is typical of those hand wringers who can’t stand the thought that the Abbott policy is working - no boats for 68 days or whatever it is.

    She can thank Gillard for Manus and Rudd for PNG. Rudd was the genius (obviously Harvard quality) who first created the deluge of boats by repudiating Howard’s successful policy.

    The idea of beautiful Iranians dying at the hands of Labor’s G4S contractor or a bunch of PNG local helpers who like a fight as a form of cultural expression is repulsive to us all. No doubt the riot started by the detainees was a tactic to gain media attention, and when you start a violent riot you take a big risk of bringing a knife to a gun fight.

    Caro doesn’t weep for the poor bastards in overseas camps who don’t have a razoo let alone $10000 to pay a smuggler and bribe a corrupt Indonesian official. They are the ones dipping out on a refugee place by orderly government process.

    Caro needs to look beyond the immediate situation and the beautiful Iranians.

    It reminds me of the legendary Lincoln story of pardoning the youthful soldier who fell asleep on guard duty from the death penalty when such extreme harshness was brought to his attention. That he did, but he let many others be shot for military crimes because he agreed that in the bigger picture, the Army needed that sanction to keep firm discipline. Was it ‘Firmness in the right’ I think he said somewhere?

    Not a bad phrase for Mr Abbott to use.

  • 12
    TheEvilOne
    Posted Thursday, 27 February 2014 at 2:38 am | Permalink

    The Australian Government should do the decent thing and withdraw from the 1951 UN Refugee convention. As long as Australia’s signature is on that document Australia has a self accepted obligation to grant asylum to any genuine refugee that arrives at the front door and knocks. But how does one arrive at the front door of Australia when it is entirely surrounded by ocean?

    One could come by aeroplane, except for the minor nuisance that one cannot board a flight to Australia without both a passport and an Australian visa. Many refugees lack passports and I very much doubt that Australia will issue a visa to anyone fitting the profile of asylum seeker. Therefore the only option to secure the right to asylum is to come by sea, that is by boat.

    However any boat that arrives in Australia with asylum seekers Australia confiscates and burns so the owners are not going to use valuable seaworthy boats rather leaky tubs and will overload them to get maximum return on the one way voyage. Australia keeps ranting about people smugglers and the hazard their unseaworthy boats pose to the lives of asylum seekers but this is hypocritical as every time a boat sinks and asylum seekers die that discourages others from trying.

    Australia pretends that accepting each year a quota of asylum seekers pre-vetted for health, clear criminal record and compatibility with Australia’s desires as to what a new migrant should look like is fulfilling Australia’s self accepted obligations under the 1951 UN Refugee convention. Nice though this is, it is not fulfilling obligations under the convention, those obligations involve accepting as many genuine refugees as arrive regardless of how ill, criminal or undesirable to Australia they are. Obviously the only way a refugee who wants to take advantage of his rights under the convention is to come by boat and the only boats available are leaky overloaded death traps.

    Incidentally, Australians keep referring to those who arrive on boats as illegal migrants, they are not illegal they unlawful which means in this context that they come without Australian visas. Lack of a visa is of no relevance for a genuine refugee. Otherwise the 80% of asylum seekers classified as genuine would be serving time in prisons rather than asylum seeker camps.

    Do the right thing Australia, withdraw from the refugee convention then preventing boats arriving and immediately repatriating those that manage to reach the border would be legal.

  • 13
    oldskool
    Posted Thursday, 27 February 2014 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    @ Ken Lambert-
    It was also the’Genious’ Rudd who put in place the process that ‘stopped the boats’. You Liberal supporters are really bad at looking at how things actually work- other than breaching Indonesian sovereignty they have changed nothing.

    I didn’t agree with the policy when the Labor party proposed it, and I still do not agree with the policy. Why no images of Hockey crying, or Morrison explaining why this is not as bad as the chance that asylum seekers could be caned?

  • 14
    Brown Nathanael
    Posted Thursday, 27 February 2014 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    The Australian public cannot make a determination if the issue is surrounded by secrecy, misinformation, the politics of fear and lies. What the government is doing may well be the correct approach but how are we to know without the information?

  • 15
    Observation
    Posted Thursday, 27 February 2014 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    Brown Nathanael - Exactly!
    How many boats have been turned back?
    Has there been any major incidents on the high seas putting people at risk?
    How much is this operation sovereign boarders costing the tax payer?
    Has there been any deaths at sea during the operation?

  • 16
    AR
    Posted Thursday, 27 February 2014 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

    Klewy - re “what a man date is for”? From current events I’d say “getting hot’n’sweaty?”and ignore Leviticus?

  • 17
    AR
    Posted Thursday, 27 February 2014 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

    PatrIdiot - re your use of ‘we’. As Tonto said to the Lone Ranger, surrounded by hostiles,’wot you mean ‘we’ paleface?”
    You are a loathsome piece of garbage.
    But you know, & like being, that.

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