They wear dark militaristic uniforms, are forced to pledge an oath upon signing up, wanted to conduct random street checks on visas, and spend millions of dollars on medals. But please don’t compare them to you-know-who, secretary of the highly secretive government Department of Immigration and Border Protection has said, in a bizarre (and a tad sensitive) defence of border protection policy, detention centres and Border Force.

For the second time in under a month, Michael Pezzullo lashed out at coverage of Border Force issues, sending out a downright weird press release on Tuesday defending the government’s highly controversial policy of detaining asylum seekers — in particular, children — who arrive by boat offshore on Manus or Nauru.

Pezzullo, using a line similar to the Nuremberg defence, stated that the department was simply following the law of Australia and government policy in detaining children.

He said that the department and its “uniformed operational arm”, Border Force, operated within the law and was not an “immoral ‘rogue agency'”.

Pezzullo did not specifically reference what prompted the release, however it appears it to be in response to an article published in the Australasian Psychiatry Journal in January by UNSW senior lecturer Michael Dudley.

In his article examining the role of healthcare professionals in immigration detention, Dudley said that the detention policies “show reckless indifference and calculated cruelty”. He said they “promote public numbing and indifference” and compared the policies to Nazi Germany, and detention to Soviet gulags.

He said that keeping children and adults in detention contravened Australia’s endorsement of international conventions on refugees, civil and political rights, torture, children and disability, but he noted that no dissent or impartial evidence had swayed successive governments to consider alternatives.

He said the ethical aims of healthcare and detention were incompatible. Healthcare workers in detention centres are forced to sign secret agreements, which sabotage their independence and compromise their ability to provide advocacy and confidentiality for their patients.

The part that seems to have most hurt Pezzullo’s feelings is a comparison to how health professionals in World War II helped the Nazis. Dudley wrote:

“Nazi-helping professionals were usually normal people, not psychopaths or villains. Peer and situational pressures, careerism and ideological commitments motivated them. Euphemism, bureaucratic routines and missionary zeal facilitated psychic numbing and denial.”

Pezzullo said it was highly offensive to claim detention centres were like gulags and that detention “involves a ‘public numbing and indifference’ similar to that allegedly experienced in Nazi Germany”.

When there was confusion to what experiences in Nazi Germany Pezzullo believed to be “alleged”, the department put out a second press release clarifying that “the term ‘allegedly’ was used to counter claims of ‘public numbing and indifference’ towards state abuses in Nazi Germany and the link to immigration detention in Australia”:

“Any insinuation the Department denies the atrocities committed in Nazi Germany are both ridiculous and baseless. This has been wilfully taken out of context and reflects deliberate attempts to distort this opinion editorial to create controversy.”

Pezzullo stated that the resources devoted to providing medical and support services “undercuts emotive and inflammatory claims to the contrary”.

He said there was “enhanced oversight” for the care given to asylum seekers in detention, with the department’s chief medical officer, Dr John Brayley, giving advice to Pezzullo.

In a Senate estimates hearing in February, Brayley said it was “deleterious” for children to be held in detention, and those suffering from PTSD should not be held in detention.

Pezzullo said the department’s goal was “the same as its critics” — i.e. to get children out of detention — and he noted there were now just 58 children in detention, down from close to 2000 in 2013. The 80 children in Australia for medical treatment, who are due to be returned to Nauru following a High Court decision, will be returned to an “open centre” on Nauru. There is security at an open centre, but the government of Nauru says asylum seekers are free to come and go as they please.

Asylum seeker advocates are quick to point out, however, that the island of Nauru is 21 square kilometres — smaller than Melbourne Airport.

Pezzullo was not the only one to take issue with Dudley’s Nazi comparisons. Last month Executive Council of Australian Jewry president Robert Goot said that it was a “disappointing” comparison to make.

“Whatever validity there is to criticisms of Australia’s detention centres, it is undermined by making such comparisons.”

Mike Godwin, the man who popularised “Godwin’s Law” — which describes the likelihood of online debate invoking hyperbolic comparisons to Nazis or Hitler — has previously said it was not trivialising to compare Australia’s asylum seeker policy to Nazi Germany.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey