Barely a week after Fariborz Karami died by suicide on Nauru, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has warned against Australians extending a “single act of compassion” to people detained in offshore detention. After five years of running Labor’s camps, it is the Coalition’s latest, perhaps most honest, admission that our immigration system requires continued and deliberate human suffering.

It is important we take the Home Affairs Minister’s comments in context. The Department of Home Affairs has recently buckled to pressure to bring a dying asylum seeker to Australia for palliative care, and failed to stop suicidal children from receiving care in Australia; in the face of those precedents, a suicide on Manus Island last month, and news that Australia chose to ignore months of warnings about Karami, Dutton is at pains to ramp up fear over boat arrivals.

He says that Australia is entering a fragile “danger phase” because people are still attempting to seek asylum by boat, specifically the 130 aboard a Sri Lankan tanker in May. “The hard-won success of the last few years,” Dutton said, “could be undone overnight by a single act of compassion in bringing 20 people from Manus to Australia”.

Basically, if we want to stop the boats, we cannot stop the suicides.

Of course, Australia has known about the mental impacts of indefinite, offshore detention for years now. They are inherent to our system of deterrence, one that has led to six suspected suicides and, according to the United Nations in 2016, rates of depression, anxiety and PTSD that rank among the highest recorded “of any surveyed population”. Even Dutton, who has overseen the US-Australia refugee deal, once publicly aspired to “be the minister that removes children from detention”, despite his department fighting that exact thing in March this year.

Yet for many in the media, including Crikey’s own Bernard Keane last week, Australia’s policy of stopping the boats is one of the Coalition’s crowning achievements, something lefties just stubbornly cannot admit. This is because, despite all the deaths from preventable diseases and child rape and world records for PTSD, the boats have stopped (arriving).

Now, we can get hung up on the fact that, while dangerous, seeking asylum by boat is an inherent human right; that cutting off Australia as a destination has created an uncertain, clearly fragile bottleneck that doesn’t in itself help anyone. Or we can recognise that alternative, long-term policies exist. Yet whatever the complexities around immigration and the genuine desire to address deaths at sea, the problem with the current justification at its core is surprisingly simple.

Because even pretending for a second that “stopping the boats” is the utilitarian solution Labor and the Coalition pretend it is, the fact remains that Australian politics now treats suicide as a de facto limitless resource. Since 2013, the conditions at our detention centres have led six men to kill themselves. The seventh, when it inevitably happens, will be par for the course, merely another totem to ward off

Imagine seriously applying that logic — of destroying an innocent human being in the name of deterrence — to any other aspect of public policy. We don’t imprison survivors of car accidents. So why should our treatment of people asking for help be the exception?

Adam Bandt was not wrong when he called the current system terrorism. It wasn’t hyperbole, and not even a denial of the logic underpinning terrorism; it was simply an acknowledgement that Australia uses fear and suffering as a weapon.

And despite the lure of simplifying this as an either-or situation, what activists want right now is Australia to respect the sanctity of lives under our care and address deaths at sea. Political parties need to acknowledge challenging, holistic, and yes, even long-term, AKA utilitarian, alternatives, such as visa and carrier reforms, increased navy co-operation, or Andrew Wilkie and Cathy McGowan’s recently proposed system of regional processing centres. Even systems of directly breaking up people-smuggling operations, on the explicit condition that people seeking asylum are not refouled but instead saved, would be a welcome solution to the drownings argument.

But weaponising suicide? That would be a cruel, hollow victory, a myopic abandonment of compassion Australians should never, ever admit “works”.

Lifeline can be reached on 13 11 14.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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