Australia’s policy of mandatory detention for refugees who arrive by boat has emerged as the country’s most hotly debated issue, with proponents on either side accusing the other of legal impropriety and twisted self-righteousness. To get a better picture of what’s at stake, we asked two leading figures to give us their take on events. In one corner is Ian Lloyd Neubauer, an Australian journalist whose opinion pieces railing against mandatory detention have appeared in international publications such as The Guardian and TIME magazine. In the other corner is James Saleam, right-wing activist and the chairman of the Australia First Party.
IAN LLOYD NEUBAUER: PLACING PEOPLE IN CONCENTRATION CAMPS IS WRONG — PERIOD.
For the past four years, I have protested about Australia’s final solution for the problem of boat people: mandatory, indefinite detention in open-air prison camps on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island and the tiny Pacific Island nation of Nauru.
Originally dubbed the Pacific Solution, mandatory offshore detention was introduced by former prime minister John Howard in 2001 as a response to the Tampa Affair, when 433 Afghan boat people who entered Australian waters aboard Norwegian freighter MV Tampa were taken to Nauru.
The policy was reintroduced in 2013 to stem a wave of 50,000 asylum-seekers who had sailed into Australian waters on overcrowded, leaky boats from Indonesia within the space of six years. It has received widespread public support. “As of today, asylum seekers who come here by boat without a visa will never be settled in Australia,” boasted then-prime minister Kevin Rudd. Their only other option, Rudd indicated, was for them to go back to the war-torn countries they’d risked their lives and blown their life savings escaping.
But the policy has come at a terrible price. In addition to the annual billion-dollar bill Australian taxpayers are slugged with is the slow and deliberate destruction of the physical and mental wellbeing of thousands of men, women and children who are now imprisoned in violent, mismanaged, flyblown, disease-ridden prisons.
A report released by the United Nations’ refugee agency, the UNHCR, found 88 percent of detainees held on Nauru and Manus Island suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder — “among the highest recorded of any population in the world” — while Amnesty International has described the camps as instruments of torture. “I have no hope,” Amir, a detainee who cannot be named for legal reasons, told Amnesty’s investigators. “It’s the end of time here.”
However, the announcement in June of a landmark $70 million settlement over a class-action lawsuit initiated by law firm Slater and Gordon on behalf of 1,905 past and present detainees at Manus Island — and more recent news that the detention centre on Manus Island is about to close — has given Amir, his fellow detainees and ‘bleeding-heart’ Australians like myself, who want all boat people to be transferred to the mainland for processing, a glimmer of hope.
It is the largest settlement ever reached for a human rights case in Australia, and blows out of the water the preposterous legal argument that this country does not owe a duty of care to human beings whose only mistake was to assume we would abide by our obligations as signatories to the UN Refugee Convention.
Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Peter Dutton barely blinked when grilled by journalists after news of the settlement got out. He described it as a “prudent outcome” for taxpayers who would have potentially paid more after a lengthy trial. “The Commonwealth strongly refutes and denies the claims made in these proceedings,” Dutton said. “Settlement is not an admission of liability in any regard.”
Prominent human rights lawyer George Newhouse of the National Justice Project in Sydney says that by paying “hush money” and side-stepped a protracted court battle, the government has adroitly avoided a roasting in the court of public opinion. “In a world of fake news, court findings have powerful meaning. By avoiding a ruling the government can play on the confusion and avoid exposing the cruel reality of offshore detention camps.”
Refugee advocates such as Newhouse have found an unlikely ally in their quest to embarrass the government over the settlement: Senator Pauline Hanson of the One Nation Party.
Interviewed on Sydney talkback radio station 2GB, Hanson said she was “shocked, furious, disgusted and angry” over the payout. She then reverted to her trademark scapegoating, placing the blame on the detainees themselves in a bare-knuckle version of the populist agenda used to dehumanise boat people in the eyes of the Australian public when mandatory offshore detention was introduced.
“Every detainee in that centre has cost us approximately $572,000 [the correct figure is $400,000] and they have been supplied with cigarettes and phones and education and all the amenities. They have been far better looked after than the homeless here in Australia.” Hanson went on to describe detainees on Manus Island as rapists and paedophiles who take the Australian public as “fools” and “mugs”.
Their only other option, Rudd indicated, was for them to go back to the war-torn countries they’d risked their lives and blown their life savings escaping
Radio host Ben Fordham concurred, claiming he’d seen photos of asylum seekers who looked like “bodybuilders” wearing “designer gear”, adding that they had paid thousands of dollars to people smugglers while legitimate refugees missed out.
The argument that detainees on Nauru and Manus Island are economic refugees because at one stage they had a few thousand dollars more than the average penniless refugee is not without merit. Hailing predominantly from the Middle East, they bypassed a number of relatively safe, albeit poor, countries en route to Australia. It must also be noted that last year Australia boosted its annual refugee intake to almost 19,000, up from 13,750 the previous year.
But when measured against global figures, Australia – the world’s 18th richest country – can be seen as the miser it is, ranking 25th in the total number of refugees it resettles each year and 32nd on a per capita basis. The 50,000 wretched souls who sailed to Australia in the pursuit of refuge are but a drop in the well compared to the 2.9 million refugees hosted by Turkey, 1.1 million hosted by Lebanon and the half a million hosted by Kenya. And while Australia refuses to carry its fair share of the global problem that now numbers 65.6 million displaced persons, it disproportionately contributes to the root cause of the problem — global warming and military misadventure in the Middle East.
Above and beyond the facts and figures, locking up some of the world’s most vulnerable people in third-world gulags for the mistake of throwing themselves at our mercy is wrong. We know it’s wrong because we could not legally imprison even Australia’s most dangerous and unrepentant convicted felons in such deplorable conditions.
We know it’s wrong because the government has gone to extraordinary lengths to stop journalists and lawyers from visiting the camps and telling the world of the nightmares hidden within.
And we know it’s wrong because these dark and damp hellholes fall within the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of concentration camps: “A place in which large numbers of people, especially political prisoners or members of persecuted minorities, are deliberately imprisoned in a relatively small area with inadequate facilities, sometimes to provide forced labour or to await mass execution.”
Australia may not be forcing detainees at Manus Island or Nauru to break rocks under the hot tropical sun. And only one detainee was ever killed: Reza Barati, a 23-year-old Iranian man who was repeatedly beaten in the head with a piece of wood with a nail in the end of it before a large rock was dropped on his head by a security guard and a Salvation Army worker. Yet by locking them up indefinitely and taking away their hope, we’ve done the next worst thing. And all the hush money in the world won’t be enough to spin our actions in a≈positive light in the eyes of future generations.
“I believe there will be apologies and reparations made in the future similar to those that have been made of Australia’s historical issues in the past as political attitudes change,” says Senator Nick McKim, immigration spokesman for the Australian Greens, the only major political party in the country that has unequivocally stood against the camps since day one. “There must be a Royal Commission to make sure this never happens again.”
JAMES SALEAM: WE SHOULD HAVE SENT THEM HOME THE SECOND THEY ARRIVED
What is your policy towards refugees claiming asylum in Australia?
We think that Australia should immediately withdraw from the UN convention on refugees. We believe the claims being made by refugees have very little to do with asylum… that it has become a special immigration program with an invalid moral agenda.
What about regular immigration?
Immigration is a policy whose time has passed and it should be terminated immediately or restricted to persons of European descent. The kind of immigration we are seeing now is about recolonisation. If it doesn’t stop now, Europeans will become a minority in this country by the mid-21st century.
Isn’t that a little hypocritical given Australia is not part of Europe, and the fact that this country was colonised violently by Europeans a relatively short time ago?
The treatment of Indigenous Australians by European settlers was terrible. But Europeans have tried to repent for what was done in the past and connect with Aboriginal cultures. But there is no nexus or connection whatsoever between Aboriginal cultures and new groups of predominately Asian migrants. If Asians keep on migrating in large numbers, there will be no money left for Aboriginal welfare in the new Australia. And if they are allowed to continue to own and operate mines in northern Australia, things will be much worse for Indigenous Australians because Native Title will be obliterated. We call on Indigenous Australians to join us in the struggle against Asian immigration. Otherwise, they will face total obliteration.
Do you think the detention of boat people on Manus Island and Nauru has been fair?
On a purely humanitarian level, no, it has not been fair. The claims of physical and mental torture at Manus Island are undoubtedly true. But it could all have been avoided if they had been deported at once back to their home countries. Their detention has been part of a Liberal Party policy of stopping the boats but at the same time letting tens of thousands more arrive by plane. The whole thing has been a cynical exercise to convince Australians that they are tough on border protection, when in fact the refugee intake has gone through the roof since the Liberals came to power in 2013.
Do you think describing Australia’s offshore detention facilities as concentration camps is accurate?
No, because their imprisonment has been contrived. At any time those people could have packed up their bags and gone back home; the government even offered to pay for their plane tickets. But they chose to stay, thinking they could force us to capitulate to their demands for asylum. And most of them are men who left their women behind. For me, that is not right. If they are being persecuted as minorities, which many of them are, they should have taken up arms instead. We should actually have trained them to fight so they could have gone home and freed their mothers, sisters, wives and daughters from tyranny.