There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.
- Elie Wiesel
Before the last election, I wrote this piece on asylum seekers, and in many ways it still stands. I wish I could say that nothing had changed since the last election, but the truth is things have just gotten a lot worse. Kevin Rudd's announcement that all asylum seekers who arrive by boat will be sent to Papua New Guinea for processing and resettlement is so appalling and shameful that we flatly cannot allow it to go ahead.
The rationale behind the move is that we need to break the business model of the people-smugglers by providing enough of a deterrent that asylum seekers don't think it's worth the risk of getting on the boat in the first place. Let's think for a second about what that would actually mean. To deter people who are fleeing, you would have to be worse than what they are fleeing from. These people are being abused, beaten, shot at, decapitated, separated from their families - and it is our goal to be worse than their oppressors. We would quite literally have to commit crimes against humanity. Is that something we really want to do?
We certainly seem to be doing our darnedest. The picture painted by Salvation Army volunteers in Nauru is devastating - of innocent, persecuted people, beaten down physically and psychologically by what our government is doing to them. Allegations are now arising that a blind eye is being turned to self-harm, violence and rape. These people, who have done nothing wrong and seek only to free themselves from violent persecution, are quite literally being treated like animals.
Our current facilities and procedures have been roundly condemned by the UNHCR - a recent report found that "the current policy and practice of detaining all asylum-seekers on a mandatory and indefinite basis, without an individual assessment or possibility for review, amounts to arbitrary detention which is inconsistent with the obligations of both Australia and PNG under international human rights law."
That's right, we are literally in violation of human rights law ourselves. Australia, the land of a fair go, the land of opportunity and mateship, is violating the human rights of oppressed people. And yet people are still willing to take the risk of a smuggler's leaky boat to get here. So what kind of stick would we have to wield to be a greater threat than what they're fleeing? What kind of treatment would we need to subject them to?
Kevin Rudd's answer to this is: send them to Papua New Guinea indefinitely. Everyone who comes by boat - which incidentally punishes people based on their mode of arrival and is therefore contrary to our international obligations - will be sent to Papua New Guinea, even unaccompanied children who have family already in Australia. Not just for processing, but for resettlement as well.
Papua New Guinea does not have the infrastructure or expertise to support the processing of a large number of asylum seekers. While standards of living are not too bad compared with other countries with similar levels of wealth, this is because land in PNG is largely owned by indigenous tribes and clans - which means that newcomers who do not belong to any of those tribes will struggle to survive. Furthermore, homosexuality is illegal in PNG, so any GLBTI people who were persecuted for their sexuality in their homeland will be right back where they started. All people, but especially women, are at a high risk of violence in PNG - with up to 50% of girls at risk of sex trafficking. Given that such practises overwhelmingly affect the vulnerable, you can expect that rate to be even higher when you start dumping impoverished, traumatised people into the country.
Under international law, returning a genuine refugee to their oppressor is a crime known as refoulement, and let's not kid ourselves - if we hand these people over to new oppressors, we are just as guilty as if we'd shipped them back to their homeland. Under international law and by any reasonable moral standard, they are our responsibility, whether they're on our soil or not.
This is the stick we are wielding. And the saddest part is, this still probably won't stop people getting on boats, because they are ill-informed and more desperate than you can possibly imagine. The way forward, then, lies not with the stick but with the carrot. The prohibition of alcohol in America proved impossible because you flatly cannot stop the supply of something for which there is such strong demand. People will find a way - the end product will be of poor quality and will fund criminal networks but it'll get there nonetheless. The only way to control it and keep people safe is to legalise it but regulate it. The same principle applies to people-smuggling.
The way you smash the bootlegger's business model is to make it cheaper, easier and safer to buy alcohol from legitimate businesses than from bootleggers. And the way you smash the smuggler's business model is to make it cheaper, easier and safer to gain asylum than on his leaky boat. That is, you fund an Australian diplomatic presence or a UNHCR presence in either the countries of origin (often difficult or impossible as they're warzones) or in the point of departure (like Indonesia). You work with the countries in the region - a move which necessitates that we hold the moral high ground - so that people genuinely can seek asylum and be settled there. Make it so that people can make asylum claims closer to home, and they won't get on that leaky boat.
Of course, the other side of that is that you have to actually process those claims properly - we need to transport asylum seekers to Australia ourselves, and once they have been through a brief quarantine period (which allows for health and security checks and which should last no longer than 60 days) you settle them in the community while their claim is being processed. As I said last time, there is no "queue" that these people are jumping, but the solution is essentially to create one - while the rhetoric says that these people are jumping ahead of people in UNHCR camps around the world, they are from completely different places and literally cannot get to the camps in question.
The only real way we can solve this problem is to stop the war and persecution that makes people flee in the first place - which is obviously monstrously complicated. All we can do in the meantime is manage the situation, and these politicised "solutions" will not do that in any meaningful way.
One of the biggest problems with the deterrent model is that it's an "out of sight, out of mind" solution - even if we managed to deter people from making that journey, they wouldn't cease to exist. They would still be there, either living in constant terror in their homeland or living in a place like Indonesia, where they currently have no rights and must live in the shadows. The rhetoric makes out as though the deterrent model is supposed to be for the benefit of asylum seekers, in a cruel-to-be-kind sort of way. Let us speak plainly - this is a lie.
Today Tony Abbott has tried to out-gun Rudd by further militarising the debate with "Operation Sovereign Borders" - he and his team speak of a "national emergency", of "illegal arrivals", of "law and order." He and his party have always made this an issue of national security, of border protection, of people illegally entering the country and threatening our safety by doing so - but of course upwards of 95% of arrivals are proven to be genuine refugees and arriving in this manner is a perfectly legal way of seeking asylum. So this too is a lie.
I write a lot about how ordinary people can be complicit in evil deeds without really being stereotypically evil themselves, and the main reason is inattention - it is far too easy to ignore the suffering of others. I use the example of German citizens allowing the Jews to be forced into Ghettos and shipped off a lot but that can be a bit inaccessible and it does run afoul of Godwin's law. But it bears pointing out - what ended up with a death toll of six million started out with dehumanisation and degradation. With a people worried about the economy and politicians willing to scapegoat a group of outsiders. With segregation, arbitrary detention and violence, with propaganda being used to gain votes through the inflammation of racist, tribal sensibilities.
It also bears pointing out that no snowflake feels responsible for the avalanche, yet in a very real sense, this kind of thing cannot go on without our acquiescence. It's becoming more and more clear that oppressors are defeated not when Team America comes in, guns a-blazing, but when enough of the people on the ground say "No more" and stop letting it happen. This applies just as much to civil protest in peaceful democracies as it does to violent dictatorships.
We must understand - we are letting this happen. We know this policy will destroy lives, not save them. We know it will do nothing to solve the problem. Unless we do something about it, we will be morally responsible. We must stop it, now.
The Rudd-Gillard government have made some landmark apologies in this term. Apologising to the stolen generations for what the Australian Government did to them. Apologising to the victims of forced adoption. I don't know how long it will take, but if we let it happen, someday the Prime Minister of Australia will be apologising for this. This is a black day in Australian history and we have the power to change it - so we damn well better.