Australia’s Death by Numbers

The dead refugee had a name. But even in death Australia did not want to humanize him. For years now he had been no more than a registration number — BRF063 — under the country’s cruel refugee deterrence system known as “offshore processing.” 

The brief announcement on Dec. 24 from the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection said: “A 27-year-old Sudanese refugee has sadly died today from injuries suffered after a fall and seizure at the Manus Regional Processing Center.”This was all that Australia could muster for Faisal Ishak Ahmed, who fled the Darfur region of Sudan in 2013. His was a death foretold, like that of the other deceased asylum seekers and refugees banished by Australia to the small island nation of Nauru and to Manus, a remote corner of the Papua New Guinea archipelago.

Since July 2013, Australia has herded more than 2,000 desperate people into these island prisons. There has been no “process” in centers housed in poor countries paid by Australia to do its dirty work. Human beings have been left to fester, crack up and die, as I observed on Manus during a five-day visit last month. Draconian nondisclosure contracts have gagged staff, although the whole system is beginning to crumble under the weight of its iniquity.

Desperate for a resolution, the country last month announced an agreement with the United States to take some of those confined on Nauru and Manus. The accord’s prospects under a Donald Trump presidency seem poor. In any event, it came too late for Faisal Ishak Ahmed.

“It’s really tragic that somebody else had to die,” said Peter Young, the former medical director of mental health for International Health and Medical Services (I.H.M.S.), the company Australia employs to run clinics in the facilities. “There had been representations made and nothing was being done to help him and to get him proper assistance and care, but that is exactly how the system is designed to be. In fact it’s inevitable that it happened and will happen again.”

Young, who quit in mid-2014, added that I.H.M.S., operating on behalf of the Australian border force, inevitably became part of a culture “conditioned to see these people as less.”

I.H.M.S., owned by International SOS, issued a statement denying that Ahmed had been “denied access to medical care.”

I called a fellow Sudanese refugee, Abdul Aziz Muhamat, also from Darfur, whom I met on Manus. He knew Ahmed well and gave me this account.

“For the past two months Ahmed had been unwell. He was losing weight, had problems with his lungs. He’d walk 100 meters and stop three times. He’d go to I.H.M.S. every day and they’d say he was not sick. Then on Dec. 15, he came to me very upset. A nurse had been shouting at him, saying he was just pretending.

“We filled out a complaint form. We sent a letter Dec. 21 to I.H.M.S. saying Ahmed’s condition was worsening by the day. They removed him from Oscar compound. He was coughing a lot. On Dec. 22, while in a bathroom, he fainted and hit his head. A nurse told me he would not make it when they finally airlifted him out Dec. 23.”

The next day, Faisal Ishak Ahmed was pronounced dead in Brisbane. Earlier this year Omid Masoumali, an Iranian held on Nauru, burned himself to death. Other deaths include Reza Barati, an Iranian Kurd, killed in the Manus detention center in 2014. Australia has blood on its hands. This is where numbering human beings ends.

But, Australia insists, it has “stopped the boats” and the nameless “boat people” in them.

I recently finished Viet Thanh Nguyen’s fine novel “The Sympathizer.” In its last pages, as his hero flees from Vietnam, Nguyen writes: “Now that we are to be counted among these boat people, their name disturbs us. It smacks of anthropological condescension, evoking some forgotten branch of the human family, some lost tribe of amphibians emerging from ocean mist, crowned with seaweed. But we are not primitives, and we are not to be pitied.”

On the eve of a new year pregnant with danger, and at the end of a year of fracture and rage, perhaps there is nothing more important to remember than the humanity in every individual — however poor, however desperate — and how easy it is to succumb to the perilous hysteria that reduces people to numbers as a prelude to their banishment or elimination.

In the 1970s, after bitter debate, Australia let in many Vietnamese “boat people” who have prospered. Offshore processing must stop. Australia owes those it has reduced to namelessness on Manus and Nauru sanctuary and dignity, now.

This article by Roger Cohen was published in the New York Times on 31 December 2016. See link: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/30/opinion/australias-death-by-numbers.html?emc=edit_th_20161231&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=60770926 

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