On 31st August 2015, the Senate finally tabled its lengthy report on conditions at what is euphemistically called the Regional Processing Centre in Nauru (http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Regional_processing_Nauru/Regional_processing_Nauru/Final_Report). The RPC is in reality a prison camp where people live indefinitely in tents, their applications are not processed for over a year, and they are kept in ignorance of when if ever the applications will be processed. It is possible to appeal against a rejected application, but not against one which sits in limbo.
Will the report make any difference? We know the Government will ignore its recommendations because the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection dismissed the enquiry before the report was published as “a political witch-hunt by an opposition-dominated committee.” He would know, because Liberal Governments have spent millions of tax-payer dollars on political witch-hunts called Royal Commissions.
Will the public pay attention? We know from recent opinion polls that over half the Australian population believe we are not being harsh enough on asylum seekers. Little wonder when they are demonised by both major political parties and the Murdoch press, talked about as if they are terrorists and deemed unworthy of our compassion or even of being treated like human beings.
The Abbott Government’s mantra when asked about detention centres, “we have turned back the boats and saved lives at sea” is dishonest on three counts. Firstly, refusing to reveal the truth about turn-backs because they are “operational matters” (another attempt to confuse asylum seekers with invading terrorists) means we have no idea whether the people turned back survive and one estimate suggests as many as 10% may be killed when returned to the country they fled. Such estimates cannot be confirmed or refuted because information is suppressed. Secondly, turning back boats contravenes International Law. The Europeans, who face a problem immeasurably worse than Australia, do not turn back boats; they try to prevent them leaving and they imprison captured people smugglers. The reason for not turning back boats is that in 1939, the SS St Louis sailed out of Hamburg carrying 907 Jewish refugees and was turned away from Cuba, the USA and Canada. The “Voyage of the Damned” retuned to Europe and over a quarter of the asylum seekers are thought to have perished in concentration camps. The UN Refugee Convention in 1951, to which Australia is a co-signatory, deemed turning back boats as unlawful. The third dishonesty is that turning back boats and mandatory detention are different and independent things. Whether or not turning back boats is effective or ethical, imprisoning innocent people fleeing persecution and making conditions so unbearable that they will opt to return to their country of origin is torture. The United Nations has said so, although Tony Abbott “will not be lectured to by the UN on our moral responsibilities.”
The international media have been scathing about Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers. Extreme right wing politicians have toyed with Australia’s policies but been shouted down in their own countries. Outrage characterised reports from New Zealand (http://www.radionz.co.nz/international/pacific-news/283029/australia’s-senate-report-on-nauru-defended), the UK (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-34111019), Canada (http://www.cbc.ca/radio/asithappens/as-it-happens-tuesday-edition-1.3211233) and the USA. The Editors of the New York Times wrote: “Some European officials may be tempted to adopt the hard-line approach Australia has used to stem a similar tide of migrants. That would be unconscionable. Prime Minister Tony Abbott has overseen a ruthlessly effective effort to stop boats packed with migrants, many of them refugees, from reaching Australia’s shores. His policies have been inhumane, of dubious legality and strikingly at odds with the country’s tradition of welcoming people fleeing persecution and war.” (http://mobile.nytimes.com/2015/09/03/opinion/australias-brutal-treatment-of-migrants.html?_r=0).
The Senate enquiry found increasing numbers of whistle-blowers willing to tell the truth, doctors, nurses, social workers, carers and even security personnel. The Border Control Act 2015, which the Labor Party supported, is designed to deter any more whistle-blowers and suppress freedom of speech. The Australian Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs has warned how the creeping powers of government infringe civil liberties, citing many new laws, including meta-data retention laws, mandatory detention of asylum seekers, paperless arrests, and the Border Force Act ((http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2015/sep/04/gillian-triggs-powers-for-australian-border-force-disrespect-human-dignity). Triggs said it was “particularly troubling” that the major political parties in a “complicit and compliant parliament” passed laws threatening civil and human rights, compounded by the militarisation of the government.
What can we do? Protest to politicians, in person and in writing. Write to newspapers. Use social media. Persuade people to meet asylum seekers and volunteer their help. Joan Baez said: “As long as we can get shocked…there is something healthy about it.”
Perhaps we can be optimistic. The photo of the body of three year old Syrian boy Aylan has affected many Australians. Thousands of men, women and children have taken to the streets all over Australia in “light the dark” candle vigils. Aylan’s image has touched the hearts of many Australians who seem now to favour welcoming refugees and are putting pressure on the Government to be more generous to those fleeing the war in Syria.
David Isaacs is a consultant paediatrician and Alanna Maycock is a a paediatric nurse. They have both worked with children who are refugees or seeking asylum for over 10 years and run a Refugee Clinic at a tertiary children’s hospital in Sydney. They visited Nauru in December 2014 to consult on children in detention. They defied a restrictive contract to reveal the horrific conditions to the media and gave evidence to the Senate Committee.