Living as a White youth in apartheid South Africa in the 1950’s, I often wondered how it was possible for a small minority to dominate and oppress the large majority of the population who were denied the vote because of the colour of their skins.
Much of the answer lay, I believed, in the capacity of the apartheid system to separate the lives of the different racial groups and to ensure that when people met, it was always in the context of White master-Non-White servant relationships. Members of the different defined racial groups were thus hardly ever able to converse ordinarily and to learn of the lives and aspirations of their fellow South Africans of different skin colours.
Above all, however, in stymieing interchange was control of knowledge and denial of freedom of speech. When, for example, Nelson Mandela was imprisoned in 1963, he was declared a banned person, and it became illegal to quote him, including the stirring words he used in the immortal speech in his trial.
In Australia today, I ask a similar question: how is it that political leaders can abandon and mistreat asylum seekers? And how is it that they are able basically to ignore and deny eminent reports, such as the recent Amnesty International exposure of the desperation of some 1,160 people captive and without hope in Nauru camps, including 170 children?
Australia’s indefinite detention of people in Nauru and Manus Island is certainly costly [$419,000 per detainee per year] and undoubtedly cruel. It defies the 1951 Refugee Convention. This requires that refugees should not be detained in places where they are likely to face harm, and protects those fleeing persecution to seek a safe haven. But this breach of the Convention is kept under cover and beyond open and regular exposure to the public by a variety of restrictions of information.
The Government has tried its best, irrespective of the cost, to disallow outsiders from learning what is happening in the detention centres with their miserable, dangerous and highly uncomfortable conditions. For example, as noted in a recent heavily critical editorial in the New York Times [October 16], contractors who work in the centres face criminal prosecution for revealing publicly details of camp conditions. Nauru’s special contribution to this veil of secrecy and lack of scrutiny is its decision in 2014 to raise the cost of a visa to enter the island from $178 to $7,126.
Occasionally, some light is cast on the conditions in the centres, as in the recent ABC Four Corners coverage in which viewers could actually listen to inmates. However, the aspirations of the children themselves have been dismissed by the Prime Minister, who has pointed to the Government’s efforts to find other locations for them, such as Cambodia, indeed almost anywhere but Australia.
And the Amnesty opinions themselves have been rejected offhand by the Government, in particular the claim by Anna Neistat that, the “system where people have to be subjected to extreme levels of suffering so that others who try to seek asylum in Australia are not tempted to do so ….pretty much amounts to torture.”
The really troubling issue about this is what it says about Australian morality in today’s world and how it compares with the past. For instance, after the end of the Vietnam war, we absorbed and welcomed thousands of refugees, many of them who were called then and could now be dubbed as boat people. A crucial difference, however, was that Malcolm Fraser’s government encouraged journalists to visit the camps in Vietnam and report to the Australian public about the conditions of people who had been displaced in a war in which we had been involved.
Not only, however, does the current Australian Government seek to cast a veil of secrecy and denial over events on Nauru and Manus, it also responds to what news does appear with harsher and harsher measures. After the release of the Amnesty report, it has promised to immediately legislate to “ban asylum seekers who arrive by boat from setting foot in Australia –even if they are genuine refugees.” Moreover it plans to prevent refugees who have after 2013 returned to their country of origin from ever gaining a visa of any sort to enter Australia, even as a tourist.
The Government points critics to its large migrant settlement and humanitarian program and to the 12,000 Syrian refugees which under Tony Abbott, it agreed to allow in to Australia. [At the same time, the Canadian Government announced it would take 32,000 of the Syrians, and has done so, whereas Australia has thus far only brought in about 3,000.] The Government has also fancifully commended its stop the boats policy to Europe, and indeed the United Nations, ignoring entirely the different scale of asylum seeker quests for entry. So far, in 2016 alone, there have been 328,000 Mediterranean arrivals in Europe, with Greece receiving 169,000 and Italy 153,000. Deaths at sea at this time have numbered 3,671. This is a disaster of enormous proportions, and promoting the Australian idea of “stopping the boats” is heavily over – simplistic. Australia can claim it has stopped the boats only because of its distance from the fields of war, such as in Iraq and Afghanistan, where huge displacements of people have occurred, and in whose conflicts Australia has long joined.
Australia’s reputation as a highly successful immigrant receiving and multicultural country is now being severely damaged by its treatment of those asylum seekers, including children, in Manus and Nauru. Protests against the policy are resolute and continuing within Australia and criticism from abroad is mounting.
Fortunately, as in apartheid South Africa, there are people of conscience making their voice heard in Australia today on the subject of asylum seekers. But how can the Government, supported by the Opposition, abandon and mistreat these people? Part of the answer is that the truth about conditions in the centres is not given full publicity or scope for enquiry. But another aspect is that raised by Simon Kuper in his article in the Financial Times [October 15] entitled Why the West Has Abandoned Aleppo:
“The decisive issue when you look at a refugee is not the price tag but whether you think, ‘That could have been me. ’Few Westerners today feel that a dead child in Aleppo could have been theirs. That detachment is probably not a result of western misery, but of western comfort after 71 years of peace.”
John Nieuwenhuysen is Emeritus Professor at Monash University and the former Director of the Commonwealth Bureau of Immigration, Population and Multicultural Research.