As someone born after World War II who grew up in India, I have always wondered how it was possible for a highly civilized society like Germany to have been complicit through silence in the horror of the Holocaust. It simply wasn’t possible for people not to have known what was being done to the Jews on an industrial scale, and that too in their name. For the first time, as an Australian, I begin to get glimmers of understanding.
The Australian government has subjected people fleeing persecution to acts of torture and unspeakable depravity, all in the name of protecting us from invading hordes of illegal immigrants, and we avert our eyes from the accumulating mass of incontrovertible evidence and pretend all is well. Obviously, there is no moral equivalence between the industrial-scale systematic slaughter of several million Jews and the few hundred asylum seekers incarcerated, however brutally, on a neighboring island. Rather, my point is to emphasize how ordinary decent people can allow inhumanity to be inflicted by refusing to see what is before their eyes.
On Aug. 9, The Guardian newspaper published more than 2,000 incident reports, running to over 8,000 pages, from Australia’s detention camp on the Pacific island of Nauru. The largest cache of leaked documents from inside the immigration regime laid bare in horrific detail conditions of systemic cruelty amounting to torture in facilities remote-controlled by the government of Australia with the explicit goals first of keeping prospective refugees outside Australian territorial jurisdiction with the sole purpose of denying them the protection of Australia’s legal regimes; and secondly so the management can be outsourced to private contractors in order to absolve the government of legal liability for what is done on Australian orders, under Australian control, using Australian money.
What is shocking is not anything really new that is revealed, but that what has long been suspected is confirmed to be true. The Nauru Files are a catalog of assaults, sexual abuse and exploitation, child abuse and attempted self-harm, some serially. Australian parents suspected of such treatment would have their children taken away from them by social welfare officials, and the community would approve. The numbers and scale are not important: A total of 442 people are held in indefinite detention on Nauru. What matters is that, like the Soviet gulags, this is the standard of public morality by which the government and society will be judged, and we have been found wanting in our duty of basic care and basic humanity.
Children make up 18 percent of detainees but account for 51 percent of the incidents during the May 2013-October 2015 time frame for the 2,116 reports. In July 2014, a 10-year-old girl undressed in the presence of adults and invited them to insert their fingers in her vagina. Others have reported rape, threats of sexual assault and demands for sexual favors in return for access to basic amenities, and attempted suicides and acts of self-harm. Health professionals, aid workers, human rights NGOs and the U.N. refugee agency have all been warning of the immediate medical and long-term mental health damage caused by Australia’s harsh detention policies, to no avail. The government has enacted laws to imprison any staff who tell what they witness, violating medical professional ethics of the duty of care first to the patients.
Journalists and even the Human Rights Commission staff are not permitted to visit. Then, in yet another Orwellian twist, having first denied all avenues for independent investigations, the government responded to the leak by saying they were mere allegations, not statements of proven fact. The prize for chutzpah goes to the immigration department bureaucrat who insisted that the leaked documents are proof “of the rigorous reporting procedures that are in place” in the detention center.
To add to the collective shame, The Guardian’s expose was published while one Royal Commission was investigating allegations of sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy, and a second was set up in response to allegations of abuse of aboriginal children in detention in the Northern Territory when the national broadcaster telecast gut-wrenching video footage of guards behaving badly. Many people managed to connect the dots between these and the Nauru abuses, but not the government. In addition, around the same time, the Australian Bureau of Statistics stuffed up big time in the electronic filing of census forms. The inconvenience of the last item generated more angst than the abuses on Nauru.
The politics of demonizing boat-based refugees — by the very descendants of those who came by the boatloads to dispossess the Aborigines and take over their land — began under Prime Minister John Howard and the notorious Tampa affair in 2001. A Norwegian merchant ship rescued people adrift at sea, ironically after being alerted by Australian maritime officials. For their humanitarian actions they were boarded by Australian commandos to make sure the rescued people did not set foot on Australian soil and Howard rode to populist triumph in the next elections — although the ship’s captain did get the coveted Nansen Medal from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. The Vietnamese boat people from the 1970s are fully integrated, valued and productive members of modern Australian society.
In a triumph of Orwellian speak, the last immigration minister, Scott Morrison, instructed his officials to describe the asylum seekers as “illegal maritime arrivals.” In fact their actions are entirely legal while the Australian policy and actions violate a raft of international legal principles. No matter. Morrison proved that on some issues that speak to people’s primeval fears, you can fool most people most of the time.
Paul Dirac, the 1933 Nobel laureate in physics, maintained his friendship and contact with Werner Heisenberg, an eminent theoretician of the 1920s and 1930s who continued to serve under the Nazis. When criticized for his refusal to ostracize Heisenberg for his tainted association with the Nazis, Dirac, who thought Heisenberg’s behavior in a very difficult situation had not been unreasonable, commented: “It is easy to be a hero in a democracy.” The great Australian democracy must be suffering from a shortage of heroes at present. British and New Zealand politicians have joined human rights and U.N. agencies in condemning the savage Australian policy, saying the country has lost its moral compass. The New Zealand offer to take in the refugees is rejected on the grounds that it will only encourage people smugglers.
Do Australian Cabinet ministers and departmental heads really value their jobs, and the power and perks that come with them, so much that they are prepared to be complicit by association in the torture of innocent children, facilitated by a policy of bribing and bullying Pacific neighbors? Has Australia really been reduced to this sorry state? After this, it is hard to retain a modicum of respect for any of them, let alone the minister concerned and the prime minister. Should they ever be called to criminal account, ignorance will not be available as a defense, on the one hand, and I shall be found cheering outside the courthouse, on the other.
Ramesh Thakur is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University. This article was first published in The Japan Times on September 7, 2016.