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Issue #1562      29 August 2012

A sickening policy

I recently paced a hospital ward reading The Poverty of Power, Barry Commoner’s biting critique of US energy politics (see review).

The hospital staff came from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Nepal, the United States, England, Ireland, Italy, Greece, the former Czechoslovakia and Vietnam – and probably others. I appreciated their unfailingly cheerful care, but during recovery I gritted my teeth watching TV coverage of our treatment of that other multinational group, the asylum seekers who arrive here unannounced in leaky boats.

These desperate people, a tiny proportion of Australia’s total annual immigration intake, want to follow the example of others, to live peacefully and contribute their skills, energy, culture and creativity to the nation.

But they now face mandatory indefinite off-shore detention, a cruel, unjust policy that won’t prevent their deaths at sea. Interviewed on TV recently, one asylum seeker detained in Indonesia said his children received no education at all. On that issue alone, they will still board the boats, seeking a brighter future for their kids.

As human rights advocate Julian Burnside has pointed out, in order to deter asylum seekers the government would have to make detention even harsher than in Indonesia and Malaysia.

That’s unthinkable, yet it’s the logical outcome of the government and opposition’s policies. It’s now questionable whether the government will continue to provide education services, given its determination to punish the long-suffering “boat people”.

And that’s not all. Under the Howard Government, rooms in the Nauru centre were suffocatingly overcrowded, with four people in each nine square metre room. But at least they had the run of the island.

That’s not the way it looks now. The government report on the necessary Nauru works, which was presumably based on a brief of the government’s intentions, assumes that detainees will be confined to the detention centre, without free access to the rest of the island.

The report notes with regard to utilising nine square metre rooms under the assumed conditions: “Experience … indicates that this [would create] increased client tensions quickly, resulting in non-compliant behaviour” (i.e. riots, suicides, self-harm).

Accordingly, the room sizes have been increased to 14 square metres, to accommodate two people. That’s better, but it’s still considerably smaller than a two-person hospital ward, and in any case the proposed change isn’t for humane considerations, it’s to avoid the government being embarrassed by “non-compliant behaviour”.

It looks as though the new detainees on Nauru will be penned up like battery chickens in the detention centre sites, just like they are on Christmas Island. The proposed reuse of the Nauru centre isn’t just “tough”, it’s really vindictive.

Wrong site, wrong decision

The old detention centre buildings in Nauru are in appalling condition. The main site is now occupied by government offices, a primary school, a women’s shelter and the Nauru Rehabilitation Corporation offices and greenhouse. All these residents’ activities would have to be relocated.

Only one of the detention centre buildings remains in reasonable condition. Some have been removed and the remainder need extensive repairs. The electricity generator has been removed and the drinking water supply is inadequate.

Only 250 people could be accommodated after a minimum 12 weeks work, or 500 after five months work, using skilled tradesmen brought in from Australia.

The estimated cost of the works necessary to accommodate 600 people is nearly $240 million, and $435 million for 1,500 people (i.e. $290,000 per person). The works would take over four years to complete.

The government and opposition have spurned Burnside’s recommendation that centres for processing asylum applications should be established in the transit countries, with the government giving applicants a guarantee that successful applicants would be taken to Australia.

A similar and highly successful scheme was adopted in the late 1970s by former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, who has condemned the revived Nauru “Pacific solution”. If implemented, Burnside’s scheme would abruptly halt the boat passage trade, save lives, reinstate Australia’s human rights reputation and avoid the current gross waste of funds on off-shore processing.

But the two main parties aren’t interested. The solution to the asylum seeker predicament certainly doesn’t lie with them.  

Next article – Book review – The Poverty of Power

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