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Issue #1781      June 14, 2017


No one is illegal

In the last few years, there have been countless official reports that have exposed abuses and recommended the closure of centres on Nauru and Manus Island. In November 2014, the Australian Human Rights Commission’s National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention uncovered numerous reported incidents of assaults, sexual assaults and self-harm involving children.

Just some examples: March 2015, an independent review by Philip Moss uncovered allegations of sexual abuse by staff in the detention centre in Nauru; August 2015, the Senate Select Committee’s final report into conditions at Nauru recommended the immediate release into the Australian community of all children and their families detained in Nauru and in onshore detention facilities; June 2016, an independent report titled “Protection Denied, Abuse Condoned: Women at Risk on Nauru” reported that “women were being routinely abused, raped and doomed to spend the rest of their lives on a tiny island nation, often alongside the perpetrators”.

All of these reports were ignored by our politicians with the arrogance of history’s most callous rulers.

The Nauru files have been no different. When faced with the overwhelming evidence of systemic abuse, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull shifted responsibility to the Nauruan government and police force; Immigration Minister Peter Dutton called it “hype”, accusing the victims (including a man who died after setting fire to himself) of falsifying claims in order to get to Australia; and former Immigration Minister Scott Morrison referred to them as allegations rather than facts and talked of invented complaints.

This is an all too familiar approach of shifting responsibility, doubting claims, and blaming victims. Yet these desperate people have no other way of being heard and the number of reports is almost certainly an under-estimate of the number of real cases, because many victims will be too young or too scared to complain.

The offshore detention regime is part of a deterrence policy which the Australian government calls a “humanitarian” attempt to save lives at sea.

Yet at the same time as championing a “humanitarian” policy, Australian politicians have demonised asylum seekers, labelling them as “queue-jumpers”, “illegals” and “criminals”. Many see this bipolar public attitude towards people seeking asylum as a way of establishing the “necessary” cruelty of deterrence.

Despite the threat of offshore detention, boats have continued to arrive in Australian territorial waters. Indeed, the only effective way to stop boats arriving in Australian waters has been to physically stop them and return them to their point of disembarkation, “when it is safe to do so”. A refusal policy rather than a deterrence policy. However, this policy has also been criticised for breaking a number of international laws. Detention as a deterrence has failed and yet the Australian government has persisted with the camps in Nauru and Manus Island.

The United Nations’ special rapporteur on torture was scorned by former PM Tony Abbott when he raised concerns that Australia’s detention system was breaching the “Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment”.

Abbott stated that Australians are, “sick of being lectured to by the United Nations”, showing a complete disregard for international law and expectations. When the President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs, released her National Inquiry into Children in Detention, Abbott called the report a “political stitch-up”, accused Triggs of partisanship and actively sought her resignation.

Australia’s two-party system offers little in the way of hope. Offshore detention and deterrence is a bipartisan approach. Neither party offers asylum seekers or Australian voters an alternative to abuse. Both have been guilty of running the Nauru detention centre, both have been guilty of using demonising and misleading language to justify their actions and drum up suspicion towards “undocumented” arrivals.

Racism and prejudice are being whipped up by the extreme right whose aim is to shift the blame for the deepening economic crisis and growing unemployment onto migrants, immigration in general and specifically at the moment against those of Islamic faith.

In doing so they are trying to cover up the real perpetrators of today’s economic difficulties: the economic policies of successive governments as they have implemented the agenda of big business.

Fighting racism is a class issue and an urgent question for organised labour.

Next article – Solidarity with Turkish hunger-strikers

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