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Australia and the boat people – the same descent into a dark place emerging worldwide

It is high time that we started to view the situation of immigrants and asylum seekers for what it is. A global, moral dilemma, not a numbers game or exercise in economic expediency. 

Nicola Hill
18 February 2014

Today, just eleven hours ahead of GMT, Australia offers the world a glimpse at the real human cost of toughening up on immigration policies. The nation woke to the news that one person has been killed and 77 injured in the second riot in as many nights at Australia’s controversial offshore refugee processing centre on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea. 

Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison, has been quick to absolve the government and those running the detention centres of any direct responsibility, explaining with an almost Orwellian tone: 'If you behave in an unruly way and in a disorderly way then you subject yourself to the response of law enforcement.'  He carried on to state that 'the extent and nature of the subsequent events and perimeter breaches is still being verified'. However, reports from those on the ground on the island itself, tell a different story. 

Systematic and brutal attacks

Local media and campaigning organisations have suggested that the escalation of violence was a result of the fences surrounding the compound being breached by the local PNG police who have been dealing with protests inside of the compound over the last few weeks.

Ian Ritoul, spokesman for the Refugee Action Coalition, told the Guardian Australia that 'no detainees have breached the perimeter unless it was in the context of fleeing the detention centre'. He said the fences had in actual fact been breached first by locals and PNG police, who were carrying out ‘systematic and brutal’ attacks on asylum seekers, injuring at least 50 people.

The Australian government has referred to last night's events as a ‘tragedy’ and ultimately placed the blame on the detainees themselves who  'decided to protest in a very violent way, to take themselves outside of the centre and place themselves at great risk.'

The return to the offshore processing of asylum seekers arriving by boat to Australia happened back in August 2012 and there are now thought to be at least 1,100 asylum seekers detained on Manus Island, all of whom are men who arrived alone or have been separated from their families.  

Last December, Amnesty International issued a report on the living conditions of these men following a scheduled inspection.  They reported that Australia is committing human rights violations by forcing asylum seekers to live in degrading, third world conditions whilst their cases are processed. Since the reopening of the centre in 2012 only one asylum seeker has been granted refugee status and the timeframe for decision-making or return to countries of origin of those remaining is currently unknown. 

Language matters

Asylum seekers landing or attempting to land on Australian shores by boat are normally nearing the end of a long and desperate journey and arrive severely malnourished, traumatised and warrant individual care and attention, not mere ‘processing’. However, in Australia the perverse semantic sterilisation of this vulnerable group of people, as 'boat people' has led to a distancing if not dehumanisation of the asylum seeker problem in Australia.

The Murdoch press and various governments have supported this misuse of language over time and the end result has been a mutilated public perception not only of who an asylum seeker, or ‘boat person’ is but also how they should be treated.

A ‘boat person’ is commonly construed as a menacing if not almost alien being, sent to invade sun-kissed and blessed Australia by sneaking in through the back-door of it’s extensive and vulnerable coastline in order to take advantage of the Government's supposed generous nature and 'soft-touch' on immigration.

This widely accepted narrative has led to the acceptance in Australia that a few human rights abuses are the price that the country has to pay in order to secure its jobs, economy and borders. And as of today, the death of at least one innocent man.

Escalation of events

In January, Indonesia took necessary defence precautions and accused Australia of embarking upon a ‘slippery slope’ with its boats policy as the navy was reported to be turning or nudging boat loads of asylum seekers back towards Indonesian waters, one of which was reported to have had ‘warning shots’ fired upon it by military personnel.

Shortly after this, a discovery was made that the Australian Government had been purchasing lifeboats to transfer asylum seekers from ‘unseaworthy vessels’ onto before forcing their return to Indonesian waters. 

This could have been laughable if it wasn’t true.  Like something out of a political satire, Australia, one of the world’s leading, largest growing economies like a big bully was not only nudging boats back in the direction of it’s poorer neighbour, but was providing extra boats to make sure they got there.  This leak was enough to warrant a return to wartime-like secrecy with Tony Abbott announcing a ‘closed book’ approach to international scrutiny on asylum seeker policy to save any future blushes.

These actions have uncovered and illustrated the clearly unfair, unjust, contrived and  unsportsmanly approach that the Australian Government is taking in order to win the numbers game of merely stopping the boats.  The lives of those people on board long since forgotten.

This seems even more incongruous in a country that thrives off its stories of boat landings, with a Prime Minister who himself arrived by boat, aged 2, to seek and make his Australian fortune.  But, immigration policy has become an increasingly favoured political weapon of successive governments.  Some may even go as far to say that it was the fervent and ironic 'stop the boats' campaigning of Tony Abbott that won him the election in 2013. 

What can we learn? 

It can often take a while for news to reach us from Australia, our carefree, good-natured, albeit sometimes backward antipodean cousin.  In the British media, Australia normally only hits the headlines during the Ashes season or when there is a shark attack. The rest of what happens out there is somewhat of a mystery. But these events are very real and happening right now.

Recent cuts in the UK Government’s spending now means that asylum seekers live in increasingly cramped conditions, such as those found at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, and have no right to legal aid or full healthcare for on-going medical and psychological conditions.  Asylum seekers rely increasingly on non-governmental organisations who through charitable donations are able to offer them help, advice, medical treatment and perhaps accommodation whilst they are awaiting return to their country of origin. The British government now simply deems them of ‘no recourse to public funds’.

It is high time that we started to view the situation of immigrants and asylum seekers for what it is. A global, moral dilemma, not a numbers game or exercise in economic expediency.

Leaving your home, family and country behind with no chance to say goodbye and nothing more than the clothes on your back is not something that anyone would ever undertake lightly or perhaps even consent to.  Only when staying behind would mean a life of persecution and constant fear can we begin to understand the reasons that lead someone to seek asylum, searching for the pathway to a safer, if not happier existence, not to Manus Island or Yarl’s Wood.

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