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The silent sea: Australia’s refugee policy and international scrutiny

Within Australia’s brutal treatment of refugees, there has been an enormous gulf between those who advocate on behalf of asylum seekers, and a “mainstream” discourse of intolerant and cynical public opinion. Why has international civil society remained so silent?

Eleanor Davey
3 July 2014
Rally against Reza Berati’s death

Sydney rally against Reza Berati's death. Demotix/Richard Milnes. All rights reserved.

Many people outside of Australia will not know of the complex and long-standing system of mandatory detention that is at the foundation of its refugee policy. They will not be aware that thousands of people live in isolation and despair in immigration detention centres “onshore” in Australia and “offshore” in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. They will not know that this includes hundreds of children, that living conditions and medical care have been unequivocally inadequate, or that boats are physically dragged away from Australia to prevent those on board from claiming asylum.

It is possible that some outside of Australia learned something of the punitive form its refugee policy takes through the appalling events in an Australian detention centre in Papua New Guinea on 17 February, when 77 asylum seekers were injured and one person, a 23-year-old Iranian called Reza Barati, died from massive head trauma. These obscene and unacceptable events did make international headlines. But how many beyond Australian shores – those obsessively protected borders – have followed the intricacies of the reactions since: government stalling and confusion, obstacles put up in front of independent reviews, and the apparent collusion between authorities of different kinds in Papua New Guinea and Australia to manage what information will eventually be opened up to scrutiny?

Within Australia, the social marginalisation, ill-treatment, and character assassination of asylum seekers have been countered with important and dedicated work. There has also been some international criticism of the detention regime in place both onshore and offshore, notably from Amnesty International and from the United Nations offices for refugees and for human rights. But they are largely preaching to a domestic choir, and there is an enormous gulf between those who advocate on behalf of refugees or asylum seekers and the more “mainstream” debate. “Stopping the boats” has become the priority of both major political parties as they mine the depths of an ingrained, emotive, intolerant, and cynical streak of public opinion for their own electoral survival. It is a parochial and often ill-informed discussion.

It is saddening, therefore, that international humanitarian organisations have made few contributions to this debate. Where are the voices of those who make it their business to work against suffering and injustice? The websites of their Australian chapters, generous with stories about refugees in Asia or Africa, mostly ignore those who languish in Australian detention. A few scattered op-eds directed at a sympathetic domestic audience have not rocked the boat, and possibly were never meant to. Focused on drawing attention to crises abroad, and struggling no doubt in an insular political climate, humanitarian organisations have largely treated refugee policy as someone else’s domain.

These agencies might well consider the moral and intellectual dilemmas this stance raises. Why accept inaction at home on what you protest elsewhere? What good is it to be internationalist if it means neglecting those who need international protection precisely because they have ended up in your own backyard? Why not use a position of leadership to argue more forcefully, in the words of the head of World Vision Australia, that “we must confront our place in this complex global problem with fresh eyes”?

Of course, the immigration policies of many developed countries present similar challenges to humanitarian organisations, and a low profile does not mean agreement. And there have been exceptions to the silence: Amnesty Australia has been vocal and others, including Oxfam Australia with its Refugee Realities project of 2008-11, have also spoken out. Save the Children, which has worked in both Nauru and Manus Island, has expressed concerns about the detention of unaccompanied children and treatment by security personnel.

And yet for the most part, at least in terms of the way these questions are publicly discussed, those who support refugees and asylum seekers – lawyers, resource centres, and rights groups – have fought the fight alone.

This must be addressed if there is to be any hope of change. There are many obstacles to improving the treatment of asylum seekers in both official policy and public debate. But the weakness of international attention on Australia’s actions and the silence of key “international” players based in Australia are part of it. They are two sides of the same coin. Instead of helping to bring international moral pressure to bear on national authorities, they put the burden of advocacy onto organisations with less clout and smaller networks. Instead of offering new assets to a campaign for change, they allow the ideas and language used by politicians and the media when speaking about refugees to be driven by vested interests and rehearsed routines.

The lack of international scrutiny and the parochialism of public debate have meant that a violent death in detention was what it took to generate some interest – and even after that, few new voices of protest have been heard. Instead of an amplified criticism of a system of “sanctioned horror”, the status quo has been left to fester.

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