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Letter from Australia to Britain: Trading in human misery - immigration and the "Malaysian solution"

Australia’s detention regime offers an ugly vision of where UK asylum policy may be headed

Everything is wrong with Australia’s asylum seeker policy and things are getting worse.  In 1992 legislation introducing mandatory detention was put in place and no government since has had the courage to repeal it. Prime Minister John Howard (1996-2007) mastered the art of convincing the populace of the need to maintain and extend the measure, in order to maintain his mantra: “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”.  In the interests of impenetrable borders, a malevolent detention regime was locked in place, brutalising men, women and children, often for many years. Most “boat people” were detained in remote desert or island locations and those fortunate enough to be approved as refugees were granted only a Temporary Protection Visa. Some even received bills for the cost of their detention.

In 2007 with a change to a Labor government, hopes were high among refugee advocates. The following year this new government revitalised some idealism and spoke with disdain about the inhumanity of the Howard government. Although mandatory detention remained resolutely in place, the government championed a new set of values that made detention look somewhat benign by convincing advocates that detention would be for short periods of time, children would not be locked up and people would be treated with dignity.

Ironically, the government seemed to believe its own rhetoric. But it did not factor in that boat arrivals would increase, that the media would be unrelenting in coverage and that a federal election would produce a hung parliament, terrifying government into acting as if the only way to maintain power was to manipulate populist sentiment.

Since the new regime, numbers of children in immigration detention have increased alarmingly.  According to the government they are not held in immigration detention centres, but in alternative places of detention, which signals that it’s acceptable to keep children and their parents locked in facilities where there is no freedom of movement, where the ability to access school is variable and where there is an absence of grassed and other areas for recreation and child-play. 

Men too are held in intolerable conditions, including a super-max prison facility on Christmas Island, 2,600 kilometres from the nearest Australian mainland city of Perth, or in the ever-expanding detention centres on disused military bases in remote mainland sites.  There are more than 6,000 men, women and children scattered throughout Australia in different forms of detention. The waiting times and the uncertainty are causing interminable suffering.

To add to the already grindingly slow claims-processing system, in 2010 the government, in the interests of deterrence, suspended the claims of Afghans and Sri Lankans for substantial time periods. The suspensions did not deter but served to increase both the delays and human misery.  

Predictably, when claims processes are slow people lose hope and trouble ensues. The government response to incidents in detention centres is to send in federal police armed with tear gas and bean-bag bullets, rather than to deal with the root cause of the problem.   And now a bill before the parliament aims to prevent the granting of a refugee visa to those convicted of a criminal offence while in detention. The government speaks of the ‘full force of the law’ and enacts this force at every opportunity. 

On her recent visit to Australia, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, pointed to the inhumane treatment of people judged by their differences in race, colour or religion. Racism that has been a feature of the Australian landscape since colonisation is clearly one factor in the equation of the way asylum seekers are treated and portrayed. There are other reasons that enable the government to act with voracity.

Border protection is sacrosanct in Australia and the way to maintain border integrity is to purvey fear to a gullible public. The events in New York on September 11th 2001 provided the justification for placing border security before human security. Government rhetoric on strong border protection combines with a criminalising discourse on asylum seekers to justify immigration detention, which lulls the citizenry of nation states into a sense of security with an uncritical analysis of the diminishment of the security of others.

The terms border security and border control have become integral components of the national lexicon. Once policy measures have been accepted in populist discourse, particularly the conflation of asylum seeking and terrorism and the enshrinement of the dictum of unworthiness, the way is paved for nations to violate human rights norms including those enshrined in United Nations instruments. Money is no object and dollars pour into both border security and detention programs. Invasion panic that has traditionally been attributed to attacks in war is now directed at the asylum seeker.

For a decade now I have visited immigration detention centres. I have seen faces of hope turn into faces of despair as weeks turn into months and often years. I have witnessed the mental anguish of men, women and children who do not know what the future will bring, and now those who are waiting to be shipped offshore are in the most dire situation of all.

Instead of portraying asylum seekers as a danger to society, we could take pride in our shared humanity. We can be honest in pointing out that it is perfectly legitimate to seek asylum in Australia and that our land of space and abundance benefits from the many cultures that asylum seekers bring to us. We can talk about our responsibility as good global citizens. And we can say that we don’t believe in mandatory detention as it is wrong, unnecessary, costly, and drives people crazy. There are no beneficiaries except those who deploy techniques of fear for political purposes and they still could lose an election.  And, most importantly, we should move our notion of security away from borders and threat to one of humanness that is centred on the rights of all peoples.

About the author

Linda Briskman is Professor of Human Rights at Swinburne University of Technology in Australia. She is currently a Visiting Professor at the Center for Ethics and History of Medicine at Tehran University of Medical Sciences.


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