Australia is an island. The significance of this came home to me when I was talking to a friend who arrived here without papers. He explained to me how trapped he felt by our incongruous geography: ‘I am stuck, I can’t go anywhere.’ The distance from Melbourne to Sydney would be far enough to cross multiple borders in most places in the world, perhaps with tiny differences in policy or policing, but in Australia it only transports you through the unanimous conformity of our border regime. When I think about the incredible journey my friend made across the world to get here, this enforced listlessness seems particularly unjust. But listlessness, uncertainty, waiting, forms a calculated part of what we call Australia.
This article has been hard to write. Not for an absence of material, but for an abundance. In the last two decades that I have been involved in various campaign groups, cultural organisations or protests that have attempted to challenge Australia’s harsh border policies there has never been a greater global focus on the issue of asylum, yet the situation has never seemed quite so dire.
According to the United Nations (UN), the number of people seeking asylum worldwide now exceeds sixty-five million, a figure that for the first time eclipses the numbers of people displaced by World War II, the global crisis that produced the Refugee Convention.1 The conflicts in Syria, Somalia and Afghanistan are currently producing the largest flows of refugees, with many also fleeing persecution in Iraq, Sudan, Myanmar and Eritrea, amongst other places.
For over a decade both major parties in Australia have offered only one response to this ongoing, and accelerating crisis: Stop the Boats. We hear it so often it forms the background of our political lives. Bill Shorten, Malcolm Turnbull: Stop the Boats. War in Syria; Climate Change; Flagging Polls: Stop the Boats. This bipartisan mantra is so deeply embedded within the Australian psyche it has become a pathological condition. Stop the Boats is a cancer feeding on the Australian body politic, a malignant tumour that threatens to consume us. It is the naked racism of the White Australia Policy re-emerging from remission with virulent force, highlighting the untreated sickness of our colonial history.
Stop the Boats.
Some of the restrictions for onshore asylum seekers can seem bureaucratic, almost petty — like my friend not being allowed to work. But stretch these prohibitions indefinitely and they become more ominous. Enforced listlessness makes it hard to send money or support to your family, further fracturing relationships already tested by distance, it makes it hard to plan or think about the future, it reduces life to a process of isolation and waiting.
Stop the Boats.
I went to a BBQ a little while ago and a man asked if he could hold my daughter for a moment, and with good grace she gave him a hug. He explained his own child was roughly the same age and he just wanted to feel what it might be like to hold him again. This man is in community detention, a relatively good place to be compared to Manus Island or Nauru, yet my heart broke to imagine what it would be like to not know when you might hold your own child again.
Stop the Boats.
The discourse surrounding Australia’s asylum policies describes these policies as a ‘deterrent’. The armoury of border protection laws, from petty rules regarding work rights, to the extreme policies of mandatory detention, are designed to create a situation so unpleasant that they will stop people coming to Australia to seek asylum.
If we pause for a moment to consider what this means politically it becomes quite chilling. My friend, for example, is Hazara, a Shia Muslim. His family fled Afghanistan because of a systematic policy of torture and killing of the Hazara. They settled in Pakistan but the destabilisation along the border areas has meant increasing incursions and reprisals from the Taliban and other sectarian terrorist groups. Human Rights Watch has produced a dossier on the situation for Hazara in Pakistan entitled simply ‘We are the Walking Dead’. The report begins with a quote from a survivor of a bus attack in 2011:
They asked who the Sunnis were, asking for names. Then they told the Sunnis to run. We jumped and ran for our lives. … They made sure that the Shias stayed on the bus. Then they made them get out and opened fire.2
Last year I attended a protest against the beheading of seven Hazara in Afghanistan, including Shukria, a nine-year-old girl. Protesters blamed the Afghan government, the Taliban, but also neighbouring Pakistan for secretly inflaming Afghanistan’s extremist insurgency. Shukria’s brutal killing forms part of a pattern of terror, destabilizing the region for Hazara people making both Afghanistan and Pakistan intolerable places to live.
If detention is to be so bad as to be an effective deterrent for people such as my friend, then the atrocity of Australia’s detention policy will increasingly need to mirror that of its sworn enemies. To put this more bluntly, to be effective Australia’s border policies will need to be so draconian that they are worse than the terror and hopelessness instilled by ISIS, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and other terrorist groups, and their corrupt government supporters, that caused him to seek asylum in the first place.
Stop the Boats.
This may sound inflammatory and exaggerated; no one is being beheaded or shot in Australia’s detention centres, are they? Yet as the decades pass the brutality of Australia’s refugee policies continues to escalate. My friend came to Australia five years ago, he survived detention and is now in the community, he can’t legally work, has lost hope of seeing his family again and lives with the persistent fear he will be sent back to Afghanistan (a place he left as a baby), but he is here and building a life for himself. People who came after him have not made it to Australia at all.
Paul Stevenson is a trauma counsellor. He has worked in some extreme places and received the Order of Australia Medal for his work with people affected by the Bali Bombings. As part of his job he has made fourteen visits to Manus Island and Nauru to counsel people working as security guards within the camps. His description of life in detention is damning: ‘Every day is demoralising. Every single day and every night. … And it’s that demoralisation that is the paramount feature of offshore detention.’3
A recent article in The Guardian quotes from the incident log, provided to them by Stevenson, at Nauru; six boys, held without parents, tried to kill themselves en masse, using the same razor blade; one woman attempted to kill herself seven times in five weeks, threatened to kill her own daughter, and had to be sedated to stop her repeatedly bashing her head into the ground; a woman, in detention with her son, but facing permanent separation from her husband in Australia, carved his name into her chest with a razor because it ‘releases the feelings in my heart and I feel better’.4
Then there are the people who have died: Reza Berati, Ahmad Ali Jafari, Omid Masoumali, Hamid Kehazaei, amongst others. Some, such as Berati, were brutally murdered by the guards meant to watch over him. Others such as Jafari, whom I was lucky enough to meet in Villawood Detention Centre, was killed through appalling neglect, the guards failed to call an ambulance in time to save him from a heart attack.
Stop the Boats.
In the last decade anti-refugee policies have escalated to the point where murders, self-immolation, deaths from preventable ailments, sexual abuse, rape and mass suicides now blend into the regular news. If this intolerable cruelty has not stemmed the flow of refugees on a global scale, nor the flow of refugees hoping or actively trying to get to Australia, how much further do we need to go to provide an effective deterrent? Would the death penalty for refugees stop the boats?
If we have sufficient humanity to assume the above question is rhetorical, then we should have sufficient humanity to grant asylum to those needing it. A global order that granted this right first might be less willing to start wars, ignore the warning signs for climate change, profit from the global arms trade or provide covert support for extremist terror groups. A global order that agreed every person has the right to seek refuge from danger, regardless of religion or skin colour, might be more careful about throwing petrol on the fires of global injustice.
Close the camps, open the borders, let them stay.
Zanny Begg is an artist based in Sydney and a member of the art collective Undrawing the Line.
Peter Yeung, ‘Refugee crisis: Record 65 million people forced to flee homes, UN says’, The Independent, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/refugee-crisis-migrants-world-day-un-a7090986.html, (accessed 20 June 2016). ↩
Human Rights Watch, We Are The Walking Dead, https://www.hrw.org/report/2014/06/29/we-are-walking-dead/killings-shia- hazara-balochistan-pakistan, (accessed 21 June 2016). ↩
Ben Doherty and David Marr, ‘The worst I’ve seen — trauma expert lifts lid on “atrocity” of Australia’s detention regime’, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2016/jun/20/the-worst-ive-seen-trauma-expert-lifts-lid-on-atrocity-of-australias-detention-regime?utm_source=esp& utmmedium=Email&utm_ vcampaign=GU+Today+ main+NEW+H+categories& utm_term=178157&subid=7703609 &CMP=EMCNEWEML6619I2, (accessed 20 June 2016). ↩