CJ Werleman explores what it will take to shift the Australian Government’s controversial policy of sending refugees from Asia and the Middle East to offshore detention facilities.
In the first week following the Conservative Government’s shock win in Australia’s federal election in May, at least 10 refugees held on one of the country’s notorious offshore detention facilities – Manus Island – attempted suicide or committed self-harm. There have been another 60 incidents since.
Yesterday, as I spoke with Behrouz Boochani, an Iranian-Kurdish journalist who has been detained on Manus since 2013, another refugee doused himself in petrol and threatened to set himself alight before guards intervened.
“Everyday we wake up to news like this. Since the election, at least 70 people have attempted suicide or self-harm,” Boochani told me. “After the election result, people here have lost hope, and they think they have no other choice but to take their own lives.
“Right now, as I’m talking to you, there are at least eight people who tried to commit suicide in isolation, and there are many people in hospitals in Port Moresby.”
When you keep innocent people in indefinite detention for six years and deprive them of medical treatment, it’s natural for people to lose hope and then choose to harm themselves.Behrouz Boochani
More than 300 asylum seekers remain on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island, alongside another several hundred who remain detained on Nauru.
They are victims of the Australian Conservative Government’s ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’, a military plan designed to turn back asylum seeker boats. The Government boasts of the scheme’s success, despite providing almost zero evidence for this, and stubbornly refuses to be transparent with regards to how the operation is being carried out.
Therefore, while the Government brags about the fact that there have been fewer boat arrivals since the policy was put in place in 2013, it refuses to mention how many have been drowned at sea, and/or what fate has befallen those who have been turned back to their points of origin in Asia and the Middle East.
The key words in the previous paragraph are the last five: Asia and the Middle East. The overwhelming majority of the more than 3,000 asylum seekers who have been sent to Manus Island and Nauru are fleeing conflict, violence and persecution from within Muslim majority countries, or countries where Muslims are being ethnically cleansed.
Essentially, the policy is entirely political, one designed to demonstrate to Australian voters that it’s keeping the country “safe” by denying sanctuary to Muslim refugees – a reality emphasised by the fact that no such military operation or Manus Island equivalent has been put in place for the tens of thousands of Brits, Canadians, Europeans, and Americans who arrive in the country by plane and then overstay their visas, remaining there permanently and “illegally”.
With accounts of mass suicide attempts hitting the news, however, the Government is facing pressure like never before to comply with international law and ditch the lip service it routinely gives to the sanctity of human rights.
“We are human,” says Boochani. “When you keep innocent people in indefinite detention for six years and deprive them of medical treatment, it’s natural for people to lose hope and then choose to harm themselves.
“I am really concerned with the current situation because there’s no guarantee or plan in place, and if the Government continues this policy, more people will soon die.”
Both Amnesty International and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees have published reports on Australia’s cruel mistreatment of asylum boat refugees – condemning both the policy that supports it and the conditions on Manus Island and Nauru – with Amnesty labelling both a “human rights catastrophe”.
In 2016, a leak of the ‘Nauru Files’ were published by the Guardian, detailing 2,116 incident reports of “assaults, sexual abuse, self-harm attempts, child abuse and living conditions endured by asylum seekers held by the Australian Government, painting a picture of routine dysfunction and cruelty”, with more than half of the incidents involving children despite the fact that only 18% of Nauru’s detainees are under 18.
After the election result, people here have lost hope, and they think they have no other choice but to take their own lives.Behrouz Boochani
The Conservative Government, however, casually and callously dismissed the leaked files as mere media “hype”.
For the government to change its policy course, there’ll first need to be a mindset shift among Australian voters, given that more than 50% have expressed opposition to the resettlement of asylum boat refugees on Australian soil, largely because the Conservative Coalition has spent the past nearly two decades portraying Muslims as both a security threat and a cost burden to taxpayers.
To the first point, these Muslim asylum seekers have risked their lives by sailing across the ocean on rickety boats to flee violence and persecution at the hands of extremist groups such as ISIL and the Taliban, or from hyper-sectarian regimes in Iran, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere. They come to Australia to find shelter and peace, not for the very kind of violence and discrimination they’ve fled.
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Moreover, homegrown recruits, not refugees, are responsible for the lion’s share of the two dozen or so “jihadist” attacks carried out in Western countries during the past decade.
Australia’s most recent census shows that nearly one in five humanitarian migrants go on to launch their own business, which not only provides more job opportunities for the country as a whole, but also adds great benefit to the economy – a reality underscored by the fact that 8,500 refugees report more than A$150 million each year from their unincorporated businesses, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
While the Government brags about the fact that there have been fewer boat arrivals since the policy was put in place in 2013, it refuses to mention how many have been drowned at sea.
When the majority of the public comes to view asylum seekers as human beings who seek nothing more than freedom from want and fear – and not the subversion of Australian culture as falsely claimed by xenophobic political propaganda – then the Government will be forced to finally put an end to what has been one of the most shameful chapters in the country’s not so shameless history.
Until then, hundreds of the world’s most vulnerable people – refugees – will choose to end their own lives on a small South Pacific island, rather than leave themselves in the hands of those who have only dished out unconscionable cruelty.