About a week about I wrote this With a heavy heart and much sadness about the horrific situation in the offshore detention camps set up by the Australian Government to process and deter refugees and asylum seekers from arriving in Australian waters by boat. I honestly didn’t that things could get any worse. It would seem I was wrong. The more I read, see and hear about the conditions that our government has overseen with the mandatory offshore detention policy the more I am horrified. More and more there are stories of horror coming out of Manus and Nauru. One of the whistleblowers Trauma Specialist Pau Stevenson describes the trauma he was treating in the camps as the worst he has ever seen, worse that the Boxing Day Tsunami or Bali Bombings.
The government has announced the camps will close but not when or what they will do with all the people who are currently there. With the overwhelming majority of asylum seekers being processed and proven to be genuine we then leave them to rot in what can best be described as modern day gulags or absolute hell on earth.
I have often wondered how the institutionalised abuses to children could have gone on for so long but now I am not sure I wonder anymore. It is because good people, people who knew and could protect the children didn’t. They buried their heads in the sand, pretended it wasn’t happening, stood by and did nothing. That is what seems to be happening now. It doesn’t affect me or mine so I can ignore it. One day we simply won’t be able to ignore it, one day future governments will be standing up and apologising for the actions of past governments. The thing is sorry means nothing if there is no intent to change.
Here is an image of a small boy rescued from airstrikes in Syria the same airstrikes took the life of his brother. What parent wouldn’t want to flee this situation, what parent wouldn’t try to protect their children from war.When did we stop seeing people fleeing circumstances that I can only imagine? Why is it that the overwhelming emotion the country is running on is fear? Surely our government understands that what is happening in the offshore detention centres being run on the behalf of the Australian Nation is beyond abhorrent and that if it was happening to Australian citizens there would be outcry! When did we as a people become so desensitised to these kinds of state sanctioned abuse that we stand by and do nothing? How can we not see the refugees as people who are fleeing horrors the majority of our people would be lucky to see on the news. Why do we not care anymore? Once upon a time we stood up for things that mattered but it seems that now we stand for what the media tells us and that overwhelmingly appears to be fear.
The truth is that Australia as a nation has a dirty little secret. It is very hard to admit but pretty much since Europeans came to Australia through invasion/colonisation our government policies regarding migration have been incredibly skewed towards White European, preferably English speaking, and preferably of Christian background. The Immigration Policies from 1901-1945 that collectively coined the term White Australia Policy were also the basis of the South African Apartheid Movement. The overwhelming racial heritage of the Australian population is White European currently representing over 75% of the population, down from approx 95% at its highest. Australia has never had an Indigenous population that has outnumbered the White Europeans except at the time of invasion. The fundamental truth is that Australia throughout history right up to now has a horrendous track record for the treatment of anyone who doesn’t fit within the nice, neat little package we want the world to see.
Because I am a nut for history it makes sense to me to go back to the beginning.
1788 – The British invaded Australia and began the process of colonisation.
1831 – 43yrs after the First Fleet, assisted migration began. Predominantly these were women (to come as potential wives and child bearers because there was a huge shortage of free women) skilled workers who were desperate for any sort of new life struggling to adjust in a post industrialised farming in England and families of the convicts already here. Others followed including German Lutherans who came to Australia looking for religious freedom and better economic opportunities.
During the 1860-1880s – Many Chinese settlers come to Australia to take advantage of the Gold Rush tensions start to rise and continue through until 1888 when all the Premiers (except Tas) agree to restrict further Chinese immigrants.
1901 – One of the first pieces of legislation enacted by the new Federated Australia is the Immigration Restriction Act 1901. In short a dictation test was introduced to prevent ‘non-whites’ from entering Australia and these laws form the legal foundation of the White Australia Policy (that would later become the basis that South Africa built their Apartheid policies on!)
During the War Years (WWI & WWII) & the Depression – Hundreds of thousands are given assistance to come to Australia. German Jews fleeing persecution are also admitted. During the wars immigrants considered aliens or even enemy aliens were required to register with authorities and in some cases interned in camps until the end of the war.
1945 – Embark on the ambitious program of ‘Populate or Perish’. British migration again especially encouraged.
1950 – Immigration Minister Harold Holt allows 800 non European war refugees to remain in Australia. Australia enters into assisted migration schemes with various European countries and the US. This is the period of the 10 pound pom.
1958 – Revised Migration Act introduces a simpler system of entry and the Dictation Test was abolished.
1966 – Holt government announces that future migration will be based upon their suitability, ability to readily integrate and whether their skills are of use to Australia. This is the beginning of the end of the White Australia Policy.
1972 – Whitlam government formally abolishes White Australia Policy.
1975 – Racial Discrimination Act introduced.
1976-82 – The beginning of the use of the term ‘boat people’ with approx 2000 refugees arriving from Vietnam directly by boat. PM Fraser allows the resettlement of over 200,000 refugees whose claims have been processed in Malaysia, Hong Kong & Thailand.
1989 – ‘Second Wave’ boat people begins with about 300 people arriving by boat each year mostly from Cambodia, Vietnam & Sthn China.
1992 – Keating government introduces a change of policy with mandatory detention for all people arriving without a valid visa and an end to the maximum amount of time a person can spend in detention from 273 days to unlimited.
1999 – ‘Third wave’ asylum seekers start to arrive predominantly from the Middle East and often assisted by people smugglers.
2001 – The turning point in current immigration policy. Howard government denies permission for MV Tampa to enter Australian waters (trying to excise Christmas Island from the migration zone in a late sitting of parliament). Sparks International Condemnation, and prompts the development of the Pacific Solution, formerly excised outlying islands from the Australian Migration zone (but keeping them in the economic zone!) This means that asylum seekers can no longer automatically apply for an Australian Visa, boat arrivals are now either returned to Indonesia, processed on Christmas Island or the new processing centres on Manus Island (PNG) or the island nation of Nauru. This primarily means that the asylum seekers can now be dealt with outside of Australian Law. Howard government also oversaw the introduction of the Temporary Protection Visas.
2008 – Rudd government announces the closure of Manus & Nauru with anyone now arriving by boat to be processed at Christmas Island.
2012 – in excess of 5000 boat people arrive in Australia predominantly from Iraq, Afghanistan & Sri Lanka. Gillard government announces the reopening of Manus Island and Nauru.
2013 – 66 Sri Lankan asylum seekers reach the Australian mainland, this prompts the removal of the Australian mainland from the official migration zone
As can be seen European settlers in Australia have always had a sense of that they will decide who will and won’t come to Australia. There has always right from the beginning been a feeling that European (white man) is better than those who couldn’t or didn’t speak English. When the early settlers started to explore the land past Sydney Cove, there has always been an innate need to civilise the Indigenous communities to assimilate them into white society. Violent clashes between Europeans and the Indigenous people were not uncommon. Europeans felt that they could “breed” the colour out of the Indigenous people.
There was a short period during the Gold Rush (1860-1880s) that migration from China wasn’t opposed. Chinese migration was restricted in 1888, with further major restrictions to come in 1901 with the Immigration Restriction Act being one of the first pieces of legislation passed by the newly Federalised nation. This was really just a formalisation of the already quite racist policies of the then State Governments.
Subsequently, Australia has had a policy where anyone without a valid visa that there was the option of detention by the Immigration Department until either a visa was sorted out, forced deportation could be arranged or voluntary returning to their home country. This detention had a limit of 273 days. Prior to the 1992 changes detention was discretionary. In 1992 under the Keating government the policy was changed to include mandatory detention for all who do not hold an appropriate visa and the limit of 273 days was removed to be that people can be held for an unlimited amount of time. The changes to the Migration Act in 1992 were in response to the “wave” of arrivals between 1989 and 1994 predominantly from Cambodia and predominantly by boat.
In 1996 under the Howard government temporary protection visas were introduced. These were only issued to recognised refugees but in a sense were a cruel and unusual way to allow people to stay in Australia. A ‘TPV’ meant that a refugee was allowed out of detention. However, TPV recipients have no family reunion rights and no right to re-enter the country if they decide to depart Australia. TPV holders did not have the right to work. They had limited access to Special Benefit, Rent Assistance, Family Tax Benefit, Child Care Benefit, Medicare. Early Health Assessment and Intervention Program, torture and trauma counselling, and English as a Second Language classes were accessible by TPV minors only. The real kicker was that they had to reapply every 3 years for a review of their TPV, which meant that should it be deemed by the Australian government there was no longer a risk to them in their homeland, their TPV would be denied and they would be deported. There was little to no security for the TPV holders.
[W]e are a generous open hearted people taking more refugees on a per capita basis than any nation except Canada, we have a proud record of welcoming people from 140 different nations. But we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come… We will be compassionate, we will save lives, we will care for people but we will decide and nobody else who comes to this country.
— Prime Minister John Howard, 28 October 2001
This brings up to the introduction of the Pacific Solution with the outer lying islands around Australia (and the Australian mainland itself as well) excised from the migration zone and the opening of offshore processing centres on Christmas Island, Manus and Nauru. The reasons for the excising was that previously the country that you made land to you could apply for asylum to. By excising the outlying islands and the Australian mainland meant that a person would be automatically sent off-shore. These centres meant that no-one arriving via boat would be processed under Australian Law.
There have been many legal challenges to these processing centres but somehow they have been declared legal under Australian Law. They have however, brought international condemnation and there has been considerable attention to Australia’s Human Rights Obligations under the Human Rights Convention that we are a signatory to. We have even had New Zealand offer to take the refugees from Nauru and Manus but the Australian government insists that this is not an option because it could be used as a backdoor to come to Australia!
With the Nauru Files coming to light and more and more whistleblowers willing to talk about the horrors in the processing centres I suspect there will be far greater challenges to come.
It makes me so sad deep within my heart that we as a nation can sit by and continue to support the government that has essentially sanctioned this treatment.
Our government doesn’t even appear to be able to follow through on its promises to assist in the humanitarian resettlement of Syrian refugees announced in September 2015 by the then Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Canada has resettled nearly all of their 25,000 in the same time frame. Meanwhile the International Refugee Council is accusing Australia of cherry picking refugees, and still no action. In early May 2016, we had accepted approximately 1400 Syrian refugees out of the 12,000 we promised we would take. It is hardly fast action!
I am not purporting to have the answers but what I do demand of our government is that regardless of how people arrive in Australia, what colour their skin is, what language they speak or what religion they follow that they are treated as humans first! Perhaps there would be less disenfranchisement if we embraced people differences and all. Perhaps if we stop and listen to the stories of why and how they arrived we might as a nation have more understanding of what they are fleeing. I don’t imagine anyone gets on a leaky boat on a whim. Australia wants the world to think that we are a wonderful, welcoming, friendly nation. The truth is it is a lot like a domestic violence relationship on the surface we look welcoming and happy but scratch on the surface and it tells a very different story. The way we treat asylum seekers, youths in detention, our own Indigenous population it really is the dirty little secret that no-one wants to talk about. I think it is time to bring this out of the shadows and have the conversation regardless of how uncomfortable it makes us.
I make no apologies that this is long. I hope you read it all the way through. Sorry there are no pretty pictures but that is because there are no pretty pictures in war. Wars that we have had a big part in creating. ISIL can trace its direct origins to the fall of Sadam Hussein. The Taliban at one point were armed by the US in the cold war against USSR, now they are the enemy. Many of the horrors that people flee around the world are situations that in part have been created by the West. It is time we did more. #wemustdomore
Here are some links to further reading on this: