It is worth looking at the terms of the Memorandum of Understanding between Australia and Papua New Guinea.
It sets the frame-work for the humanitarian horrors which are unfolding there.
Bear in mind: the MOU makes it clear that the purpose of the whole exercise is to combat people smugglers by making an example of the people held on Manus. When government Ministers say they are worried about people drowning, don’t believe them: they are using the survivors as hostages.
If they were genuinely worried about people drowning, they would treat the survivors decently, but there’s no trace of that: not in the MOU and not in the way it is playing out: inadequate medical care; refugees had to queue 7 hours today to get fed.
Just for a moment, imagine that the refugees held on Manus are German Jews, late 1930s: is our treatment of them ethically acceptable?
Here’s the MOU: notice there is no promise they will be treated decently.
I have recently read two new books about Australia’s policy in relation to boat people.
They are both excellent, they both contain a lot of facts which need to be understood, and they both deserve to be widely read.
Claire Higgins’ recent book Asylum By Boat, is published by UNSW Press. It is a very good history of boat arrivals since the Fraser years. It paints a remarkable contrast between the resolute generosity of Australia’s treatment of boat people escaping Vietnam and Australia’s current response to boat people. It explains how the policy shifted over time, and how (back in the late 1970s) the government persuaded the public that mistreating asylum seekers was unthinkable.
Tony Ward’s recent book Bridging Troubled Waters is published by Australian Scholarly Publishing. It is an excellent account of Australia and asylum seekers. It is very rich in facts and it has a number of very useful graphs and tables. It is superbly researched. It discusses Australia’s various manoeuvres designed to avoid its humanitarian obligations and (of particular interest) it notes in passing that asylum seekers who arrive by air (with visas for tourism, study etc) have outnumbered boat people in all but one of the past 20 years. And yet “aeroplane people” are not given a hard time, are not vilified and are not detained, even though they are far less likely to be assessed as refugees than “boat people” are.
On Thursday 16 November, Kate Durham will speak at the opening of the Home exhibition at the Walker St Gallery in Dandenong. It includes works by Zia Atahi, Renee Dixson, Mahla Karimian, Pierre Mukeba and Zakiria Tahirian
Kate spoke at the opening of the Dandenong Annual Art Prize in 2015.
Dandenong Annual Arts Prize
Dear Dandenong, Defiant Dandenong, look at you, how you’ve grown. I remember you, but not like this. Dandenong you are like a council of nations. Here in this intricate city is an Ark, as if from the bible, representatives of every breed, clan or culture are assembled here, a gathering has taken place, Moses would be pleased. What did this city know of the bewildering displacement, the loss of art and cultivation, the self-expression or the needs of the people of the world? Or how to welcome their tentative steps towards a cautious resettlement, in an often hostile terrain?
What is the purpose of the shelter, the vessel, the shield you have made here? The purpose is a very human one: to allow people to represent and to reproduce themselves, and their lives; to find passage to future generations, to stretch their allotted time and space on this ground, to leave the sea of turmoil. Like those animals in the Ark, people seek, if not deliverance from a place of evil, then a place to stay, the way a creature needs a habitat.
The people of the well-named Greater Dandenong recognised as an opportunity, other’s need to find a resolution to the search, a nest, a home, a full stop. With them, they also knew those exotic people would bring their freight of ancestry, their knowledge,,, their joke-bags, their grievance and losses, fears and expectations.
Their great enterprise will be to flourish, but also to pass on an indefinable essence, to pass it on, and to pass it on. Like the game Pass The Parcel: here is my gift, it may get smaller, but keep it, please keep it.
I’m picturing Dandenong, twenty years from now. Take yourself there now, on a little mental voyage. You may discover, that for the first time in a long while, white people, and certainly white females like me, even with the price of a ticket, can no longer travel to more than a quarter of the world’s surface, its prohibited or at least risky. White people are astonished, they have been the ones fussing over, visas, tickets and border control . We, no longer rule the world. we start to experience ostracism, mistrust and boundaries, like those immigrants only a generation ago.
The travel Industry, has not shut down, a vast commercial machine like that won’t rest or die, it will simply restrict or invent our horizons in a manner that suits its business model. They are already doing it. Travel is re-focussing, its offering has changed. In the 70’s the idea was to experience otherness, other cultures, other vistas. Nowadays its imperative to experience more about YOU. You, trekking, you on a mountain. you, snorkelling, you chilling on a beach, any beach. You taking a short trip around Europe within the sanitary and speedy confines of an ersatz Las Vegas: Disneyland for grown-ups, time – poor and afraid of anything but the highlights…
Some of you and some of these artists will remain here in Dandenong. Most of you will possess far more than highlights, you will have the fine grain, the memory, the advice of your former politics and parents. You will have a culture that is not thin, not dilute, but strengthened by its hybridity. Dandenong will be well known for its cultural curiosity and learning.
The artists in this show have something in common, mostly their otherness. In the future, artists like Valamanesh will not have such close, direct insight into Islamic Art and its cosmic gaze, but they’ll have this artist to guide them so the past won’t be so misunderstood. I’ve followed this artist for a while, admiring his cool austerity and wit.
I also know and have desired artworks by Guan Wei, also witty, with an out-sider’s idiosyncratic eye in relation to Australia.
Rhubaba Haider’s work spoke immediately to me of her feminine Hazara heritage. She has morphed that knowledge into something strong yet fragile and contemporary, and philosophical. Whilst retaining a great deal of typical Hazara woman’s discipline and personal restraint.
Khaled Sabsabi”s work turns like a Dervish on Sufi themes, that strange metaphysical branch of Islam which is becoming endangered. Thank you Khaled for preserving it.
Gosia Wlodarczak’s unsettled lines following and chasing life, restless and unfixable, charting her relationship to objects. She makes a cartographic record over time and space.
Kosar Majani’s work is highly symbolic and resonant. It speaks of unrelenting rituals and repetitions that we’ve never known or encountered, in our young country.
20 years from now we may find ourselves grateful that Greater Dandenong ignored the ”Team Australia“ slogans of some of the worst leadership known in this country. That Prime Minister tried to frighten us about the living and cultural aspirations of others, demanding to know whose side we were on, challenging us to mistrust foreigners or the unfamiliar.
Fortunately we barely remember that Prime Minister, he left no relics or artefacts. Unlike these artists who have joined us in a gathering just like this to fill this once slight and shallow space with all our lives, heredity, children, art, adventures and exploration on the vast subject of US and WE. Not THEM or THEY.
Thank you Dandenong, dear Dandenong: you are the Ark. Pass it on, pass it on.
The refugees on Manus have written a letter to some of the leaders of the free world (I have corrected a few spelling mistakes):
To the Honourable: President Donald Trump,
Prime Ministers Jacinda Ardern and Justin Trudeau and also humanitarian people of those countries
We, refugees and asylum seekers in Manus Island detention, are writing to you to explain our terrible condition and also our request. The condition in here is out of humanity. Australian government cut food , water and electricity for 5 days. They also cut toilets and everything for around one month. There is no medical clinic in here if something happened for us. We are refugees or asylum seekers and we are not criminals. Even criminal have the right for food and water. This type of torturing is new and Australian government have been torturing us in many ways for more than 4 years. Crime against humanity have been exactly happening in here. To sum up, President Trump, our processing for the USA is running. We want you to please notice some genuine refugees have detained in here. We have no any other choices except for remaining in here. We also ask from Prime Ministers Jacinda Ardern and Justin Trudeau to help us. We are skilled or educated from University. We can participate in the way that your countries are heading.
Please help us as much you can. We are in critical condition right now.
We are looking forward to hearing from you.
Detainees in Manus Island
5th of November 2017
– All humanitarian people all over the world.
An open letter to the Prime Minister of New Zealand. Join in: to sign the letter, email here, to show your support
6 November 2017
Rt Hon Jacinda Ardern Prime Minister Private Bag 18888 Parliament Buildings Wellington 6160 New Zealand
Dear Prime Minister
Warm congratulations on your election as New Zealand’s new Prime Minister.
We are writing to call upon the New Zealand Government to intervene in the entirely preventable humanitarian disaster unfolding on Manus Island.
We applaud your Government for renewing New Zealand’s previous offer to resettle 150 refugees from Manus Island and Nauru. We are aware that on Sunday the Australian Prime Minister, Mr Turnbull, refused your renewed offer at this stage. This is not acceptable. The men who have languished in Papua New Guinea for over four years need urgent access to a durable solution.
We urge you to actively pursue negotiations with the Papua New Guinean Government and the UNHCR Regional Representative to resettle as many of the men from Manus Island as soon as possible.
We acknowledge, with regret, the unfortunate necessity of writing to you to request that New Zealand step in to resolve this crisis when it is so clearly an Australian responsibility. We believe, however, that the moral leadership New Zealand can take on this issue will increase the pressure on the Australian Government to work with resettlement countries to resolve the current crisis. We will do all in our power to assist you.
In the spirit of international cooperation and humanity, thank you for considering this letter.
Paul Barratt AO Former Secretary, Department of Defence
Dr Margaret Beavis MBBS FRACGP MPH Immediate Past President, Medical Association for Prevention of War (Australia)
Dr Alison Broinowski Writer and former Australian diplomat
Scott Cosgriff Chair, National Committee, Australian Lawyers for Human Rights
John Falzon (TBC) CEO, National Council, St Vincent de Paul Society
Andrew Farran International lawyer
Michael Hamel-Green Emeritus Professor, Victoria University Melbourne
Marion Le AM Registered Migration Agent; specialist in International Law and Refugee Resettlement
Rebecca Minty Human Rights lawyer
Kellie Tranter Lawyer and human rights activist
Dr Sue Wareham OAM President, Medical Association for Prevention of War (Australia)
Matthew Zagor Associate Professor, Director of Law Reform and Social Justice, ANU College of Law
Julian Burnside AO QC Barrister
Doctors For Refugees have written a very well-considered letter to Federal MPs, concerning the crisis on Manus. It captures the problem very well:
Immediate action required to prevent humanitarian catastrophe on Manus Island
As you know, a major humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding on Manus Island. Six hundred male refugees and asylum seekers are occupying the former Regional Processing Centre (RPC). Outside sits the PNG Defence Force, which is preventing food supplies, purchased by well-wishers, from entering the facility. The men have been told to move to three locations in or near the regional capital, East Lorengau. Two of these are not ready for habitation. All three are insecure and these men have legitimate fears for their own safety. PNG locals have demonstrated their opposition to the move to the town in the last week with a vocal protest outside the centre and the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary Police Commissioner, Gari Baki, stated in a media release in late October 2017 that the safety of refugees is ‘not to be taken for granted given the tensions that are being expressed by the locals on Manus Island’. Paradoxically, the former RPC, with no access to food, clean water, sanitation, electricity or adequate medical care is currently the ‘safest’ place for these men to be.
However, the former RPC is not safe. These men have now been without access to the fundamentals necessary for life for over six days. In PNG’s tropical climate we must expect that serious consequences will start to occur this week. We can expect severe skin and respiratory infections, dysentery, malaria and other illnesses to start to take hold. If no action is taken immediately to alleviate this situation, we can expect deaths to start occurring very soon.
On the evening of 4th November 2017 a man with a suspected heart attack in the former RPC sought assistance in Lorengau Hospital. This man was discharged from the facility without having an ECG or blood tests and returned to the former RPC. Thirty six hours later these essential investigations still had not been performed. With this level of medical support, it seems there is little hope for any refugee who becomes seriously unwell on Manus Island, whether they are in the former RPC or relocated to East Lorengau.
If the situation deteriorates further and the PNG Defence Force decides to clear the centre then there is a risk of many deaths through violent action. This is a military force which has demonstrated tremendous antipathy to the refugees, which fired indiscriminately into the RPC causing multiple injuries earlier this year and which has no training in crowd control.
This situation is a direct consequence of the Australian government’s arbitrary, indefinite incarceration of hundreds of innocent men in a hostile environment on a remote island in a poor country, unequipped in all respects to look after them. It must finally take adequate responsibility for the welfare of these men. The duplicity of the Australian government in this matter is eye-watering. On the one hand, the representations of Doctors for Refugees and others about the welfare of these men are referred on by the Australian government as ‘a matter for the PNG government’. On the other hand, we hear that Prime Minister Turnbull has once again turned down the New Zealand government’s offer to shelter some of these men. If the Australian government can dictate what happens to them then it is evidently responsible for their welfare and in fact PNG Immigration Minister, Petrus Thomas, explicitly stated last week that Australia will remain responsible for the welfare of these men when the Australian-funded centre closes. All pretence to the contrary must now stop.
Amnesty International and the UNHCR have been condemning the detention and conditions of these men for years and this was first termed a situation amounting to torture over two years ago. Today, things are exponentially worse and we reiterate: we are heading for many deaths in the coming days and weeks unless urgent action is taken by Australia. Action to alleviate these men’s situation needs to be taken today to prevent deaths. As a start, they need food and water today.
You, as an Australian parliamentarian, must realise that at stake are these men’s lives and Australia’s international reputation as a Western democratic nation and that only you hold the power to influence the situation. Whether by your action or inaction to date it is you who is directly responsible for what is happening. If you do not act now, by speaking, lobbying and voting appropriately then whatever happens to these men will be on your conscience.
For the sake of humanity and compassion we urge you to act immediately. The world is watching you.
Dr David Berger, Executive Committee Member
Dr Barri Phatarfod, President
Dr Paddy McLisky, Secretary
Dr Igal Augarten, Treasurer
Doctors for Refugees
 HLRC 27th August 2017
 PNG Constabulary Media Release October 2017
 ABC 17th April 2017
 ABC 5th November 2017
 Reuters 30th October 2017
 Guardian 9th March 2015
This touching, truthful message is from a refugee suffering on Manus.
How can we be so miserable to a tiny group of people? Our politicians have persuaded us to forget the most basic thing: These people are human beings – they need our help.
I don’t normally pass on messages from politicians, but this one from Adam Bandt is an exception:
As we bear witness to the horror that is unfolding on Manus, we cannot be bystanders.
If we are silent, we are complicit. If we turn away, we are complicit. We cannot ignore the atrocities committed by Peter Dutton and Malcolm Turnbull in our name. These callous men must know that there is fierce, widespread opposition to their barbaric regime. As this crisis deepens, the most important time to stand up is now. Will you join me at an emergency rally tomorrow in Melbourne, calling for the immediate evacuation of the men stuck on Manus?
WHAT: Emergency Rally for the Men on Manus Island
WHERE: State Library of Victoria
WHEN: Tomorrow, 4th of November
This week, I am ashamed to be Australian. The hypocrisy that Australia can be on the UN Human Rights council whilst at the same time willfully disregarding the human rights of the men on Manus is disgraceful. That this is happening under our watch shakes me to my core.
It is inconceivable that our Prime Minister can wield the power of the state to inflict torture on innocent people, cutting off food, water and electricity for 600 people under our care. We must stand against him. Join me tomorrow as we occupy the streets of Melbourne’s CBD to send a message the government can’t ignore.
A national tragedy is happening before our eyes. It is disturbing that the Labor party, who started the Manus camp and put people there, are working with the Liberals to deflect attention away from this crisis.
Our major parties are knowingly, and in full view of the international community, attempting to destroy the lives of innocent human beings that need our help. Tell them that this is unacceptable.
Julian, when we look back on this time in Australian history, we will be deeply ashamed. Make sure you are on the right side of history. Make sure that when the next generation asks you what you did when this was happening, you can answer them with pride.
Stand with me tomorrow at the emergency rally in the city. Be counted.
P.S Can’t make it tomorrow? Forward this email to five friends and ask them to stand with you.
Here is a Facebook message from Behrouz Boochani, posted about 4 hours ago:
The situation is getting worse in Manus prison camp. The bodies are getting weak and people are developing physical problems. The refugees collected some more water in rubbish bins from a big tropical rain storm yesterday, and they are also using water from a hole that they dug in Oscar coupound. This water is not clean enough for people to drink, but they are boiling it on a small fire so it can be used. Another important thing is that people are struggling with starvation, and at the same time don’t feel safe in the centre or safe enough to go out because of their previous bad experiences. Many people are unable to sleep because of hunger and fear. Yesterday a Manus missionary wanted to bring food in to the refugees but the Navy prevented them. It’s really hard to describe the difficulty of the current situation. Nonetheless, what I’m understanding from talking with people is that they are not going to leave the prison camp. Also it’s important to state they are saying they don’t want to go to Australia. They are asking that Australia lets them go to a third country. They are so tired from Australia and don’t want to hear any more from Australia.
Hey: Malcolm Turnbull and Peter Dutton how are your Christian values looking?
The situation on Manus is a humanitarian disaster, entirely Australia’s fault. Here is a message from one of the refugees on Manus, received this afternoon:
“EXTERMINATION OF REFUGEES IN MRPC IS UNDER WAY ACCORDING TO THE PLAN.
People are starving and hunger and thirst is everywhere in camp. Locals and churches are trying their best to provide food and water in the camp for the starving people. People have no electricity so when they tried to get help from the nearby home and a kind woman wanted to help with charging phones, a huge contingent of Navy and police arrived to arrest the woman and confiscate the phone sets. She was continuously weeping and crying over the situation happening with these helpless people. She still vows to help us through every possible help according to her capacity. Everyone is barred from outside to provide some Humanitarian needs, but in vain. Even it is not possible to take some stuff stealthily with the help of locals living around, even locals tried to help us with their meagre resources but in vain. A Humanitarian crisis is looming sooner or later if no help get in from the outside world. They are adamant to close the so called RPC through force and starvation. No sewage system is working anymore and filth will cause the epidemic of dysentery pretty much soon. We appeal to the outside world to assert every possible pressure on the authorities concerned to allow some help inside the camp for relief.” (emphasis added)
This disgrace is the direct responsibility of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Immigration Minister Peter Dutton. They are both engaged in a policy which is criminal, but they are too puffed up with their own importance to notice that the civilized world holds them in contempt.
And let’s not forget all the Coalition members of Federal parliament who go along with this brutal policy.
And don’t let Labor off the hook: The Australian Labor Party should reverse its refugee policy and embrace something with a shred of decency. Instead, it is playing along with Coalition policy. A policy which is causing untold human misery, and at vast expense to the taxpayer: offshore processing is costing Australia about $3,000,000,000 per year: that’s 3 billion dollars a year. A competent Treasurer would ordinarily blow the whistle on that sort of financial insanity, but Scott Morrison was refugee-torturer-in-chief until he became Treasurer.
Turnbull, Dutton and Morrison claim to be Christians. What they are doing gives the lie to their supposed Christianity.
There is a person who emails me quite lot. He represents the very worst of the Australian community.
He started with these suggestions:
- banning all Muslims from Australia
- supporting Pauline Hanson and Donald Trump
- putting all Australian Muslims in Concentration Camps
- strafing Muslim boat people (for the millennials, strafing means machine gunning)
Recently I got another email from him, in which he said that the Rohingyan Muslims who are facing genocide in Myanmar are simply being punished for 9/11.
That prompted me to ask him a couple of questions. My questions, and his answers, are as follows (prepare to be shocked):
Q:How many of the thousands of Muslims being killed in Myanmar were involved, directly or indirectly, in 9/11?
A: All the Muslims receiving divine retribution in Myanmar were indirectly involved in 9/11. Anyone who believes that non-Muslims should be killed, especially if they are Jews or homosexuals and who give credence to the evil ideology of Islam are collectively guilty.
It gets worse. Last week he wrote “The greatest mistake of the 20th Century? – the alliance with Stalin to defeat Hitler instead of an alliance with Herr Hitler to defeat Stalin”
I agree that Stalin was terrible, but wishing we had formed an alliance with Hitler…? And this was in an email with the subject line: “This would never of happened under the 1000 year Reich” (I won’t even bother pointing out that he seems only semi-literate).
And today, he quotes a suggestion that Andrew Hastie should be PM, and comments “There may be a better option than Pauline Hanson…Someone who has actually killed Muslims …”
Why do I feel a need to have a shower after receiving his toxic emails? Maybe I should identify the name he uses in his emails. But no: that might just encourage him.
I have received the following report from Manus, just a couple of days ago. As you read it, remember this is YOUR government, spending YOUR taxes, doing things to innocent human beings that would horrify most Australians.
The Australian Government is trying coerce the 600 or so inmates of the Manus Regional Processing Centre (RPC) to leave the Centre.
It is doing this by slowly reducing services to the Centre, each one either more extreme or each one resulting in a more extreme environment for the men in the Centre.
For example, in the most recent examples the Centre management reduced medical services on Monday and this morning has reduced the access of men to the town, allowing only a maximum of 30 per day to visit the town using the Centre provided transport. Before that hourly buses were available to transport up to 150 men to town daily.
The Centre is located within a PNGDF naval base 30 mins drive from the main town of Lorengau.
Our Government wants the men to leave the Centre by 31 Oct, when it will close.
Our Government has paid to establish three new centres in the town to house the men.
Significantly, while Australian Immigration officials and officers have a very important role in the management of the RPC, Australia will have no such role in the new centres.
I have been told that all Australian ABF and APS will return to Australia shortly after 31 Oct.
As detention of the men in MPC has been declared illegal by the PNG High Court, the men, when housed in these new centres, will be free to move around the town as they please.
Lorengau is a small town of around 7000 people with many people living in poverty and with no knowledge of the culture of these men who are from many countries which they know little about.
So it is not surprising that a significant portion of the Lorengau population is opposed to this move.
They are also upset that they only found out about the details of this plan on Sun 8 Oct.
They were told in public announcements by a PNG Immigration Officer after church services in the town.
My wife and I witnessed the meeting outside the Catholic Church on that day.
The opposition to this move is universal in the community of Ward 1, one of seven or eight wards or districts of the town, where one of the centres is being built, and where I am staying. I was invited by the ward councillor to attend a meeting on Monday which I did.
But, for some of my Australian readers, it may be surprising that after four and half years in detention in RPC none of the men there want to leave the camp to live in the town under the conditions proposed. The want to leave, but only to go to a safe place where they can begin to re-build their lives.
Again, for some it may be surprising that after a similar period of advocacy for their freedom, many refugee advocates, including me, agree that they will be worse off in town than they were in RPC before the services started being cut at the Centre several months ago.
In short, the‘cure’ … is worse than the ‘disease’ itself.
The primary concern of both the men and the community is that after 31 Oct Australia will abandon the men in PNG. Certainly the US settlement will continue, albeit with numbers and time frames unknown, but otherwise the Australian Government is taking no further responsibility for the men.
We already know hundreds of them cannot or will not be accepted by the US, with their only choices being:
• remain permanently and involuntarily exiled in PNG, a country that cannot support them safely and where the community does not want them; or
• return to the country from which they fled in fear for their lives. The refugee assessment process, (in declaring them to be refugees) has found that the vast majority of those remaining have both:
– been forced to flee their country because of persecution, war, or violence, and
– (still) have a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group (if they return to their country).
Both these two dot points, of course, match the UN endorsed definition of a refugee.
[I note as an aside that some politicians in Australia have taken to using the term ‘economic refugee’ to describe these people. This is not a legitimate term. People are either refugees according the above definition or they are not. Economic issues are not considered in assessing refugee status – both rich and poor people have equal right to protection under the Refugee Convention.
People who leave their country purely for economic reasons are not refugees but are economic migrants.
To clarify this further. Under the UN convention signed by Australia, any person leaving their country and arriving in a country which is a signatory to the convention has the right to seek asylum by applying for refugee status in that country. If a person leaving their country for economic reasons seeks asylum in a signatory country, that signatory country (Australia in this case) must still assess the refugee status of that person and if found not to be a refugee and this determination is so considered by an appropriate and fair review process, only then can that person be treated as a migrant and then will be subject to consideration of deportation to their country of origin if it is safe to do so and if the country will accept a deportee. Some countries such as Iran will not accept the return of their citizens unless they return voluntarily.]
But now back to the other concerns.
The second major concern of the men is that their medical and health services will be reduced under the new arrangements. In the latest stage of the coercive action taken at the RPC, that level of service was imposed on them on Monday and today so we already know how bad that will be.
As an example, from now on they have no access to torture and trauma counsellors, a key need for the hundreds of men with psychiatric disorders resulting from torture and trauma and for all of the men, all whom now have some degree of long term depression. This service was available to all the men up until last week. and I met one of these critical people looking very distressed to be at the end of their appointment, knowing that they would not be replaced.
Also, as the medical service winds down, the men with current prescriptions have been given a month’s worth of their medication. However, for any new prescriptions and for ad hoc requirements even such as Panadol, it is unclear what the situation in RPC actually is at the moment.
What we do know is that the men already in East Lorengau have to get their medicines in town. Only some of the medicines are free in town at the Hospital dispensary. If it has no stock or the drug is not on the catalogue of free medicines, the men have to buy it at the local pharmacy. These men get only 100 kina (around $40) per week to live on, plus limited food. Medicines that they have to buy vary between 20 and 60 kina. All of the men will be subject to these arrangements if and when they move into the centres in town.
What I have not yet confirmed is what is happening to the men in RPC from now until the closure of the camp. The pharmacy in the camp that has previously serviced most of the refugees needs has been closed, and their informal access to a one off issue of two Panadol from the security gate for the relief of immediate pain has been terminated. However I understand there is still a pharmacy in the still open medical centre that also services Centre staff. But I do not know if that second pharmacy is open or not, and if it is, is it available to supply medicines free of charge to the men who have no income from the Centre, meaning many of them have no money at all.
My fear is that, if the answer to either of these questions is no, then those men with no money who suffer anything (from a simple headache to a serious new medical condition needing drug treatment) will have to come into town. And if the Hospital dispensary has no stock, or the drug is not on the catalogue of free medicines, the men will not be able to get the drugs at the pharmacy because they have no money. And since only 30 people a day can travel to town on free Centre transport, they will have significant difficulty in getting to and from town anyway. I am told that there is limited public transport from the PNGDF base into town, but this costs money and is so of no use to men with little or no money.
The local community is also concerned about this medical situation.
These new arrangements will put a drain on the already very limited resources of Manus. I visited the Hospital dispensary and the pharmacy yesterday to check this out. I spoke to the staff at the dispensary and they told me that the Manus dispensary now only gets a re-supply of medicines every four to six weeks, with the irregular arrival of commercial boats from Lae. Three years ago they used to have a weekly boat service to Manus and then medicines were delivered weekly. The shipping company went broke.
More importantly the staff at the dispensary had not be told that in a month’s time many hundreds of men whose prescriptions have run out are likely to turn up there to seek additional medicine.
They said they would inform their boss. But it could be all a little academic. Even if they knew what medicines were required and they could find out in a few days, the order could not be delivered for at least another four weeks at the earliest, by which time the men could be on their doorstep.
The third big issue is security.
A small number of men (around fifty I think) have already moved to one of the new camps in East Lorengau which has been open for at least a year.
There have been six deaths out of the 1000 or so refugees and asylum seekers originally on Manus, now reduced to 600 in the last four and a half years.
The two most recent of those deaths, both suicide, have been residents of the much smaller population in town in East Lorengau and they have occurred in the last two months!
The men rightly believe that they are being asked to reside in a death trap.
As a result all the men now in RPC are refusing to leave RPC as it is closed down and demolished around them. They also intend staying there until Australia has carried out its threat to close the Centre 31 Oct, whether full or empty. and whether or not all Australian officials and officers have departed in early November At this point, Australia will accept no responsibility for the welfare of the men. whether they have moved into town or whether they remain at the derelict MPC site with no access to water, health services, food, power, communications, shelter or transport. The men have also given no indication if or when they will leave that derelict site after that date. Indications are that they may intend to seek to stay there indefinitely.
On a personal note, for eighteen months my group has taken specific responsibility to support 23 men on Manus. As of today one has been deported, one living in East Lorengau committed suicide two weeks ago and the other resident of East Lorengau is living at a hotel with … two of his refugee friends. He is mentally unstable and on daily medication. He was the room mate of the man who committed suicide. The Sunday before I arrived he had a serious psychotic incident in town in which he had to be restrained by three of his friends assisted by my colleague J, who was in Manus at that time. On that day despite numerous efforts, they were unable to find any one at the hospital, the East Lorengau centre or anywhere on Manus to help him. They eventually returned to J’s hotel (the same one I am now staying in) and he has been here ever since, initially under the care of his friends and J. I have replaced J in that role as she has returned to Australia.
Since then I have been negotiating with the authorities to find a safe place for my sick friend to stay. Their only offer is for him to return to East Lorengau where he has no friends and where he witnessed his roommate’s first suicide attempt, before being moved to the hospital for treatment where he subsequently committed suicide. Furthermore none of his friends at RPC are allowed to visit East Lorengau. My sick friend is prepared to go back to RPC and stay with his friends and leave when they leave. The authorities have so far refused this request as they are trying to get everyone else out of RPC. The only other suggestion from the authorities is that his friends now move permanently to East Lorengau, leaving RPC, as Australia is trying unsuccessfully to get them to do. And of course his friends are not prepared to move there permanently for the three reasons outlined in this background, but particularly because, of the two members of their community who have moved to East Lorengau, one is now dead and the other has been made seriously mentally ill.
Negotiations and advocacy continue to protect my friends. I am not leaving Manus until late October, when another Australian colleague will have arrived to take over from me.
Here is a message I received this morning from a lady who is deeply concerned for the refugees held on Manus. I have modified it slightly. Please read it and ask yourself: is this really what Australia does to people fleeing persecution? People who have committed no offence?
Halloween is Festival of the Dead, This year, it is also the literal deadline for the Manus men still at Lombrun RPC.
On that date they are to be forced out of the compounds that have housed them for 4 years and into Lorengau.
For many this feels like an actual date with death.
They fear that PNG locals will fight them violently for every job or resource available and that, instead of liberation, their lives will become even more desperate.
Their fears have some foundation. Machete attacks and thefts have occurred during day trips on the island.
Men at Lorengau Transit Centre have gone mad and then died.
The kindness of some Manusians does not completely offset the fact that PNG is still a very harsh, struggling country. There has been envy and anger towards strangers who have been warehoused by Australia and who have no tribal allegiances.
Australia’s exercise in colonialism ended abruptly 40 years ago. This latest failed exercise in offshore detention has managed to signal to the world that we left PNG in chaos, one of the least safe travel destinations in the world.
The irony of men wanting a safe form of freedom being herded out the gates of RPC by force is acute.
There is no freedom to thrive waiting for them on November 1, 2017.
They see the trap. Moreover, their main strength has been their solidarity. Dispersal means disunity.
What the men have achieved together through fellowship, collective action and mutual compassion is also under attack.
On paper they have been given thorough medical discharges and records. In reality they get a bunch of untranslated words they don’t understand and a month’s supply of medication but little else.
These are medicines they would generally not have needed if in community detention in Australia. Tropical ulcers, antidepressants, sedatives would have been less necessary if they had been free to work. The risk of overdose is high and Manus hospital is not resourced to help.
Refugee allies in Australia might dream of protecting them in refuges or running a hospital ship. Doubtless they would feel the need to help locals, too.
The reality is that sustaining refugee hostages of the past 4 years is beyond the resources of most community activists. They have done a great deal to support the men across that time. And perhaps also to delude them that wholesale rescue was still possible.
Some lawyers have worked hard for the release of individual refugees. Deals were done with Border Force to conceal each release from publicity. The image of a boat blockade remains roughly intact.
The truth is that some boat arrivals have been admitted to Australia and others have not. The arbitrariness of the process is shocking.
So the Halloween deadline seems ominous in more ways than one.
Activists have strong bonds with these 700 men. They fundraised for phones, shoes and bath towels. They have counselled them through sleepless tropical nights and reached out to the families left behind.
As with the Rohingyans, it is perfectly clear that taking a plane back home is equally perilous. Some of the homesick have gone. They felt they could not leave their families unprotected in poverty for any longer.
Survival rates of those refouled is less clear. Some have found ways to cope.
The experience of those refugees transferred to America last month is another paradox. These men took planes, were given accommodation and a chance to find jobs. They feel “lucky”.
American gun violence, racism and poverty seems benign by comparison with the issues faced by PNG.
So the few handpicked, highly educated men perhaps not destroyed by the uncertainties of detention who were airlifted from Manus by America get a chance at life.
Hundreds more do not. And children remain trapped on Nauru: a small pile of rocks with machetes.
Then we have the plight of mainland refugees.
What is already dead is the compassion of Australia’s right wing conservatives and white supremacists.
They have spent a fortune to make an example of boat arrivals. Food, mouldy shipping containers or tents and guards have cost Australian taxpayers a great deal.
Breaking the smuggling trade has also resulted in waste of life.
My friend xx arrived on Manus after the Taliban came for him. A month earlier his father had received the Taliban’s death knock and did not survive. The family business was in repairing and reselling foreign vehicles. This was enough to incense fundamentalists. His mother and brothers have been cowering around the borders of Afghanistan ever since. His mum became catatonically depressed and eventually received treatment in a major city. The great fear was that the younger brother would be recruited by extremists. AR, a talented mechanic fluent in English, has used the 4 years to complete some online learning. He has also become atheist, deeply depressed and addicted to cigarettes. I helped with phones and call credit.
The family had earlier tried to send xx to Japan to escape all this on a trade visa. He was refused. Then they tried a boat from Indonesia.
Will xx find a way into PNG life? Will he be safe in PNG?
Australia is throwing away a stoic, resilient and talented future citizen.
Recently I received a letter from refugees held on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea.
It is signed by nearly 200 refugees, who have been held in hellish conditions on Manus for the past four years. For obvious reasons, I have not reproduced the signatures.
The letter makes grim reading, but all Australians should know about it.
Here is the letter: Letter_DrR
On Sunday 15 October 2017, the Wheeler Centre put on a day of ideas at Melbourne Town Hall. The first session was called Questions for the Nation.
Here’s my contribution:
“Is democracy still working?”
Donald Trump is President of the USA.
Malcolm Turnbull is Prime Minister of Australia, and the alternative PM is Bill Shorten.
This is what democracy has thrown up. Whatever happened to the idea of leadership?
Donald Trump was democratically elected. Leaving aside the complexities of the Electoral College system, it seems he was elected in accordance with the democratic principles of the United States of America.
Since his election, Trump has been an embarrassing failure.
He denies the science of climate change. As a candidate he vowed to get rid of the Environmental Protection Agency “in almost every form,”. His first budget cut the EPA’s budget by more than 30%.
Trump is famous for his use of Twitter. As long ago as 2012, he tweeted:
“The concept of global warming was invented by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive”
Meantime, in the real world the past 10 weeks have seen10 tropical storms become hurricanes: Franklin, Gert, Harvey, Irma, Jose, Katia, Lee, Maria, Nate and Ophelia.
The strength and ferocity of a hurricane is a function of the ocean temperature: as ocean temperatures rise, so hurricanes become more destructive. There is no doubt that hurricanes will be more destructive as the oceans warm.
In the past couple of months, Texas, Florida and various Caribbean islands including Puerto Rico have suffered immense damage because of hurricanes.
The people who live on Puerto Rico are American citizens. They have been without electricity and fresh water for nearly two weeks, because of Hurricane Maria. Last week, Trump got around to visiting Puerto Rico.
He spent four hours there. He visited a wealthy suburb of San Juan called Guaymabo, which had suffered very little damage. He said he “had fun” in Puerto Rico. He might not have said that if he had visited the rest of the island, where people are still dying for want of the most basic supplies which FEMA is planning to provide once all the paperwork is done.
In Washington, Trump has not achieved any legislative success. He has not delivered on any of his electoral promises.
This is due in large measure to Trump’s shameless capacity to deny facts. So he tags as “Fake News” anything that does not sit with his world view.
Malcolm Turnbull is a very intelligent man, and likeable. When he replaced Tony Abbott as PM, most Australians breathed a sigh of relief.
If he had had the political nous to go to the polls straight away, he would probably have won a substantial majority. He would have been able to hose out the hard-right.
But instead of going to the polls straight away, he dithered until his political instincts were shown to be missing in action. And now he is hostage to the hard right, with Tony Abbott sniping at him from the back bench, and Pauline Hanson calling the shots in the Senate.
The big change in the way democracies work happened 20 or 30 years ago: the science and technology of opinion polls developed dramatically. It is now possible to get an apparently accurate, representative measure of public attitudes easily and cheaply (it does not have to cost $122 million).
As this technology developed, political parties saw a way of shaping their policies so as to suit a perceived majority of the electorate. It is an interesting irony that this technology could have been, but has not been, used to find the nation’s views on marriage equality. If it had been used, the result would be more reliable statistically and would have cost thousands rather than millions of dollars. But that’s what the government does when it does not intend to be bound by the result but rather intends to leave plenty of room for the hard right to vote against same sex marriage.
In recent years, the government has been brutalising asylum seekers in ways that would appal most Australians. It has been costing us a fortune: it costs Australian taxpayers about $560,000 per refugee per year to lock them up in hellish conditions in Nauru and Manus. And the government makes it nearly impossible for us to find out what is going on. Journalists simply can’t get to Nauru. It costs $8000 for a journalist to apply for a Nauru visa. The fee is not refunded if the application is refused. The application is refused for any journalist who does not share the government’s ideology.
The public has been persuaded to accept all this by dishonest political rhetoric:
- the Coalition call boat people “illegal”. It’s a lie
- the Coalition call the exercise “border protection”, suggesting that we need to be protected from boat people. It’s a lie.
- the Coalition says the offshore processing regime is the responsibility of PNG and Nauru. It’s a lie.
- the Coalition prevent us from learning the truth about the cruelty with which innocent men, women and children are being treated. It’s a disgrace
And the same politicians who have lied to us for years about refugees have thrown $122 million at a postal plebiscite to find our views on marriage equality: a subject on which Australian views are already very clearly known. And they don’t intend to do what we want.
That’s where democracy has got us: Malcolm Turnbull panders to a party that has Pauline Hanson as its leader and (for the time being at least) Malcolm Roberts as a successful Senate candidate.
And what better can we hope for? Bill Shorten? He’s a very nice guy personally; he is intelligent and thoughtful. But he leads a party which reintroduced the Pacific Solution and made its operation even more vicious than John Howard and Philip Ruddock managed.
Look around and identify a genuine leader in politics these days. It’s a lonely search.
The mistreatment of asylum seekers is now, effectively, a bi-partisan issue. But that is true of many issues.
There was a time when you could predict, with fair accuracy, what the Labor policy on a particular issue would be, and what the Liberal policy on that same issue would be. Because the origins and inclinations of both major parties were well-known.
There was a time when politicians would say “This is what I believe. Here is why you should agree with me”.
There was a time when political leadership included the idea of leading. That idea seems to have faded away, some time in the past 20 or 30 years.
Western democracies now have leadership in the Jim Hacker mould. Jim Hacker, in Yes Prime Minister, famously said “I am their leader. I must follow them.”
There was a time when, despite Churchill’s comment, democracy worked quite well.
That time has passed.
It is easy to forget that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. So was Richard Nixon.
It is easy to forget that Australia once had political leaders like Deakin and Menzies; Chifley and Keating.
It is also easy to forget the real point of the American Declaration of Independence. Part of the Preamble is famous, but its broader point is often overlooked. It starts like this:
“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
–We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,
–That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. …”
This is not talking about just calling another election: it is about a fundamental change to system of government.
Democracy is not working. Short of scrapping the entire system, let’s try something novel: let’s see if we can find some politicians who are also willing to be leaders.
Here is a statement made on 24 July in Geneva by Filipo Grandi. How many times do we have to be told we are behaving badly? Blame: Howard, Ruddock, Rudd, Gillard, Marles, Abbott, Morrison, Turnbull, Dutton…
All of them dishonest. All of them have committed crimes against humanity by their indefinite imprisonment of innocent human beings.
Geneva, 24 July 2017 Statement by Filippo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
Australia must end harmful practice of offshore processing
Australia’s policy of offshore processing in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, which denies access to asylum in Australia for refugees arriving by sea without a valid visa, has caused extensive, avoidable suffering for far too long.
Four years on, more than 2,000 people are still languishing in unacceptable circumstances. Families have been separated and many have suffered physical and psychological harm.
In light of this dire humanitarian situation, last November UNHCR exceptionally agreed to help with the relocation of refugees to the United States following a bilateral agreement between Australia and the US. We agreed to do so on the clear understanding that vulnerable refugees with close family ties in Australia would ultimately be allowed to settle there.
UNHCR has recently been informed by Australia that it refuses to accept even these refugees, and that they, along with the others on Nauru and Papua New Guinea, have been informed that their only option is to remain where they are or to be transferred to Cambodia or to the United States.
This means, for example, that some with serious medical conditions, or who have undergone traumatic experiences, including sexual violence, cannot receive the support of their close family members residing in Australia.
To avoid prolonging their ordeal, UNHCR has no other choice but to endorse the relocation of all refugees on Papua New Guinea and Nauru to the United States, even those with close family members in Australia.
There is no doubt these vulnerable people, already subject to four years of punishing conditions, should be reunited with their families in Australia. This is the humane and reasonable thing to do.
The Australian government’s decision to deny them this possibility is contrary to the fundamental principles of family unity and refugee protection, and to common decency.
UNHCR fully endorses the need to save lives at sea and to provide alternatives to dangerous journeys and exploitation by smugglers. But the practice of offshore processing has had a hugely detrimental impact. There is a fundamental contradiction in saving people at sea, only to mistreat and neglect them on land.
Australia has a proud humanitarian tradition, manifested in its support for overseas aid and its longstanding refugee resettlement programme. I urge Australia to bring an immediate end to the harmful practice of offshore processing, offer solutions to its victims, for whom it retains full responsibility, and work with us on future alternatives that save lives at sea and provide protection to people in need.
At a time of record levels of displacement globally, it is crucial that all States offer protection to survivors of war and persecution, and not outsource their responsibilities to others. Refugees, our fellow human beings, deserve as much.
Background Approximately 2,500 refugees and asylum-seekers have been forcibly transferred by Australia to ‘offshore processing’ facilities in Papua New Guinea and Nauru since the introduction of the current policy in 2013. Of these, some 1,100 remain in Nauru and 900 in Papua New Guinea.
Following the Australia-US bilateral agreement on relocation, UNHCR has referred more than 1,100 refugees to the US over the past eight months. Another 500 people are still waiting for the outcome of the refugee status determination processing being carried out by authorities in PNG and Nauru, under the Australian arrangement.
Here is a press release from the Refugee Action Collective concerning the demolition of Charlie compound in the Manus Island detention centre. You will see from this that the Australian government, and its contractors, seem to regard the well-being of the refugees as irrelevant:
Refugee Action Coalition
MANUS HUMAN RIGHTS TRASHED AS REFUGEES FORCED TO MOVE
Charlie Compound, where ten Rohingya, Pakistani and Afghan refugees have been living for a month has been demolished after power and water was cut off and the refugees were evicted by PNG police and immigration officials last week. (Photos attached.)
The eviction and demolition are the latest moves by an increasingly desperate government to try and force people out of the detention centre to meet the deadline for the end of the Ferrovial contract on 31 October.
The ten refugees have been living in Charlie since Border Force announced that the Foxtrot compound was being closed at the end of June. They have been forced to try to find accommodation elsewhere in the detention centre defying attempts by Border Force and PNG immigration to force them to move to the East Lorengau Transit Accommodation, closer to the Lorengau settlement on Manus Island.
But there are fewer places for them in an increasingly crowded camp.
The latest notice inside the detention centre days that there are 102 days until the detention centre closes. But only people determined to be refugees are allowed in East Lorengau but it is unsafe and has even fewer services than the detention centre. There are around 60 refugees presently living at East Lorengau, but, in turn, they are being pressured to sign agreements to be resettled in PNG. Although PNG has no resettlement arrangements. The few who have signed for PNG resettlement are living precariously in Port Moresby.
Refugees have again been told that Foxtrot compound is going to be closed ‘in the next few days’. But there is nowhere for them to go.
To make space within the detention centre, refugees will have to forced to move out of Oscar and Delta compounds to East Lorengau. Yet East Lorengau, has room for only around 280 and there are over 700 refugees in the detention centre.
There are around 60 refugees at East Lorengau, who are being pressured to sign agreements to be resettled in PNG.
Any forced closure of Foxtrot would create badly overcrowded and unsanitary conditions inside the detention centre.
Neither Border Force nor PNG immigration have any legal power to use force on refugees inside the detention centre. In April 2016, The PNG Supreme Court found that all the Manus detainees are being held unlawfully.
“Withdrawing power and water, closing down accommodation areas, ending services and activities have become the method of choice for Border Force to pressure the refugees,” said Ian Rintoul, spokesperson for the Refugee Action Coalition.
“They hope by creating intolerable conditions, they can force enough people out of the detention centre. This kind of coercion amounts to further human rights abuses of people the government has no right to imprison. Such abuses that have already cost them $70m million in damages for the years of unlawful detention.
“Things are coming to a head. Minister Dutton says he wants to close the detention centre but there is nowhere in PNG to put the asylum seekers and refugees and no third country. There is no prospect of refugees from Manus being settled in the US before the deadline.
“That leaves Australia – a choice the Minister, and the Labor opposition will find the decision hard to swallow. But it is a dilemma of their own making. The sooner everyone is brought to Australia, the sooner they will get the safety and security they need. “
For more information contact Ian Rintoul 0417 275 713
Demolition of Charlie Compound
I have received a first-hand account of how things are on Nauru at present. It’s not good. How much are we paying each year to maintain out offshore warehousing? $500,000 per person per year…
Sounds like pretty bad value.
Nauru is a very small island nation. It is smaller in area than Tullamarine Airport in Melbourne. Here is the report I received. I have edited it slightly to ensure that the person who wrote it cannot be identified:
The ring road (the only real road) is 23 km long. From the ring road you can drive up to the Island’s centre, which is elevated. There, it is much hotter without any breeze like you get on the ring road. On this elevated plateau are the RPC’s (Reception and Processing Centres).
RPC1 is occupied by service providers like Broadspectrum and IHMS.
Due to lack of housing, ‘positives’ remain located in either RPC 2 or RPC3. So-called ‘settlements’ are scattered around the ring road and most refugees prefer to live there, because there is access to the ocean, the shops and a cooling breeze.
HOST International works from the Community Resource Centre, located close to the airport on the ring road. HOST employs refugees in numerous positions. Some work as IT support, some as community liaison officers, others as employment officers. In the office, refugees are treated with respect by ex-pats. In the office are also Nauruans. They are part of the government and predominantly work in housing, employment and child protection.
Australia’s history with Nauru centred on phosphate mining. By nature, Nauruans are not hard working. Think Fiji, Rarotonga, Vanuatu…developing countries. Not as poor as PNG, but nevertheless without much prospect, mainly due to its isolated location and tiny size.
The Nauru government holds all power. This power is absolute. They issue or, as the case may be, withdraw visas for ex-pats. Land can only be owned by Nauruans (this is a very important issue). Nauruans in general are not well educated. However, they are well looked after: they have land, they do not pay rent and they have been given power over ex-pats and refugees, because after all, it is their island.
So, imagine this tiny island being run by not so well-educated, entitled people: Nauruans feel they are very, very precious and every single ex-pat and refugee have to bow to their whims. It leads to unrealistic situations. Example: ex-pats and refugees-are told over and over again that they MUST NOT overtake Nauruans while driving on the ring road. They must be extremely cautious NOT to splash Nauruans by driving through water. Consequences are dire: Nauruans will cut off your car and bash you up, regardless of age or sex. Example: One refugee who works on Nauru, accidently cut off a Nauruan. Before he could apologise, the Nauruans got out of their car and bashed up the refugee very badly. No point going to the police because they are Nauruans also. Refugees are routinely bashed up by angry locals for no specific reason. Nauruans are a very jealous people. Example: Some Iranians refugees had settled on the ring road. They started a business – as many try to – by renting a huge house on the beach front and converting it into a restaurant. Hard working, and with stunning ocean views, the business thrived. Soon the Nauruan landlord found out, and told them to pack up. He simply evicted them. The building has been empty ever since.
Housing is a real issue. Some Nauruans are extremely rich but they do not want refugees to live in their houses. So, all along the ring road you see empty, neglected houses and units which could easily house numerous refugees who are instead housed in the hot and oppressive camps (“Reception and Processing Centres”). No-one can do anything: it is in the hands of the Nauruans.
In the office, ex-pats have to be very careful talking to Nauruan staff. Nauruan staff MUST always be in the right. If not, they simply revoke your visa. Example: An Australian worker had a difference of opinion with a Nauruan staff member. Within half an hour that person’s visa was revoked and he was transported to the airport, never to return. HOST International is powerless to stop any of this. Employees are warned by HOST, to be very careful NOT to criticise Nauruans or their government, because it is not possible to know what is being overheard.
When it comes to dealing with foreigners, Nauruans, and the Government of Nauru, have all the power and, although many welcome refugees on their island, many do not. Refugee children are bullied at school but the Nauru Government has no policies in place with respect to child protection. It is all new to them and they are unwilling to take advice from experienced ex-pats. Refugees have limited opportunities: They can NEVER own land, they are ALWAYS at the mercy of ruthless landlords, jobs will go to Nauruans first and, even if a refugee manages to get a job, they can easily lose it due to jealousy of the Nauru Government. Most refugees who are employed, are employed by HOST or by Broadspectrum.
Never forget the lesson of Martin Niemoller.
The lesson is: when government’s misbehave, it’s just a matter of time before they will come for you.
Recently, two Australian citizens arrived back in Australia after a long overnight flight.
They had nothing to declare and filled out customs declarations accordingly. The dogs sniffed their bags, legs etc and soon lost interest.
Nevertheless the Australian Border Force people (ABF) decided to single them out for closer inspection. ABF staff were particularly unfriendly and treated them as suspects.
It was 6 am and ABF turned the Australians’ luggage inside out. They took X-rays of the luggage, but found nothing. Not surprising, as there was nothing to find.
But ABF then decided to confiscate the travellers’ iPhones, iPads and laptop computers. They kept the travellers at the airport for almost 2 hours. Finally, they said that the travellers – two Australian citizens who had just returned from a holiday – were suspected ‘people smugglers’.
ABF then confiscated the travellers’ iPhones, iPads and laptop computers “for forensic testing”. They kept them for the next ten days. Nothing was done to protect their personal, private and confidential information on their electronic devices.
During the ten days they kept the electronic devices, ABF made NO effort to contact either of the Australian citizens. Instead, the citizens had to chase ABF in an attempt to have their electric equipment returned.
Eventually the equipment was returned. The Australian travellers have not been charged with any offence (probably for the good reason that they had committed no offence). But there was no apology from ABF, and no explanation.
Just for a moment, try to imagine how it feels: You arrive back in Australia tired, the ABF men in black rummage through all your luggage and then keep your iPhone, iPad and computer for ten days. I thought that’s what happened in Police States. But with two former Queensland policemen in charge (Dutton and Quadvlieg), expect the unthinkable.
Be aware, be very aware!
And remember the words of Martin Niemoller (he is in the centre of the photograph of people taken in by the Nazis), the Lutheran pastor who was taken in for questioning by the Nazis in July 1938:
When they came for the Communists I said nothing, because I am not a Communist.
When they came for the trade unionists I said nothing, because I am not a trade unionist.
When they came for the Jews I said nothing, because I am not a Jew.
And when they came for me There was no-one to speak for me.
On 1 July 2017 I gave the inaugural Ralph Summy lecture for Ngara.
The event honoured Ralph Summy and was also the occasion of the award of the inaugural Australian Activists of the Year Awards. The winners were Murrawah Johnson and Adrian Burragubba of the Wangan and Jagalingu Traditional Owners Family Council, for their tireless work in opposing the Adani coalmine, which will destroy the traditional lands of the Wangan and Jagalingu.
NGARA: Inaugural Ralph Summy Speech: 1 July 2017
WHAT SORT OF COUNTRY ARE WE? WHAT SORT OF COUNTRY CAN WE BE?
Ralph Summy; … Two steps forward, one step back; … The Melian dialogue; … Slavery.; … The Zorg; … The American Declaration of Independence; … Dred Scott; … The Declaration of the Rights of Man; … The Universal Declaration of Human Rights; … The Trevorrow case; … Australian Values; … Conclusion
Today’s talk is given in honour of Professor Ralph Summy.
Professor Summy taught political science at the University of Queensland for more than 30 years. He established an interdisciplinary major in peace and conflict studies.
In 1971 he wrote a thesis called Australian Peace Movement 1960-67: A Study of Dissent. He wrote it for the purpose of a Master of Arts at the University of Sydney. It is an interesting thesis because it covers the history of a movement of which I was vaguely aware during my years of blind passivity. The period covered by his study begins in 1960 (when I was in Grade 6 at school, and hopefully I can be forgiven for not paying attention to what was going on) and ends in 1967, which was my first year at university and had become vaguely aware of things that were happening. The big name in political activism during the years that I remember included Jim Cairns. Jim Cairns gets numerous references in Ralph Summy’s thesis. It is easy to forget these days that the big issues back then included the nuclear arms race, the war in Vietnam and (in Australia specifically) conscription. I was acutely aware of the war in Vietnam and conscription because my birth date had come out of the ballot, by which people were chosen for conscription, and because I was a university student when I turned 18 I was able to defer my call-up until I finished my degrees. I finished at university in 1972. The Federal election that year was fought at least in part on the issue of conscription, and I was due to be called-up at the start of the following year. But Gough Whitlam won that election, and had promised during his election campaign to abolish conscription. He did so and as a result I wasn’t called up. That was a relief, of course. But it has to be conceded that I had voted against self-interest in December 1967, because I voted Liberal.
It is easy to forget that the 1966 election followed shortly after Harold Holt (who was then Australia’s Prime Minister) had said that Australia would go “all the way with LBJ”.
It is also easy to forget that Holt had been given the Prime Ministership by Sir Robert Menzies, who had begun his record run as Prime Minister of Australia in 1949 (the year I was born – I didn’t catch up with the news until a bit later) and Liberals continued to hold government in Canberra until 1972. Ralph Summy’s thesis includes the useful reminder that a Victorian SOS pamphlet included this sentence: “Why … the Menzies-Holt government committed Australian troops is because the government believes that Australia must blindly follow American policies in order to consolidate the Australian-American alliance, which the government regards as necessary to Australian security”.
The more things change, the more they remain the same.
The catchcry “all the way with LBJ” was universally recognized in Australia, although it originated in America. In March 1964, Democrat Party supporters in New Hampshire called “all the way with LBJ and RFK”. In October 1966, LBJ visited Australia and Harold Holt declared that Australia was “all the way with LBJ”. Holt had been treasurer until January 1966, when Robert Menzies stepped down as Prime Minister and handed over to Holt. Holt was sworn in as Prime Minister on Australia Day 1966. (Interestingly, his first Cabinet included Billy McMahon, John Gorton and Malcolm Fraser). LBJ’s visit to Australia was usefully timed in October 1966, because the Federal election was held in November that year.
Holt’s declaration that Australia would go “all the way with LBJ” was wildly contentious, because of course it was a direct reference to Australia’s continued involvement in the war in Vietnam. Holt disappeared in late December 1967, presumably drowned at sea near his beach-house at Portsea. So, his big issue and his death fit neatly into Ralph Summy’s thesis.
Summy’s thesis notes that the Parliamentary party of the ALP had made known in May 1966 that conscription would be a major issue in the election later that year. Arthur Calwell in a motion of dissent from the policies outlined by Harold Holt in his first statement as Prime Minister, noted as the first item “emphatic opposition to the dispatch of conscripted youths for service in Vietnam”. It is easy to forget what a contentious issue conscription and the war in Vietnam had been. It is altogether fitting that this speech is in honour of Ralph Summy, whose thesis provides such a powerful reminder of the simple truth that political activism can ultimately achieve results.
Tonight we honour Ralph Summy.
Two steps forward, one step back
Because Ralph Summy was an activist, and because the Australian Activists Award is to be presented tonight, I was asked to keep my talk largely upbeat. After all, activists should not be discouraged.
It will be no surprise to anyone here that occasionally I find it difficult to remain upbeat in my pursuit of something approximating justice for refugees in Australia. However, it is important to notice that political activism sometimes takes a while to meet its mark (for example, the activism summarized by Ralph Summy and which was in large part responsible for the end of conscription and the end of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War). And equally it is important to notice that various other forms of political activism have also produced striking and enduring results – results which should still be celebrated.
The cause of human rights often advances and then slips back. We are in a slippage phase at present.
My general proposition tonight is that the slippage phases should not discourage us: taken in the long sweep of history, the activists are helping humankind make progress.
The Melian dialogue
Although I am sure there are many earlier examples, it is useful to start with Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian Wars. The second Peloponnesian war ran from 431BC until 404BC. Athens wasn’t doing too well and decided that it needed a launching place somewhere close to Sparta. The island of Melos was an ideal candidate. But the island of Melos had never done anything to harm the Athenians and was, in all possible respects, a neutral. The Athenians sent a delegation to speak to the commissions of Melos and explained to them fairly bluntly that they were planning to take over Melos and that there was an easy way and a hard way. They acknowledged that the Melians had never done any harm to the Athenians but then pointed out that this was irrelevant “You know as well as we do” they said “that justice is only relevant between equals in power. Where power is unequal, the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must” (the Melians stood their ground and Athens took them over the hard way: they murdered the men and raped the women).
Although it is easy to be cynical about our conceptions of justice, the legal system still aims to achieve justice and in particular justice of a kind which does not depend on whether the antagonists are equal in power or one weak and the other strong. It may not be a perfect system, but at least its objectives have taken us some distance from the theoretical underpinnings and harsh consequences of the Melian dialogue.
Let me give another example of progress. It is easily forgotten how differently slaves were seen before the heroic and pioneering work of William Wilberforce in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. Before Wilberforce started campaigning against slavery, slavery was common and accepted and, in some places at least, was regarded as fundamental to the continued economic prosperity of the British Commonwealth.
In 1781, a ship variously called The Zorg or The Zong (one appears to be a misreading of the other) set sail from the coast of West Africa, bound for Jamaica. The captain was Sir Luke Collingwood. As was the custom at the time, its cargo was fully insured.
The cargo comprised 470 slaves.
Because of faulty navigation and changes in the weather, supplies of food and water on the ship looked as though they might not last the distance. By the 29th November, 1781 overcrowding together with malnutrition and disease had resulted in the deaths of seven crew members and about 60 slaves. Captain Collingwood decided to throw a further 133 slaves overboard. By that extreme measure, he hoped that the remaining food and water would be sufficient for the balance of the voyage.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the case ended up in court: not on a charge of mass-murder but on an insurance claim. The insurer defended the case on the footing that the market value of the slaves had fallen below the insured value. There was no suggestion that anyone would be charged with murder. In fact, the Solicitor-General John Lee said that a master could drown slaves without any impropriety. He said: “What is this claim that human people have been thrown overboard? This is a case of chattels or goods. Blacks are goods and property; it is madness to accuse these well-serving honourable men of murder. They acted out of necessity and in the most appropriate manner for the cause. … The case is the same as if horses had been thrown overboard”.
The case of The Zorg is one which is almost inconceivable in modern times. In that simple proposition you see that we have, in fact, made some progress in our conceptions of justice. William Wilberforce was a great activist and although it took a long time he succeeded.
The American Declaration of Independence
It is easy to forget that, at least until the English Civil War, the received theory of Government was that Kings ruled by divine right and they could not safely be removed.
The English Civil War (1642-1647) was the result of growing tension between King Charles I and his Parliament but it had not been fought when the British colonized North America by establishing a settlement at Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. By 1773, the Americans had tired of being taxed by a British Government in which they had no say. Their direct expression of discontent was called the Boston Tea Party. The British Parliament had been trying to raise funds to help out the East India Company. It increased import duties by passing the Tea Act in 1773. On December 16, 1773, the so-called “sons of liberty” boarded three ships in the Boston Harbour under cover of night and threw 342 chests of tea into the harbour. This was a trigger for the American Revolution which began in 1775 and ran through until 1783. However, by July 1776, the revolutionaries had decided that the time had come to declare America’s independence from the British. On the 4th July, 1776, in congress, the 13 United States of America declared:
“When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s god entitlement, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,
That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its power in such form, as to then shall seem most likely to affect their safety and happiness …”
The reference to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is widely known and universally famous. But the simple explanation of the nature of government and the source of power to form government is often overlooked but was truly revolutionary.
The Declaration of Independence was a truly revolutionary act, the result of years of careful thinking and calculated activism. Even though some of the large objectives of the preamble to the Declaration of Independence have not yet been achieved, it has to be said that it was a great triumph and a step in the right direction.
When I say that not all the objectives had been achieved, I have in mind in particular the case of Dred Scott
Dred Scott was born a slave in Virginia, in 1799. He was owned by Peter Blow. The Blow family moved to St Louis, Missouri, in 1830. Missouri had been acquired in 1804 in the Louisiana purchase. It had been admitted to the Union in 1820, as a slave State, as part of the Missouri Compromise. The Missouri Compromise allowed Missouri into the Union as a slave State, but otherwise prevented the admission to the Union of slave States above 36º30’ north latitude. In effect, it guaranteed that slavery would not spread to the other States acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. It had been a hotly contested measure. Since Eli Whitney had invented the cotton gin in 1794, cotton had been a great source of wealth in the southern States, but its profitability depended on slave labour to pick the cotton.
In 1830, Blow sold Scott to Dr Emerson, an army surgeon. Emerson took Scott with him to his various postings. They spent the next 12 years in free States, principally Illinois. They returned to St Louis in 1842. Emerson died in 1846. His executors were his wife, and her brother John Sanford.
In 1846, Scott sued Mrs Emerson in the St Louis Circuit Court. In form, it was a petition for freedom, based on the fact that he had spent years in a free State, and was therefore released from slavery. A decision of the English courts (Smith v. Brown & Cooper (1705) 2 Salk 666) provided an argument that the simple fact of having spent time in a non-slave State meant that Dred Scott’s condition of slavery was dissolved
Judge Alexander Hamilton heard Scott’s case. A technicality in the evidence led to its failing. The Judge granted leave for a new trial. He won; but the decision was reversed by the Missouri Supreme Court in 1852.
By this time, Mrs Emerson had remarried. Her new husband was an abolitionist. She made over Scott to her brother and co-executor, John Sanford. Sanford lived in New York. Thus Scott was able to sue in the Federal jurisdiction, since the suit was between residents of different States. The action was for assault.
Sanford (erroneously called Sandford in the Court record) filed a plea in abatement on the basis that Scott was a slave and therefore not a citizen. Accordingly, so the argument went, there was no suit “between citizens of several States” and the Federal jurisdiction was not attracted. In other words, he sought to have the action struck out peremptorily as incompetent.
The matter was argued in December 1855, and was re-argued in 1856. Powerful interests wanted to retain the institution of slavery: American plantation owners, as well as English manufactureres and merchants. Slavery had been abolished in Britain and its Colonies by the Emancipation Act 1834, but that did not prevent English commerce from benefitting from it indirectly. Such was still the position when Roger Casement undertook his tour of investigation in the Congo Free State (1901-04), and Brazil (1906-11).
The first question in issue resolved to this: was a slave capable of being a citizen under the Constitution, so that his action against a citizen of another State would attract the Federal jurisdiction?
Chief Justice Taney and Justices Wayne, Nelson, Grier, Daniel, Campbell and Catron said that the answer to the first question was No. Taney J said:
“The question before us is whether the class of persons described in the plea in abatement compose a portion of this people, and are constituent members of this sovereignty? We think they are not, and that they are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word “citizens” in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States. On the contrary, they were at that time considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and, whether emancipated or not, yet remained subject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and the Government might choose to grant them. …
They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect, and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic whenever a profit could be made by it.” (emphasis added)
The ideas expressed, and the intensity of the language used, strike the modern ear as shocking, especially in light of the introductory words of the Declaration of Independence (1776):
” … We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Taney J dealt with those words in this way:
“The general words above quoted would seem to embrace the whole human family, and if they were used in a similar instrument at this day would be so understood. But it is too clear for dispute that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included … for if the language, as understood in that day, would embrace them, the conduct of the distinguished men who framed the Declaration of Independence would have been utterly and flagrantly inconsistent with the principles they asserted …”
McLean J (dissenting) did not agree in the result on this issue, but expressed himself in language not much happier than that of Taney J:
“In the argument, it was said that a colored citizen would not be an agreeable member of society. This is more a matter of taste than of law. Several of the States have admitted persons of color to the right of suffrage, and, in this view, have recognised them as citizens, and this has been done in the slave as well as the free States. On the question of citizenship, it must be admitted that we have not been very fastidious. Under the late treaty with Mexico, we have made citizens of all grades, combinations, and colors. The same was done in the admission of Louisiana and Florida …” (per McLean J at 533).
Curtis J (dissenting) found in the words of the Constitution ample authority for the proposition that a slave could be a citizen of the United States.
The second question was whether a slave could become a free man by entering a free State. The question had precedents in English case law. In 1678, it had been held that if a Negro slave came into England and was baptised, he thereupon became a free man. If he were not baptised, he remained “an infidel” and was not freed: Butts v. Penney 2 Lev 201. This rule was later relaxed: in Smith v. Brown & Cooper Holt CJ had said:
“As soon as a Negro comes into England, he becomes free: one may be a villein in England, but not a slave.”
In Somerset v. Stewart (1772) 98 ER 499, Lord Mansfield had decided on a habeas corpus application that a Virginian slave who had arrived in London must be set free. Lord Mansfield’s decision is famous for its declamatory final sentence “The black must go free”. It is less well-remembered that his Lordship had tried to avoid having to decide the matter. He had said in the course of argument:
“… a contract for the sale of a slave is good here; the sale is a matter to which the law properly and readily attaches … The setting 14,000 or 15,000 men at once free … by a solemn opinion, is much disagreeable in the effects it threatens … An application to Parliament, if the merchants think the question of great commercial concern, is the best, and perhaps the only method of settling the point for the future …” (emphasis added)
The majority in Dred Scott’s case held that the English authorities had no application in the different constitutional framework of the American Union. Specifically, the 5th Amendment prevented the slave being freed by passing into a free State. So far as relevant it provides:
“No person shall … be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.”
To allow that a slave be freed by virtue of travelling to a free State would involve a deprivation of property without due process. It is an interesting irony that a slave owner could not be deprived of ownership of his slave without due process, but the slaves were deprived of liberty without due process. The relevant difference is that slaves were not considered “people” for Constitutional purposes.
For good measure, 6 of the 7 judges in the majority held the Missouri Compromise to be unconstitutional, as contravening the 5th Amendment. Thus they struck down the measure which had, in effect, quarantined slavery to the southern States where the cotton industry was the principal source of wealth, and slave labour was the principal engine of that industry.
The Dred Scott case [reported under the name Scott v Sandford 60 US 393] was decided by the US Supreme Court on 6 March 1857. It provoked bitter controversy. It was one of the precipitating causes of the American Civil War (1861-1865). Abolition was the great question over which the war was fought During that war, on 19 November 1863 (87 years after the Declaration of Independence) Abraham Lincoln famously re-stated the founding proposition of the American Union:
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. …”
In so saying, he was unequivocally advancing the cause of abolition. His address at Gettysburg is regarded as a clarion call for the abolitionist cause.
The Dred Scott case resulted in the resignation of Curtis J, and blighted the reputation of Taney J. He was a decent man and a fine lawyer. He had voluntarily freed his own slaves, at great personal cost, and had 35 years earlier described slavery as “a blot on our national character”. Ironically, the decision in the Dred Scott case is generally regarded as a blot on the record of the US Supreme Court.
The decision was an exercise in strict construction which reached an unpalatable result by chaining the words of the Constitution to their historic origins. In 1992 Scalia J. – himself no bleeding-heart liberal in matters of construction – said that “ … the Court was covered with dishonour and deprived of legitimacy” by the Dred Scott decision.
On 28 July 1868, in the aftermath of the Civil War, the effect of the decision was overturned by the 14th amendment to the US Constitution.
The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen
The French Revolution started in 1789. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen was prepared at about the same time. It is not surprising to learn that Thomas Jefferson had a hand in drafting it. It was influenced by the political philosophy of the Enlightenment and principles of human rights, as the U.S. Declaration of Independence was. Jefferson had prepared the first draft of the Declaration of Independence.
The first five articles of the Declaration are immediately recognisable as a reflection of modern thinking:
- Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good.
- The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.
- The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation. No body nor individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation.
- Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights. These limits can only be determined by law.
- Law can only prohibit such actions as are hurtful to society. Nothing may be prevented which is not forbidden by law, and no one may be forced to do anything not provided for by law…
For all this, it is worth noticing that these principles expressly did not apply to women or slaves. And it is worth noting that in 1791 Olympe de Gouge prepared the Declaration of the Rights of Woman. The following year she was executed by guillotine.
Two steps forward, one step back…
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
The next giant step forward resulting from activism which I would identify did not happen until the middle of the 20th Century, although I am sure there were plenty of other significant advances between 1776 and 1948.
It is widely forgotten that anti-Semitism was common through the Western world until the end of the Second World War. Arguably, anti-Semitism hasn’t disappeared but has simply gone underground. There are clear traces of anti-Semitism in the earliest version of Magna Carta. There are clear instances of anti-Semitism in Shakespeare, notoriously in the Merchant of Venice. But the horrors of the holocaust gave anti-Semitism the bad name it always deserved.
The Second World War gave rise to a new need to protect human rights. After the war ended, it was impossible – indecent – to permit a continuation of the anti-Semitism which has disfigured many countries (including England and Australia). The holocaust showed where that line of thinking leads if left unchecked. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and the Refugees’ Convention in 1951 were the most prominent expressions of a new global concern to see that those who fear persecution should be protected.
The Universal Declaration (10 December 1948) was the work of a surprising activist: Eleanor Roosevelt. She was the widow of Franklin Delano Roosevelt who had died shortly before the end of the Second World War. She was also cousin to Roosevelt and had grown up in the rich surroundings of the Roosevelt family. But Eleanor Roosevelt was a genuine egalitarian and had set her heart on responding decisively to the horrors of the Second World War.
When I say Eleanor Roosevelt was a true egalitarian, it is worth remembering that from the death of FDR in 1945 until her death in 1962, Eleanor Roosevelt spent most of her time at a small property called Val-Kill in upstate New York. Val-Kill is truly remarkable in a number of ways. It is strikingly plain. It is a very simple old farmhouse. The sitting-room is furnished with very ordinary chairs and very simple bookshelves. But there are photographs on the wall one of which is a photograph of Eleanor Roosevelt having tea in that very room with John F. Kennedy. Next to the sitting-room is the dining-room. The dining-room table seats 10 or 12 people. Many great heads of state dined at that table. But Eleanor Roosevelt was always conscious of the need to have equal numbers of locals whenever she was entertaining dignitaries. And the crockery on which dinner was served had been bought at a Five and Dime store. Eleanor Roosevelt must have been a truly remarkable person. Her sense of the equality of all human beings still lives and breathes at Val-Kill.
After the end of the Second World War, Eleanor Roosevelt set her heart on creating a Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It begins as follows:
Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,
Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,
Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law, …
As with the Declaration of Independence, some of the rhetoric goes beyond what has ultimately been achieved but it remains the case that for such a document to be universally acknowledged in the United Nations is a mark of progress to which all activists can aspire.
The Trevorrow case
The Trevorrow case happened half a world away, and 150 years later.
Bruce Trevorrow was the illegitimate son of Joe Trevorrow and Thora Lampard. He was born in November 1956. They lived at One Mile Camp, Meningie, on the Coorong. They had two other sons, Tom and George Trevorrow.
They lived at One Mile Camp because, in the 1950s, it was not lawful for an aborigine to live closer than one mile to a place of white settlement, unless they had a permit.
When Bruce was 13 months old, he got gastroenteritis. Joe didn’t have a car capable of taking Bruce to the hospital, so some neighbours from Meningie took him to the Adelaide Children’s Hospital where he was admitted on Christmas Day 1957. Hospital records show that he was diagnosed with gastroenteritis, he was treated appropriately and the gastro resolved within six or seven days. Seven days after that he was given away to a white family: Mr & Mrs Davies.
The Davies lived in suburban Adelaide. They had a daughter who was about 16 at the time. She gave evidence at the trial as a woman in her late middle age. She remembered the day clearly. Her mother had always wanted a second daughter. They had seen an advertisement in the local newspaper offering aboriginal babies for fostering. They went to the hospital and looked at a number of eligible babies and saw a cute little girl with curly hair and chose her. They took her home and, when they changed her nappy, they discovered she was a boy. That’s how Bruce Trevorrow was given away in early January, 1958.
A short time later Bruce’s mother, down at One Mile Camp Meningie, wrote to the Department asking how Bruce was doing and when he was coming home. The magnitude of her task should not be overlooked: pen and paper, envelope and stamp were not items readily obtained in the tin and sackcloth humpies of One Mile Camp, Meningie. But Thora managed to write her letter, and it still exists in the South Australian State archives. The reply is still in existence. It notes that Bruce is doing quite well but that the doctors say he is not yet well enough to come home. Bruce had been given away weeks earlier.
In South Australia in the 1950s, the laws relating to fostering required that foster mothers be assessed for suitability and that the foster child and foster home should be inspected regularly. Although the laws did not distinguish between white children and aboriginal children, the fact is that Bruce’s foster family was never checked for suitability and neither was he checked by the Department to assess his progress. He came to the attention of the Children’s Hospital again when he was three years old: he was pulling his own hair out. When he was eight or nine years old, he was seen a number of times by the Child Guidance Clinic and was diagnosed as profoundly anxious and depressed and as having no sense of his own identity.
Nothing had been done to prepare the foster family for the challenges associated with fostering a young aboriginal child. When Bruce was 10 years old, he met Thora, his natural mother, for the first time. Although the Department had previously prevented his mother from finding out where Bruce was, the law had changed in the meantime and they could no longer prevent the mother from seeing him.
The initial meeting interested Bruce and he was later to be sent down to stay with his natural family for a short holiday. When the welfare worker put him on the bus to send him down to Victor Harbour, the foster mother said that she couldn’t cope with him and did not want him back. His clothes and toys were posted on after him.
Nothing had been done to prepare Bruce or his natural family for the realities of meeting again after nine years. Things went badly. Bruce tried to walk from Victor Harbour back to Adelaide (about 80 kilometers) to find the only family he knew. He was picked up by the police and ended up spending the next six or eight years of his life in State care. By the time he left State care at age 18, he was an alcoholic. The next 30 years of his life were characteristic of someone who is profoundly depressed and who uses alcohol as a way of shielding himself from life’s realities. He had regular bouts of unemployment and a number of convictions for low-level criminal offences. Every time he was assessed by a psychiatrist, the diagnosis was the same: anxiety, profound depression, no sense of identity and no sense of belonging anywhere.
The trial had many striking features. One was the astonishing difference between Bruce – profoundly damaged, depressed and broken – and his brothers, who had not been removed. They told of growing up with Joe Trevorrow, who taught them how to track and hunt, how to use plants for medicine, how to fish. He impressed on them the need for proper schooling. They spoke of growing up in physically wretched circumstances, but loved and valued and supported. They presented as strong, resilient, resourceful people. Their arrival to give evidence at the trial was delayed because they had been overseas attending an international meeting concerning the repatriation of indigenous remains.
The second striking feature was the fact that the Government of South Australia contested every point in the case. Nothing was too small to pass unchallenged. One of their big points was to assert that removing a child from his or her parents did no harm – they even ventured to suggest that removal had been beneficial for Bruce. This contest led to one of the most significant findings in the case. Justice Gray said in his judgment:
“ I find that it was reasonably foreseeable that the separation of a 13 month old Aboriginal child from his natural mother and family and the placement of that child in a non-indigenous family for long-term fostering created real risks to the child’s health. The State through its emanations, departments and departmental officers either foresaw these risks or ought to have foreseen these risks. … ”
That finding was not only supported by evidence, it also accords with common sense. We all have an instinct that it is harmful to children to remove them from their parents. The finding was based on extensive evidence concerning the work of John Bowlby in the early 1950s, which showed that it is intrinsically harmful to remove a child from his or her parents, in particular when this occurs after nine months of age.
At the time Bruce was given away, the Aborigines Protection Board of South Australia had already been advised by the Crown Solicitor that it had no legal power to remove aboriginal children from their parents. One of the documents tendered at the trial was a letter written by the secretary of the APB in 1958. It read in part:
“… Again in confidence, for some years without legal authority, the Board have taken charge of many aboriginal children, some are placed in Aboriginal Institutions, which by the way I very much dislike, and others are placed with foster parents, all at the cost of the Board. At the present time I think there are approximately 300 children so placed. …”
After a hard-fought trial, the Judge found in Bruce’s favour, and awarded him a total of about $800,000.
There are a few things to say about this. First, Bruce’s circumstances were not unique. There are, inevitably, other aboriginal men and women who were taken in equivalent circumstances while they were children and suffered as a result. Although they may seek to vindicate their rights, the task becomes more difficult as each year passes. Evidence degrades, witnesses die, documents disappear.
Second, litigation against a Government is not for the fainthearted. Governments fight hard. It took Bruce’s case eight years to get to court, and the trial ran for some months. If he had lost the case, Bruce would have been ruined by an order to pay the Government’s legal costs.
Kevin Rudd’s Labor government was elected in late 2007. The new parliament assembled in Canberra on 13 February 2008. At that first sitting, the Government said ‘sorry’ to the stolen generations. It seemed almost too good to be true: the apology so many had waited so long to hear. And it was astonishing and uplifting to hear some of the noblest and most dignified sentiments ever uttered in that place on the hill. It is worth recalling some of the words:
“Today we honour the indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuing cultures in human history.
We reflect on their past mistreatment.
We reflect in particular on the mistreatment of those who were stolen generations – this blemished chapter in our nation’s history. …
We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and Governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians. …
For the pain, suffering and hurt of these stolen generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say ‘sorry’.
To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say ‘sorry’.
And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say ‘sorry’. …
We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians.
A future where this Parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again. …”
13 February 2008 will be remembered as a day the nation shifted, perceptibly. The apology was significant not only for marking a significant step in the process of reconciling ourselves with our past: it cast a new light on the former Howard government, which had refused to apologise to the Stolen Generations. It set a new tone. And it reminded us of something we had lost: a sense of decency.
Most of the worst aspects of the Howard years can be explained by the lack of decency which infected their approach to government. They could not acknowledge the wrong that was done to the Stolen Generations; they failed to help David Hicks when it was a moral imperative: they waited until his rescue became a political imperative; they never quite understood the wickedness of imprisoning children who were fleeing persecution; they abandoned ministerial responsibility; they attacked the courts scandalously but unblushing; they argued for the right to detain innocent people for life; they introduced laws which prevent fair trials; they bribed the impoverished Republic of Nauru to warehouse refugees for us. It seemed that they did not understand just how badly they were behaving, or perhaps they just did not care.
One of the most compelling things about the apology to the stolen generations was that it was so decent. Suddenly, a dreadful episode in our history was acknowledged for what it was. The Prime Minister’s apology makes no difference whatever to whether or not Governments face legal liability for removing aboriginal children. But it acknowledged for the first time that a great moral wrong was done, and it acknowledged the damage which that caused. The most elementary instinct for justice tells us that when harm is inflicted by acts which are morally wrong, then there is a moral, if not a legal, responsibility to answer for the damage caused. To acknowledge the wrong and the damage and to deny compensation is simply unjust.
In recent times there has been considerable discussion of the statement of Australian values which, it seems, will become inextricably linked with applications for citizenship. The statement includes the following:
“Australian society values respect for the freedom and dignity of the individual, freedom of religion, commitment to the rule of law, parliamentary democracy, equality of men and women and a spirit of egalitarianism that embraces mutual respect, tolerance, fair-play and compassion for those in need and pursuit of the public good;
Australian society values equality of opportunity for individuals regardless of their race, religion or ethnic background …”
It would be good to see Federal parliamentarians place hand on heart and swear that these are values they embrace. The wilful mistreatment of asylum seekers sits uncomfortably with these values.
As I have been asked to be optimistic in this talk, I won’t say much about refugees, nor will I attempt to reconcile the Statement of Australian values with the facts surrounding our treatment of refugees. But let me give you an example that we might choose to follow. Just a few weeks ago I was in Jordan, investigating their treatment of refugees. Jordan is a country which faces some interesting challenges: it has Israel and Palestine on the west; Iraq on the east and Syria on the north. One way or another, this means that quite a few uninvited refugees have walked from one or other of those countries into Jordan, looking for a place of safety. In addition, Jordan has a population of only 9.6 million people and a fairly fragile economy, because it does not have any oil.
In the north of Jordan, just about five kilometres from the Syrian border, is a refugee camp called al Za’atari. The Za’atari camp presently holds about 80,000 people, all of whom arrived in Jordan as uninvited refugees. But for the fact that they arrived on foot, they would have been boat people. The Za’atari camp is an open one: people inside the camp are allowed to get jobs outside the camp and they go out each day and return each evening. The camp contains almost 2,000 shops which have been established by refugees and are run by refugees. They include not only the best falafel shop I’ve ever been to but also two shops where you can hire bridal gowns!
The 80,000 people in the Za’atari camp are just the tip of the iceberg. There are about 1 million refugees living in the community in Jordan. They are all informal refugees: that is, refugees who have simply turned up looking for protection. To put that figure in perspective: in the approximately 60 years since Australia signed the Refugees’ Convention, we have received fewer than 1 million refugees in total. Of that group, fewer than 100,000 were informal refugees. It need hardly be said that in recent years Australia has been hostile, to the point of paranoia, about informal refugees arriving here. Jordan manages informal refugees with remarkable grace, and yet it has not signed the Refugees’ Convention. In the last few years it has received far more informal refugees than we’ve received since we signed the Convention 60 years ago, but Jordan treats them well.
So, if you are an activist in relation to the interests of refugees, keep at it. Human decency will eventually find a way. Sometime, perhaps even in the near future, Australia will find that it is able to respond to refugees as generously as Jordan does.
To conclude, on the same trip that took me to Jordan I was taken to Lesbos. Lesbos is a Greek island just four kilometres off the coast of Turkey. As a result of that little accident of geography, Lesbos has received a lot of refugees who have fled through Turkey and who want to get to safety in Europe. A lot of them land on Lesbos. While I was in Lesbos, I heard a story about a beach there which, occasionally, has a big tide which washes up tens of thousands of starfish. The starfish are stranded on the beach as the tide recedes. If they stay on the sand they will dry out and perish. A little girl who lived in Mytilene, the main town on Lesbos, was very concerned about the starfish. She went down to the beach. A grown-up said to her “you can’t save them all”.
Her response was to bend down pick up one starfish, throw it into the ocean and say “well I saved that one”.
And that is my message tonight: every one of us, by seeing the difference between what is right and what is wrong, every one of us can make a difference by doing something. And if enough of us do something, we can achieve everything.