Abbott, Morrison, Turnbull and Dutton are not to be believed when they express concern about people drowning in their attempt to reach safety. Their policy (which Labor basically supports) seems to be this: “We are so concerned about you drowning, that we will punish you if you don’t drown.”
The Federal election campaign of 2013 was the first time in our political history that both major parties campaigned on a promise to be cruel to a particular group of human beings: asylum seekers. They promised to treat asylum seekers so harshly that others would be deterred from seeking our help. This completely ignores the point of the Refugees Convention, and it ignores Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Right, which says “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”
Since the 2013 election, we have witnessed increasingly brutal treatment of asylum seekers. This was done, in large part, by Scott Morrison repeatedly referring to boat people as “illegal arrivals” and then morphing it into the idea of “border protection”. It is the great lie on which his campaign of cruelty was based. It ignores Article 14 of the Universal Declaration. It ignores the fact that it is not an offence to come here, without papers, without an invitation, seeking asylum. It is also the foundation of Mr Dutton’s equally harsh approach to boat people, in which votes are more important than human decency.
It is based on an alleged (but not genuine) concern about people drowning in their attempt to reach safety. When Abbott and Morrison or Turnbull and Dutton express a humanitarian concern about boat people drowning, they are lying. In fact, their stance demonstrates a complete lack of concern for the lives of persecuted people who are unable to escape. While it is undoubtedly tragic that people drown trying to escape persecution, it has been known for centuries that people perish in their attempt to find safety.
I do not believe Mr Abbott or Mr Morrison had any genuine humanitarian concern about asylum seekers. They said they stopped the boats. It was largely true: with a couple of exceptions, boats have stopped arriving. But we know they have not stopped setting out from Indonesia: we have been pushing them back. We are not allowed to know how many have drowned on those boats: it is an “on-water matter”, so it remains a secret.
“Stop the boats” became the mantra by which our government would be judged. Of course, the boats have not stopped setting out, so “stop the boats” came to mean “stop the boats arriving”. Morrison and Abbott were thrilled to be able to tell us that they had stopped the boats. But even if it is gratifying to say that you have achieved a three word slogan, it is not self-evident that the endeavour should be hailed a success.
Stopping refugee boats arriving is not a self-evident good. It might stop people drowning inconveniently in view of Australians at Christmas Island. But if they do not get on a boat and are, instead, killed by the Taliban, they are just as dead as if they drowned. If they try to flee to Europe and drown in the Mediterranean, they are still dead. The real difference is that our conscience is not troubled by their un-noted death somewhere else.
It is worth remembering that boat people are, by definition, people with enough initiative to take steps to escape persecution, and enough courage to risk their lives at sea. And they are fleeing the same extremists we are fighting in the Middle East. So what’s not to like about them? Stopping the boats prevents our society from receiving people who are brave and determined.
Boat people who have managed to get here without drowning are treated with unparalleled harshness. They are treated as sub-humans, in needlessly dreadful conditions in Nauru and Manus Island. Reza Barati was murdered in the Manus Island detention centre, by the people guarding him. Hamid Kehazaie died of septicaemia after cutting his foot in Manus island, because the medical care for detainees in detention centres run by Australia is hopelessly compromised.
Let us face the plain facts: innocent men, women and children are suffering terribly in detention centres, and their suffering is the intended result of Australia’s policy. As a nation, Australia is responsible for the misery and harm deliberately inflicted on boat people by successive governments.