Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers who arrive here by boat has a few distinctive and disfiguring features:

  • It is based on dishonesty and hypocrisy;
  • It is intentionally cruel;
  • It is absurdly expensive;
  • It is not in keeping with our national character, which is why the government hides the facts from us.

Dishonesty and hypocrisy

In August 2001, the Palapa was carrying 438 Hazaras towards Australia.

It began to sink. Australia asked the Norwegian cargo ship, the Tampa, to rescue them. But when it tried to put them ashore at Christmas Island, Australia sent the SAS to take command of the Tampa at gunpoint.

John Howard said the people rescued by Tampa would never set foot in Australia. He said any asylum seeker trying to get protection in Australia would be sent to Nauru: a tiny Pacific Republic with a population of 10,000 people and an area of just 21 square kilometers.

The decision of Justice North in the Tampa case was handed down at 2.15pm (Melbourne time) on 11 September 2001.  8 hours later the terror attack on America happened.  All of a sudden, we no longer had terrorists, only “Muslim terrorists”.  We no longer had boat people, only “Muslim boat people”.  And the Howard government started calling boat people “illegals”.

It is important to recognise that this is a lie: boat people who come to Australia seeking protection from persecution do not commit any offence, even if they come without papers and without an invitation.  They do not commit an offence: they are not “illegal”.

But in the weeks after 9/11, no-one was much interested in the truth.

Two months later, the Howard government stormed to electoral victory.  Mr Howard’s notorious mantra was “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”.  If he was talking about migration policy, he was right.  But he was talking about refugee policy, and he was plain wrong.

It was untrue, and the Liberals knew it.

The Labor party said nothing to contradict the lies. The Liberals, it seemed, had turned into a party which was prepared to lie to the electorate and gain popularity by mistreating the most helpless people in the world.

The Liberals kept calling boat people “illegals” and the Labour party never authoritatively contradicted them.

Then in 2013 Tony Abbott became PM, and appointed Scott Morrison as Immigration Minister.  Morrison issued a directive in the Immigration Department that “unauthorised maritime arrivals” must thereafter be referred to as “illegal maritime arrivals”.  And he renamed the department: it became the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.  That clearly conveys the idea that we need to be protected from boat people. By these two devices, Scott Morrison (who claims to be a Christian) and his conspicuously Christian leader Tony Abbott,  set the lie as an official directive and added another layer to it: the public perception was that we were using harsh measures to protect ourselves from criminals.

If it was true, it might have justified the cruelty. But it was a lie.

The Christians who led us had apparently forgotten the central point of Christian teaching.  Or perhaps their claimed Christian beliefs were just another lie.

Intentionally cruel

Boat people who arrive in Australia are taken by force and against their will to Manus Island or Nauru.

Manus Island is part of Papua New Guinea: it is a small island north of Port Moresby.  Unaccompanied me are sent to Manus.

Nauru is a tiny Pacific Republic with a population of 10,000 people and an area of just 21 square kilometres.  Women, children and families are sent to Nauru.

Manus and Nauru are incredibly hot and uncomfortable.  People are held there for years and are assured that they will never be allowed to come to Australia.

Here is an extract from a statement by a doctor who worked on Manus who has spent most of his  professional life working in the prison system in Australia:

“…On the whole, the conditions of detention at the Manus Island OPC are extremely poor. When I first arrived at the Manus Island OPC I was considerably distressed at what I saw, and I recall thinking that this must be similar to a concentration camp.

The detainees at the Manus Island OPC are detained behind razor wire fences, in conditions below the standard of Australian maximum-security prison.

My professional opinion is that the minimum medical requirements of the detained population were not being met. I have no reason to believe that the conditions of detention have improved since I ceased employment at the Manus Island OPC.

The conditions of detention at the Manus Island OPC appeared to be calculated to break the spirit of those detained in the Manus Island OPC. On a number of occasions the extreme conditions of detention resulted in detainees abandoning their claims for asylum and returning to their country of origin.

At the Manus Island OPC, bathroom facilities are rarely cleaned. There was a lot of mould, poor ventilation, and the structural integrity of the facilities is concerning.

No soap is provided to detainees for personal hygiene.

When detainees need to use the bathroom, it is standard procedure that they first attend at the guards’ station to request toilet paper. Detainees would be required to give an indication of how many ‘squares’ they will need. The maximum allowed is six squares of toilet paper, which I considered demeaning.

A large number of detainees continue to be in need of urgent medical attention.

Formal requests for medical attention are available to the detainees. The forms are only available in English. Many of the detainees do not have a workable understanding of English and the guards will not provide assistance.  …”

In February 2014 Reza Barati was killed on Manus Island.  Initially, Morrison said that Barati had escaped from the detention centre and was killed by locals outside the detention centre.  He was not telling the truth.  Soon it became clear that Barati had been killed inside the detention centre.  It took nearly five months before anyone was charged with the murder of Reza Barati.

Just a couple of weeks after Reza Barati was killed, I received a sworn statement from an eyewitness.  The statement included the following:

“J … is a local who worked for the Salvation Army.  …  He was holding a large wooden stick.  It was about a metre and a half long … it had two nails in the wood.  The nails were sticking out …

When Reza came up the stairs, J … was at the top of the stairs waiting for him.  J … said ‘fuck you motherfucker’ J … then swung back behind his shoulder with the stick and took a big swing at Reza, hitting him on top of the head.

J … screamed again at Reza and hit him again on the head.  Reza then fell on the floor …

I could see a lot of blood coming out of his head, on his forehead, running down his face.  His blood is still there on the ground.  He was still alive at this stage.

About 10 or 15 guards from G4S came up the stairs.  Two of them were Australians.  The rest were PNG locals.  I know who they are.  I can identify them by their face.  They started kicking Reza in his head and stomach with their boots.

Reza was on the ground trying to defend himself.  He put his arms up to cover his head but they were still kicking.

There was one local … I recognized him … he picked up a big rock … he lifted the rock above his head and threw it down hard on top of Reza’s head.  At this time, Reza passed away.

One of the locals came and hit him in his leg very hard … but Reza did not feel it.  This is how I know he was dead.

After that, as the guards came past him, they kicked his dead body on the ground …”

Australia regards itself as having no responsibility for Reza Berati or anyone else held in Manus or Nauru.  But we pay Broadspectrum (previously called Transfield Services) to run the detention centres there.

We pay Wilson Security, the Australian company which employs the guards.  It was recently disclosed that Wilson Security is incorporated in Panama.


Absurdly expensive

The  present system of dealing with asylum seekers who arrive by boat is hideously expensive.  The current system costs between $4 billion and $5 billion a year.  That’s a big number: think of it as one million Geelong chopper rides each year!

Not in keeping with our national character

I remain convinced that most Australians are basically decent people, who would be shocked if they knew how cruelly we treat innocent people who have done nothing worse than ask us to help them live in safety. What we are doing to them in offshore detention is impossible to reconcile with Australian values.  That is why the government has made it practically impossible to learn what is happening on Manus and Nauru.

On 1 July 2015, the Australian Border Force Act came into operation.  Among other things, the Act makes it a criminal offence for a detention centre worker to disclose things they have observed in the detention system. The penalty for disclosing facts about the detention system is 2 years prison.

The UN Special Rapporteur Francois Crepeau was due to inspect the detention centres on Manus and Nauru in late 2015.  But on 24 September 2015 he announced that he was cancelling his visit because the Act would discourage workers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea from disclosing information to him.

In civil society, it is a criminal offence to know of child sex-abuse and fail to report it.  But in Australia’s detention system, it is a crime to report it.

Ask yourself this: Why has the government made it a criminal offence for people working in the detention system to disclose anything they learn in that capacity: even cases of child sex abuse?

There are other ways of dealing with refugees

Australia’s treatment of boat people needs a radical re-think.  It is shameful that we are now trying to treat asylum seekers so harshly that they will be deterred from seeking our help at all.  It is shameful that this deliberate mistreatment of asylum seekers has been “justified” by describing them falsely as “illegal”, when in fact they commit no offence by coming here and asking for protection.  It is shameful that the deliberate Coalition lies about asylum seekers have not been roundly condemned by the Labor party.  It is shameful that, out of an alleged concern about asylum seekers drowning in their attempt to reach safety, we punish them if they don’t drown.

There are better ways of responding to asylum seekers.  If I could re-design the system, I would choose between two possible models.

A Regional solution

Boat-arrivals would be detained initially, but for a maximum of one month, to allow preliminary health and security checks.  That detention would be subject to extension, but only if a court was persuaded that a particular individual should be detained longer.

After that period of initial detention, boat arrivals would be released into the community on an interim visa with a number of conditions that would apply until the person’s refugee status was decided:

  •  they would be required to report regularly to a Centrelink office or a post office,  to make sure they remained available for the balance of the process;
  •  they would be allowed to work;
  •  they would be entitled to Centrelink and Medicare benefits;
  •  they would be required to live in aspecified rural town orregional city.

A system like this would have a number of benefits. First, it would avoid the harm presently inflicted on refugees held in detention.  Prolonged detention with an unknown release date is highly toxic: experience over the past 15 years provides plenty of evidence of this.

Second, any government benefits paid to refugees would be spent on accommodation, food and clothing in country towns.  There are plenty of towns in country areas which would welcome an increase in their population and a boost to their local economy.  According to the National Farmers Federation, there are more than 90,000 unfilled jobs in rural areas.  It is likely that adult male asylum seekers would look for work, and would find it.

However, even if every boat person stayed on full Centrelink benefits for the whole time it took to decide their refugee status, it would cost the Government only about $500 million a year (an earlier version of this post said $500,000. My mistake), all of which would go into the economy of country towns.  By contrast, the current system costs between $4 billion and $5 billion a year.  We would save billions of dollars a year, and we would be doing good rather than harm.

A variant of this would be to require asylum seekers to live in Tasmania instead of regional towns.  As a sweetener, and to overcome any lingering resistance, the Federal Government would pay one billion dollars a year to the Tasmanian government to help with the necessary social adjustments. It would be a great and needed boost for the Tasmanian economy, and Australia would still be billions of dollars better off.

Genuine regional processing  

Another possibility is to process protection claims while people are in Indonesia.  Those who are assessed as refugees would be resettled, in Australia or elsewhere, in the order in which they have been accepted as refugees.  On assessment, people would be told that they will be resettled safely within (say) two or three months.  Provided the process was demonstrably fair, the incentive to get on a boat would disappear instantly.

At present, people assessed by the UNHCR in Indonesia face a wait of 10 or 20 years before they have a prospect of being resettled.  During that time, they are not allowed to work, and can’t send their kids to school. No wonder they chance their luck by getting on a boat.

Genuine offshore processing, with a guarantee of swift resettlement, was the means by which the Fraser government managed to bring about 80,000 Vietnamese boat people to Australia in the late 1970s.  It worked, but it was crucially different from the manner of offshore processing presently supported by both major parties.  In addition, other countries also resettled some of the refugees processed in this way.  It is likely that Australians would be more receptive to this approach if they thought other countries were contributing to the effort.

A solution along these lines would face some practical problems.  At present, the end-point for refugees who reach Australia via Indonesia is a dangerous boat trip.  You have to be fairly desperate to risk the voyage, which probably explains why such a high percentage of boat people are ultimately assessed as genuine refugees: over the past 15 years, about 90% of boat people have been assessed, by Australia, as refugees lawfully entitled to our protection.  If the end-point is less dangerous, it is obvious that a number of people will set out who are not genuine refugees.  That would cause a problem for Indonesia, and Australia would have to help Indonesia deal with that problem.  But since our current system is costing about $5 billion a year, we can probably work out some arrangement with Indonesia which suits them and us.

There is another problem.  Because we have been indelicate in our relations with Indonesia in recent years, the Indonesian government may not be receptive to an approach like this.  Their reluctance may be softened if Malaysia was also recruited for a similar role.

Both of these solutions have these features in common: they are effective, humane, and far less expensive than our present approach.  But more than that: they reflect the essential decency of Australians – something which has been tarnished and degraded by our behaviour over the past 15 years.