Most Australians have trouble understanding what it means to put your life in the hands of a people smuggler, or why anyone would do it. Try to imagine that you are a refugee: you are part of an ethnic minority in Afghanistan. Your people have been the target of ethnic cleansing for more than a century. You have friends and family members who have been killed by Taliban snipers and suicide bombers. You know children who were blown to bits when the Taliban used them as mine-sweepers. You know of the teenager who was forced back to Afghanistan from Nauru in 2002 and who was hunted down by the Taliban: when they found him in his village, they dragged him out of his house and threw him down the village well, and dropped a hand grenade in after him.
You have borrowed enough money to get to Australia: it is cheaper than getting to Europe or America. With your family you make your way to Indonesia, passing through Muslim countries which do not offer protection because they have not signed the Refugees’ Convention.
In Indonesia you can go to the UNHCR and get a card which vouches that you are a refugee, but it doesn’t mean much because the Indonesian government will jail you if they find you, and you aren’t allowed to work, and you can’t send your kids to school. You will wait in the shadows until some country offers to resettle you. It could take 10 or 20 years.
There is one line of escape: you can pay a people smuggler who will take you to Australia by boat. It is dangerous, but it is a chance for freedom and safety, for you and for your kids.
Imagine yourself there. What would you do?
What would most Australians do? What would our political leaders do, if they were in that position? (Try asking them: they won’t tell you)
I know I would take the risk, and I suspect most Australians would do the same. You know that if your luck runs out you could die trying to reach safety. But if ISIL or the Taliban get you, you are just as dead as if you drown.
Most Australians don’t have to make these agonising choices but if we did, we would not be grateful to a government for cutting off our last line of escape. But that is exactly what Australian politicians do.
We have a harsh system of offshore detention: we take boat people by force, against their will, and dump them on Nauru or Manus Island (Papua New Guinea). This is said to be a deterrent. When people die in offshore detention (they do) our politicians tell us those deaths are a necessary part of the deterrent.
The idea of deterrence is to make getting on a boat less attractive than the alternatives. Take the example of a Hazara from Afghanistan (over the past 15 years, most boat people have been Hazaras from Afghanistan). They get here by being taken through Pakistan then to Malaysia by plane and from Malaysia to Indonesia by plane. Their travel papers are provided by the people smuggler, who takes them back again when they reach Indonesia.
If the journey is intercepted in Malaysia or Indonesia, they face the prospect of staying there for years or (more likely) decades until some country offers to resettle them. Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia have not signed the Refugees Convention and will jail them if they are found. They cannot work and cannot send their kids to school. If they go back to Pakistan or Afghanistan, they face the real prospect of being killed by the Taliban. Hazaras have been the target of ethnic cleansing for more than a century, but especially since the Taliban came on the scene a few decades ago. Most Hazaras living in Afghanisan or Pakistan have friends and family members who have been killed by Taliban snipers and suicide bombers. Most Hazaras know children who were blown to bits when the Taliban used them as mine-sweepers.
So, put broadly, the alternatives are a life of real fear and persecution in Afghanistan or Pakistan, or a life of fear and hopelessness in Malaysia or Indonesia. When the alternative is a dangerous boat trip to a life of safety in Australia, only the timid will be deterred.
Getting on a boat and arriving in Australia to ask for protection is not an offence. It is not illegal. Boat people have not broken any law. They are innocent people. Calling them “illegal” is just a lie which dishonest politicians repeat in order to make cruelty look acceptable. Chief among the dishonest politicians are Tony Abbott, Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton, all of whom repeatedly called boat people “illegal”. They lie to us so they can get away with betraying the proclaimed Christian values.
Offshore detention involves this: we treat innocent people in such a way as to deter others from trying to get here for protection. Specifically, they will be sent to Nauru (an independent republic, population 8000), or to Manus Island (part of Papua New Guinea). There are two reasons for choosing these places.
- First, they are outside Australia, and the subtext is that when we send boat people there we will shut the door behind them. So we remove the promise of safety and protection and substitute an uncertain, uncomfortable future of waiting. Substituting despair for hope is a pretty effective deterrent.
- Second, they are out of sight and difficult to get to. Community support, which is so important to detainees in Australia, disappears. Refugee supporters are denied access to detainees in Nauru and Manus Island. This enhances the sense of despair of people sent there.
Years of isolation and uncertainty drive people to despair and misery: we have seen in Pacific Solution mark I, we have seen it in detention centres onshore and offshore; we are seeing it again in Pacific Solution mark II. Perhaps someone has done some figures to see just how many years of despair are enough to deter people from having a shot at freedom and safety. Presumably someone in a dark corner of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection will do some figures, because it is fantastically expensive to deter people this way. Because Manus and Nauru are remote places, it costs a lot to build the necessary infrastructure and it costs a lot maintain staff there. Typically, it costs about 5 times as much per person per day to warehouse people on Nauru or Manus as it costs to detain them in an Australian detention centre. So, in order to make Australia look less appealing than the Taliban, we will spend about $1600 per person per day during the time they are held on Nauru or Manus. And if the ‘no advantage’ principle is applied, we will hold people for at least 5 years. That comes to about $3 million for each person detained. (Those who think boat people are just economic migrants might lobby government to offer them $1 million per person to go back where they came from. If it worked, it would be a lot cheaper than what we are doing now).