Dear World: we’re not all racist bastards #asylumseekers

The following is an edited version of my FB comment on this Grauniad story which featured video of the aftermath of recent violence on Manus Island, an Australian offshore detention centre for asylum seekers. The violence, in which one Syrian asylum seeker was killed and dozens of others wounded (one via gunshot), seems to have been instigated by PNG locals and complicit police/guards who allowed some locals who were armed into the detention centre. There are reports of rioting and protesting within the detention centre prior to the mob violence, however a full investigation has not been carried out and culpability has not been assigned. This hasn’t stopped all & sundry from the usual corners (including the Immigration Minister Scott Morrison) blaming the asylum seekers for their own injuries – though it seems worth mentioning that the only casualties of this mob violence appear to be asylum seekers themselves. Clearly our own administration isn’t above victim-blaming.

Anyone outside Australia might want to research the words “Tampa” and “children overboard” with regard to asylum-seekers. The current conservative government are just continuing the demonisation of desperate people instigated by conservative PM Howard in 2001 and eagerly taken up by the two subsequent Labor PMs (Rudd/Julia Gillard), who then built upon it to include summary indefinite offshore imprisonment.

We’re hearing language like “economic migrant” and “country shopper” and “queue jumper” bandied about openly by pollies and comment-trolls alike; the discourse has shifted far to the right with racist dog-whistles being blown in the usual mainstream rags and on the talking-heads shows every day. Anyone advocating for fair treatment of asylum seekers under the UN agreements Australia is a signatory to (and under Australian law) gets the usual “bleeding heart lefty” epithets hurled at them. Apparently asylum seekers are now a problem that we need to get “tough” on in the name of national security (“Operation Sovereign Borders”), not a humanitarian obligation that we as a country willingly entered into as part of an international community of well-resourced nations who understand the realities of oppression & war.

The issue of asylum-seekers was a political football at the last two elections, with both sides pledging to be meaner bastards than their opponents in an effort to get the votes – sorry, “stop the boats”. While the Labor scheme of summary indefinite offshore detention (in some cases for years) in barely-functional third-world conditions was a reprehensible crime against human rights (and led to numerous hunger strikes/self-harm/suicide attempts), the Abbott government’s perpetuation of it, and the endless bungling it’s perpetrated in only six months in office, have turned it into a tragic farce.

The initial protest & subsequent the violence that occurred inside the detention camp (instigated, it would appear, by PNG locals and complicit police/guards) is the end result of the deliberate campaign to make Australia the least attractive destination for desperate people, essentially saying to the world: “Do not come here. You will not be welcomed, you will be deprived, you will be humiliated, you will not be settled in Australia (or even see it), your claim may never even be processed as you languish in a tent for years, for we are choosing not to honour our agreements with the UN or our local laws.” It almost makes me glad there’s no iconic statue anywhere in Australia’s harbours promising to take care of other countries’ “poor, tired, huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Abbott’s team now have a choice (following an immediate and thorough investigation of the murder of a man in their care – or whatever passes for same in the Abbott government): accept that a radical shift in policy is required and begin working on it immediately or double down on their incompetence, defensiveness and deflections of culpability.

There are many Australians like me who see this not as a black/white partisan issue where only the left/right have the proper solution, but as a humanitarian issue that requires a humanitarian solution – and yes, noone (in government, at least) appears to be listening to anyone but the loudest demagogues. For them, this is a game to be played for votes with the legitimate and immediate concerns of desperate people very low on the priority list (usually below “damage control” – which should almost be a ministerial portfolio in this government).

Both sides of politics in this country have failed in their humanitarian obligations. People will seek asylum here regardless of who’s in power; it’s incumbent upon whatever government we have to honour international agreements freely entered into and to honour our own laws. We’ve always been a country of both immigrants and refugees (my own German Protestant ancestry included); this about-face on aiding the oppressed (and the attendant use of them as vote-fertiliser) is unprecedented and unforgivable.


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