To many people in the northern hemisphere the names Christmas Island, Nauru, and Manus Island, in Papua New Guinea, sound exotic, tropical, a place to go, if you had the money, to soak up the sun and relax.
But for thousands of refugees fleeing persecution they are Australia’s tropical gulags, places of no escape, of mental torture, self-harm, sickness, desperation and even murder.
The demonising and imprisonment of asylum seekers began in 1992 under a Labor government led by Paul Keating, with bipartisan support. It was in contravention of the United Nations Convention relating to the status of Refugees under which the Australian government is legally obligated to grant anyone fleeing persecution and seeking asylum the right to enter the country by whatever means possible. The Article states that signatory countries are not to impose penalties on or indefinitely restrict the freedom of movement of those seeking asylum.
Since mandatory detention was introduced successive Labour, and right-wing Liberal Party-National Party coalition governments have increased the oppression of asylum seekers in a political race to the bottom. They claim they were responding to the sentiments of the electorate. At no stage has the Labor Party fought such racist conceptions.
In 2013, in an attempt to win right-wing support during the elections, the then Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said, “asylum seekers who come here by boat without a visa will never be settled in Australia.”
The international company Serco, which runs prisons in the UK, Australia, and other parts of the world, administers detention centres, where the brutal and inhuman incarcerations have one purpose, to dissuade men women and children from seeking asylum in one of the most prosperous countries in the world by making conditions in the camps so horrendous that they are worse than the countries the asylum seekers flee.
Boats crammed with refugees are intercepted at sea by Australian “border” patrols to prevent them landing on the mainland where they would have to be processed and could remain if found to be genuine refugees.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott vowed before the last election in 2013 that he would “stop the boats”. To a large extent he succeeded. In 1012-13, 25,273 asylum seekers arrived by boat. Since then there have been almost none, that is until a boat loaded with 157 Sri Lankan Tamils, 37 of them children, sailed 5348 miles from the Indian port of Pondicherry, only to be intercepted by Australian border protection forces some 1200 miles from Australia.
In yet one more escalation of bastardy, the government kept the children, women and men confined in small spaces on the Australian Customs vessel, Ocean Protector, for one month separating families and only allowing them out a few hours a day. The Minister for Immigration, Scott Morrison, refused to provide human rights groups or the media with information.
Asylum seekers later said that at one stage they were told they would have to navigate their own way back to India on rubber lifeboats. None had any boat skills and nine of them were given minimal instructions on navigation so they could make the five-hour journey to Kanyakumari, a town on the southernmost tip of India. One of the refugees said later that they were so terrified that they refused to eat after that.
Hugh de Kretser, executive director of the Human Rights Law Centre, said the revelation made a ‘’complete mockery’’ of the government’s claims to care for the wellbeing of asylum seekers if it was prepared to load 157 men, women and children onto lifeboats somewhere in the Indian Ocean.
‘’Secret detention on the high seas, trying to dump families in lifeboats in the ocean, secret overnight transfers, misleading the public, frustrating access to lawyers and to the courts – such behaviour … is trashing the foundations of Australia’s democracy,’’ he said.
Eventually all were transported to the Curtin detention centre in the desert of remote Western Australia, then flown over 5000 miles to Nauru.
While this was taking place Tony Abbott claimed that Sri Lanka is “a society at peace”. He was supported by former Labor Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr, who said that Sri Lanka asylum seekers are “economic migrants”.
The lies of both men were refuted by Graeme McGregor, the Refugee Campaign Coordinator for Amnesty International Australia. He said, “Amnesty International and the Human Rights Law Centre have long documented the human rights abuses widely committed by the Sri Lankan authorities … Despite the end of the 2009 conflict, the Sri Lankan Government has systematically and violently cracked down on its critics.
“Sri Lankan asylum seekers have faced torture upon return to Sri Lanka from countries such as the UK. Torture has been reported in rehabilitation camps… and also in the context of civil policing. All ethnic groups in Sri Lanka continue to face risks of torture in police custody, including sexual violence. In several known cases, Tamils who have been returned to Sri Lanka have faced arbitrary arrest and detention”.
He said “there is no way for a Sri Lankan to flee persecution without leaving their country”.
He added that at least 15 media workers have been killed since 2006 and more than 80 journalists have gone into exile since 2005.
While the harassment of Sri Lankan asylum seekers was taking place at the hands of the Australian government a national inquiry into children in immigration was taking place at which medical and legal experts and former staff, told of self-harm, abuse, and children being deprived of medication while at detention centres.
Psychiatrist Dr. Peter Young, who was the director of mental health services at detention centre service provider International Health and Mental Services (IHMS) until a few months previously, told the inquiry that the Department of Immigration tried to suppress a report which referred to the terrible mental effects of incarceration.
He said IHMS had collected figures showing “significant” mental health problems among child detainees.
He said the “early data” was “broadly in line with what we are seeing with adults and perhaps a little higher”.
Dr Young said IHMS provided a report to the Immigration Department “in the couple of weeks as [the data had] come in” and that the reaction was “negative”.
“[The Immigration Department] reacted with alarm and have asked us to withdraw these figures from our reporting,” he said.
Dr Young told the inquiry there had been 128 cases of child detainees committing acts of self-harm in the past 15 reporting months, but that figure does not include Nauru.
He said he was aware children had tried to poison themselves or ingest harmful substances, and said banging heads against walls is common.
There are a further 171 cases of child detainees threatening self-harm and the Human Rights Commission says it has been told 23 children have tried to self-harm on more than two occasions.
Dr. John Paul Sanggaran, who had worked on Christmas Island in 2013, said written clinical decisions by doctors were “altered and routinely being downgraded”.
He gave an example of a three-year-old girl suffering epilepsy whose medication was taken from her when she arrived at Christmas Island.
Dr. Sanggaran said the child started having seizures and medication was ordered from the mainland but that ran out and the seizures returned.
Such horrors as have been exposed at the inquiry and by refugee advocacy groups and some sections of the media are a paradox. For, while they shock anyone with an ounce of humanity, the government welcomes them. They are an indication of success, not failure. The more the horrors of Australia’s mandatory detention are broadcast around the world, the more the government feels vindicated. The government’s ultimate deterrents are not boarder protection patrol boats, but torture.
Abbott said he was very aware of the plight of children in detention. “What is more horrific I ask you? What could be more horrific than the idea of children perishing at sea because their parents have fallen for the false promises of the people smugglers?”
Asked about the almost 1,000 children being held in immigration detention, Abbott said they would be “dealt with in the ordinary way”.
The “ordinary way” took a new twist with the revelation that Scott Morrison is finalising talks with Cambodia to organise the dumping there of 1000 asylum seekers from Nauru. $40 million dollars will be handed over to the government of one of the most corrupt, oppressive and impoverished countries in the world, the land of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, where 1.5 million of its citizens were murdered between 1975 and 1979.
Cambodia is a Buddhist country, most asylum seekers are Muslim. There are virtually no refugee facilities and there is a history of arrest of minorities and government opponents.