My column in the Guardian:
The recently released Nauru files reveal an inventory of horrors unleashed by Australia on brown and black bodies away from public or media scrutiny. These people now have a voice, albeit in often banal descriptions of sexual abuse, rape, violence and psychological breakdown.
After more than two decades of brutalising asylum seekers on the Australian mainland and offshore, this is what Australia represents. This is who we are. These are our “values” and it’s now absurd for anybody to claim otherwise.
In 2004, I interviewed the last remaining refugee trapped on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. Aladdin Sisalem, born in Kuwait in 1979, lived on Manus Island while Australian authorities thwarted his attempts to reach the Australian mainland. “I need to belong to a country that can protect me and where I can live a normal, dignified and productive life,” he told me.
His treatment at the hands of Australia, filled with deception, obfuscation and lack of sympathy, was an ominous warning of 21st century Australian officialdom and its brutal handling of those arriving by boat while fleeing the world’s conflicts.
Sisalem was eventually allowed to settle in Australia, after an extended period of time on Manus Island, 10 months of which was alone at an exorbitant and futile cost to the Australian taxpayer. He became the last refugee to suffer in the makeshift facility during its first incarnation as an Australian refugee camp.
I often think of Sisalem’s story because so little has changed in Australia’s posture towards asylum seekers. I read over my 2004 Sydney Morning Herald online interview with him and analysis of Australia’s refugee policies, and all that’s altered are the names of ministers, prime ministers along with invisible and unaccountable immigration officials. Public opinion has ebbed and flowed in the interim, between outright hostility towards asylum seekers and far more compassion, and yet Australia now finds itself as a global leader in new and innovative ways to punish powerless people.
The recent report by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch about Australia deliberately ignoring abuses on the Pacific island of Nauru, where hundreds of men, women and children live in unsafe, indefinite detention, received large global coverage. It contributes to radically shifting the international image still enjoyed by Australia; a sleepy nation with beautiful beaches and welcoming smiles. It’s a cliché still believed by countless people I have met when working in Palestine, Honduras, Africa and the United States.
I’m now constantly asked why Australia, an island state, needs to further traumatise refugees fleeing Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. Instead of being a global pariah for this behaviour, Canberra is increasingly admired and envied by European countries desperately trying to keep out Muslims from the Middle East and Africa. The Nauru files prove that privatised security is willing to use violence, intimidation and mockery to quash adult and child complaints.
It’s not just the ways in which asylum seekers are isolated that brings admiration for Australia globally but outsourcing the tasks of imprisonment to failing private companies. Australia began this process in the 1990s, an early adopter, and now countless European states are enthusiastically mimicking the trend. Militarising borders has never been so profitable.
A new report by Dutch NGOs Stop Wapenhandel and Transnational Institute, Border Wars, outlines the defence firms selling weapons to Middle Eastern dictatorships and the US as well as equipment to European governments desperate to build walls and surveillance networks to monitor and stop new arrivals. The same multinationals are selling weapons that fuel the wars and helping Europe keep out its victims. The almost weekly terror attacks in Europe are empowering this business model and it will only get worse.
The prospects for Australia’s immigration stance to change is slim. The new Senate features Islam-fearing politicians unlikely to show any interest or sympathy for Muslim refugees stranded on Manus Island or Nauru. Surging support in Europe for anti-refugee policies, along with Donald Trump’s remarkably successful insurgent campaign against Muslims, foreigners and Mexicans, shows that large numbers of the public in Western democracies want to massively slow down, if not stop, immigration. Civilians caught in the middle of wars in the Middle East and Africa will just have to suffer in silence.
There’s a lesson in this for Australia and it’s not pretty. Australia was well ahead of the global curve in its treatment of asylum seekers and rather than being a pariah, as I argued in 2014 when calling for sanctions against Canberra, it’s become an inspiration.
But not for all. In 2014, Tasmanian MP Andrew Wilkie wrote to the International Criminal Court asking the body to investigate Australia’s mistreatment of refugees. The Refugee Action Collective Victoria followed suit in 2015. Could enterprising lawyers pursue any number of other international legal bodies and hold successive Australian politicians and officials to account (ideally legally but also morally)?
In an age where prosecuting Tony Blair and George W. Bush for war crimes in Iraq is now plausible, why not include Australian prime ministers John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull for crimes against humanity for their detention regime? It’s far-fetched but not impossible. A citizen’s arrest of any of these individuals would be a great start.
Tourism Australia will soon need to design new advertisements to attract white, anti-immigration activists from around the world. These people will find a receptive audience when arriving by plane, perhaps less so by boat.