From Sea Bound Incarceration to Tropical Island Detention

by

“The secret overnight transfer [of the asylum seekers] is a deliberate move to prevent legal scrutiny. It highlights the government’s deception, secrecy and willingness to undermine the rule of law in Australia.”

-Hugh de Kretser, Human Rights Law Centre, Aug 3, 2014.

Sentiment is notoriously inconsistent. It retracts when discomfort appears. The mixed feelings in the Australian electorate towards asylum seekers oscillates between solidarity for the resolute Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison, and infrequent pangs of sympathy for asylum seekers. This is particularly acute when it comes to the treatment of children, who have been subjected to a legal vanishing in the refugee debates.

The sentimentalists have been kept busy worrying about the fate of a Down’s Syndrome child born to a Thai surrogate mother. The Australian parents who facilitated the arrangement deny knowledge that they knew of Gammy’s existence. They only had knowledge of the child’s sister, whom they took back with them to Australia. And the drama continues, with $220,000 raised by a charity drive to help cover medical costs and upkeep for the child.

As Fairfax media reported, “the Australian couple took the healthy baby, while Gammy was left behind, and although loved and cared for, Chanbua and her family were unable to meet the costs of his medical needs and care” (Sydney Morning Herald, Aug 5).

As this inflated morality tale unfolds, 50 children, who were part of the 157 asylum seekers detained at sea for a month by Australian authorities, now find themselves in carceral conditions on the tropical island of Nauru. Their journey has been blistering in its cruelty – from an Australian customs vessel to the Cocos Islands; Curtin detention centre in Western Australia, then Nauru.

Nauru’s reputation as a decrepit pit of processing is not without ample claim and evidence. The intention on the part of Canberra has always been to introduce a world of brutality and practised cruelty, something that is more than just the simulacrum of a Pacific prison complex. The underlying message: Don’t come to Australia.

Even the “contractors”, a term that has come into fashion when describing the processing facilities on Manus Island and Nauru, are concerned about the sudden challenges to space. Initially, the asylum seekers will be processed at the sterilely named OPC1 camp, which does not currently hold families. It is said that they will then be moved to the laconically termed “family camp”.

The Australian Human Rights Commission has received sworn evidence that Australian authorities failed to provide an adequate degree of medical care and protection for children on the island. Given that the Immigration Minister is technically the legal guardian for the unaccompanied minors, irrespective of their refugee status, the case for an abuse of position can be amply made out.

This is certainly the argument made by the leaders from nine Christian denominations in Australia, all part of the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce. Members have gone so far as to claim that the Abbott government has developed an appetite for “state-sanctioned child abuse”. The point from Church leaders is well worth noting, given the all too familiar occurrence of child abuse that has taken place under their watch in the past. In the sombre words of the Anglican Dean of Brisbane, Reverend Peter Catt, “Institutional child abuse occurs in many different settings and it’s illegal, it’s horrific and it’s unacceptable.”

Risking the vice of legal reasoning from the High Court, the Immigration authorities initially gave the impression that the Tamils would be brought to Australia for processing, albeit at a remote site in Western Australia. Instead, they were secretly flown to Nauru last Friday after their refusal to meet with Indian consular officials at the Curtin detention centre.

Legal access to the 157 was at best uneven, though Morrison gives the impression that the professional largesse was positively lavish. Hugh de Kretser of the Human Rights Law Centre explained that lawyers had only been granted access to a paltry 20, and had spoken to a mere four via telephone last week. George Newhouse, who is acting for the Tamils, claimed that neither he nor his colleagues “had a proper opportunity to inform our clients of their rights and their options because of the secrecy surrounding them.”

Morrison came up with one of those unfathomable responses that have become a feature of his tenure. “It is very disappointing that, after having had access to their legal representatives on July 29, all 157 IMAs coincidentally chose not to talk to Indian consular officials.” In this case, Morrison aimed for somewhere under the watermark, accusing lawyers, those people “who are supposed to be looking after their best interests” down.

The tactical rhetoric is vital: asylum seekers are simply behaving badly because they, at the end of the day, are the problem. They do not have the papers. They are “economically” motivated. And they are not reliable. In the case of the Tamil families in question, lawyers have argued repeatedly that they risk torture on return, that living in India has not seen them able to register for education and work purposes. But the non-citizen continues to be the enemy in the language of border control.

As Philip Ruddock, the Australian Immigration minister in 2003 explained, the very idea of psychological trauma should be ignored in favour of more sinister motives. Opportunists are everywhere, even when they flee conflict zones and police states. In his words, “there were perceptions in the [detention] centres themselves that, by action of self-harm, people had achieved outcomes.”

They are not to be protected, but detained; concealed, rather than openly processed. Hidden from view, all manner of things are tolerated. As long as those heart string stories of Gammy appear, the rest of the children, and their parents, can be happily banged up without even a murmur of internationally sanctioned process. Do not expect a GoFundMe page on their behalf. They are merely asylum seekers.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
September 01, 2015
Mike Whitney
Return to Crisis: Things Keep Getting Worse
Michael Schwalbe
The Moral Hazards of Capitalism
Eric Mann
Inside the Civil Rights Movement: a Conversation With Julian Bond
Pam Martens
How Wall Street Parasites Have Devoured Their Hosts, Your Retirement Plan and the U.S. Economy
Jonathan Latham
Growing Doubt: a Scientist’s Experience of GMOs
Fran Shor
Occupy Wall Street and the Sanders Campaign: a Case of Historical Amnesia?
Joe Paff
The Big Trees: Cockburn, Marx and Shostakovich
Randy Blazak
University Administrators Allow Fraternities to Turn Colleges Into Rape Factories
Robert Hunziker
The IPCC Caught in a Pressure Cooker
George Wuerthner
Myths of the Anthropocene Boosters: Truthout’s Misguided Attack on Wilderness and National Park Ideals
Robert Koehler
Sending Your Children Off to Safe Spaces in College
Jesse Jackson
Season of the Insurgents: From Trump to Sanders
August 31, 2015
Michael Hudson
Whitewashing the IMF’s Destructive Role in Greece
Conn Hallinan
Europe’s New Barbarians
Lawrence Ware
George Bush (Still) Doesn’t Care About Black People
Joseph Natoli
Plutocracy, Gentrification and Racial Violence
Franklin Spinney
One Presidential Debate You Won’t Hear: Why It is Time to Adopt a Sensible Grand Strategy
Dave Lindorff
What’s Wrong with Police in America
Louis Proyect
Jacobin and “The War on Syria”
Lawrence Wittner
Militarism Run Amok: How Russians and Americans are Preparing Their Children for War
Binoy Kampmark
Tales of Darkness: Europe’s Refugee Woes
Ralph Nader
Lo, the Poor Enlightened Billionaire!
Peter Koenig
Greece: a New Beginning? A New Hope?
Dean Baker
America Needs an “Idiot-Proof” Retirement System
Vijay Prashad
Why the Iran Deal is Essential
Tom Clifford
The Marco Polo Bridge Incident: a History That Continues to Resonate
Peter Belmont
The Salaita Affair: a Scandal That Never Should Have Happened
Weekend Edition
August 28-30, 2015
Randy Blazak
Donald Trump is the New Face of White Supremacy
Jeffrey St. Clair
Long Time Coming, Long Time Gone
Mike Whitney
Looting Made Easy: the $2 Trillion Buyback Binge
Alan Nasser
The Myth of the Middle Class: Have Most Americans Always Been Poor?
Rob Urie
Wall Street and the Cycle of Crises
Andrew Levine
Viva Trump?
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
Behind the Congressional Disagreements Over the Iran Nuclear Deal
Lawrence Ware – Marcus T. McCullough
I Won’t Say Amen: Three Black Christian Clichés That Must Go
Evan Jones
Zionism in Britain: a Neglected Chronicle
John Wight
Learning About the Migration Crisis From Ancient Rome
Andre Vltchek
Lebanon – What if it Fell?
Charles Pierson
How the US and the WTO Crushed India’s Subsidies for Solar Energy
Robert Fantina
Hillary Clinton, Palestine and the Long View
Ben Burgis
Gore Vidal Was Right: What Best of Enemies Leaves Out
Suzanne Gordon
How Vets May Suffer From McCain’s Latest Captivity
Robert Sandels - Nelson P. Valdés
The Cuban Adjustment Act: the Other Immigration Mess
Uri Avnery
The Molten Three: Israel’s Aborted Strike on Iran
John Stanton
Israel’s JINSA Earns Return on Investment: 190 Americans Admirals and Generals Oppose Iran Deal