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From Sea Bound Incarceration to Tropical Island Detention


“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

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