Fear and Hypocrisy in Australia: Immigration Detention and Free Speech

It was not long ago that the Abbott government vowed to champion free speech, pledging to amend Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, a section of the act that made almost completely useless speech illegal. This commitment was re-affirmed a number of times, including again in early 2015 after the Charlie Hebdo massacre. It seems however the government’s commitment to free speech is largely selective, actively working to keep the marginalised and powerless out of the debate, happy to gag and attack those who dissent.

The recently introduced Border Force Act has raised the ire of a number of individuals and professional bodies, gaining significant media attention with a possible two year prison sentence for speaking about the conditions in immigration detention. Much has been said about how this will impact on the ability of health professionals to report abuse and advocate for patients, however less has been said about how this will only further silence those who are genuinely voiceless.

Silencing the Silenced

The stories we hear from within detention centres are often told through third parties, with many former employees feeling compelled to speak on behalf of those who could not. For all the noise surrounding immigration detention policies, how many of those voices are refugees or asylum seekers?
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Hannah Arendt explored this powerlessness in The Origins of Totalitarianism, she argued that even though human rights are proclaimed to be universal, asylum seekers and stateless persons were left with nothing to protect their rights, effectively in limbo, no longer a member of a community where their rights could be enforced. This precarious situation has often been referred to as “the right to have rights”.

“… but it turned out that the moment human beings lacked their own government and had to fall back upon their minimum rights, no authority was left to protect them and no institution was willing to guarantee them.”

She emphasised how this stripped away the right to make oneself heard and opinions matter.

“The fundamental deprivation of human rights is manifested first and above all in the deprivation of a place in the world which makes opinions significant and actions effective… They are deprived, not of the right to freedom, but of the right to action; not of the right to think whatever they please, but of the right to have an opinion”

Managing and processing the powerless

Immigration detention in Australia compounds this powerlessness by further limiting asylum seekers ability to control their own lives and speak candidly about their circumstances. Andre Dao reminds us that this powerlessness can manifest in asylum seekers gambling on their bodies, a symbolic way to regain some control, to be heard. As Dao puts it “you are no longer a human being with free will. Instead, you’re a problem to be managed, an object to be processed.” Few better statements sum this up than these words recalled by an ex-detainee on a hunger strike who was being spoken to by a department employee.

“You understand that your life is in our hands. Your death is also in our hands because we won’t let you die.”

Although a number of asylum seekers have spoken out over the years, their voices rarely make it to the mainstream. Furthermore there remains the expectation of silence both during and after detention, it is not until permanent residency has been gained and families reunited that many feel safe to speak about their experiences.

Silenced subjects and misinformation

Maintaining this silence is key to maintaining our current approach to asylum seekers. The system has been built around rhetoric and misinformation, from children overboard to the present day. Most people can bark back three word slogans, but fewer could tell you what percentage of the world’s asylum seekers arrive on our shores or begin to explain the trauma and torture many have faced before finding safety.

The voices we most need in our debates around asylum seeker policy in Australia are absent, not only that, they are actively excluded. So as well as threatening professionals with gaol time, the Border Force Act only further ensures that that we never get to hear these stories, it ensures that we don’t know who we are locking up or for what reason.

It’s not obvious how the Border Force Act serves to “stop the boats” or “smash the people smugglers business model”, taking into account the boats stopped a long time ago. In attempting to justify this legislation however, the rhetoric has boiled down to a very familiar means justifying the ends rationale, something we should all be careful of and something where it seems appropriate to leave the last words with Hannah Arendt.

“The crimes against human rights, which have become a speciality of totalitarian regimes, can always be justified by the pretext that right is equivalent to being good or useful for the whole in distinction to its parts.”

Ryan Essex

PhD Candidate, The University of Sydney.

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Politics, Power and Children in Detention

Politics are all around us, playing out in national, local and even domestic governance. Politics have to do with the polis, the people who make up groups of any kind. In that sense, politics are unavoidable. Our relationships with others always contain a political element. Party politics are a subset of politics in its broad sense. Party politics are partisan, ideologically informed patterns of thought and action that suggest how politics should translate into governance in a way that is consistent with a set of underlying values. They condense around different beliefs in power relationships between governors and governed, in the rights and statuses of the different groups that make up the polis, in the control and dissemination of information, and in the responsibilities of government and individuals towards one another.

Accommodation in the Nauru offshore processing facility.

Accommodation in the Nauru offshore processing facility.

Party politics is made up of what Gallie termed ‘essentially contested concepts’. No one, for example, disputes the existence of the multitudes of people fleeing poverty, instability, persecution and fear. Nor do they dispute the reality of the moral and practical problems they pose for the countries to which they try to flee. But the agreements end at about this point. Some interpret this mass movement as a challenge to their sense of humanity and to their obligations to observe human rights. Others, while acknowledging the human problems of displacement, feel that local territorial rights and laws take precedence, and that the welfare of the host countries is paramount. Turning unregistered and unscreened refugees (“illegals”) away is, in that ideology, a better and safer and fairer alternative to dealing with them by taking them in.

Australia has been foremost among western countries in ‘turning back the boats’ and in making off-shore detention inevitable for those who do manage the journey, pointing to the success of that policy in preventing drownings and restricting the numbers of refugees who reach Australian territorial waters. By contrast, Italy has done its best to rescue enormous numbers of people fleeing North Africa, and to find some kind of accommodation for them. Neither side can be said to have found ‘the’ answer to a massive humanitarian crisis. Italy’s resources have been overstretched. The Australian mode of management appears to contravene United Nations conventions on refugees.

Party-Politics & the Report into Children in Detention

Into the middle of this dilemma, which is partly political in the broad sense and strongly party political in a narrower sense, came the Report into Children in Detention, chaired by the Australian Human Rights Commissioner, Gillian Triggs. The Report found more than 200 children to be in off-shore or Australian detention under conditions that harm their development and infringe the UN statements on human rights. The Commission’s findings seem to be supported by doctors who have visited the detention centres, and by various leaks from people who have worked in Nauru and Christmas Island. The Australian Government’s response has been to deny the accuracy of the report, to attack Triggs’s integrity, to accuse her of partisan reporting, and to call for her resignation.

The report calls for the early release of children from detention, and for proper acknowledgement of their rights, particularly their rights to grow into reasonable adulthood, equipped with education and some sense of identity and stability. It makes many comments about the suffering of adults, but its focus is on children and the overwhelming impact that violence, insecurity, uncertainty, heat, lack of space and lack of hygiene will have on their lives.

The report does not deal so much with the original party-political decision to turn back the boats. It does take issue with both political parties’ decisions to enforce mandatory detention, and it does so predominantly in the context of the impact of that policy on children.

Triggs & the Ruin of Party-Politics

It makes disturbing reading. Presumably that is why it has provoked such extreme responses from both sides of party politics.

On the right, party politicians and right-wing newspapers have belittled Triggs and accused her of bias against them, of dishonesty and inaccuracy. They question the timing of the inquiry, which began soon after the election of the LNP in 2013. They have recommended imprisonment for anyone who leaks relevant information to the media, such as those who supplied some of the information that Triggs relied upon.

On the left (and in the centre), politicians, commentators and media have called for the report to be taken seriously, for secrecy to be lifted and for legislation to protect refugee children. For these people, the timing of the report is irrelevant because its contents demand some major response. At the same time, those who oppose the present government’s theories and practices have used the report as a lever to destabilise the government’s refugee policies more generally, pointing out that what happens to the children is a consequence of what happens to “illegal” refugees at large.

All these conflicts of interpretation and accusations of dishonesty signal the presence of an essentially contested concept. The big concerns for us are:

  1. That politics in the broad sense have been confused with a much narrower party politics;
  2. That the present government’s refusal to allow access to the detention facilities effectively disables any public debate;
  3. That the punishments threatened against anyone who reveals ‘classified’ information about the centres are Draconian;
  4. That the government’s vigorous attacks on the report and its author suggest that they had a pre-formed notion of what the report should say.

Essentially contested concepts make up a significant part of our ‘political’ lives – they always have and they always will. What is important is the way in which these contests are handled. A totalitarian government will settle them one way; a liberal democracy will try to find another.

Ignoring the Real Issue

What is at stake in this confrontation is not Gillian Triggs’s credibility, but the public perception of its preferred mode of government. Apparently, more than 50% of the population approve the present government’s approach to refugees or believe that it should be more extreme. We can only hope that they understand that Triggs, in her appointed role as Human Rights Commissioner, was writing about children in detention, and that government decisions to discredit her well-supported findings by political force majeur raise serious concerns about the reality of our much vaunted participatory democracy.

Emeritus Professor Miles Little, University of Sydney

Miles was the Founding Director of the Centre for Values, Ethics and the Law in Medicine (1996-2003). He was also the Foundation Professor of Surgery at Westmead Hospital in 1978 and a Co-Founder of the World Association of Hepatic, Pancreatic and Biliary Surgeons (1987). Since 1996, Miles is an Emeritus Professor of Surgery at the Sydney Medical School. At the VELiM, he continues to teach and is directing the Cancer Survivorship Project. Miles interests include Medical Sociology and Biomedical Ethics. He is also a published poet.

Why care about the health and well-being of asylum seekers?

By Stacy Carter, University of Sydney and Ian Kerridge, University of Sydney

A report on the refugee detention centre in Nauru by five independent clinical experts posted online by The Guardian on Friday paints a bleak picture of life on the island, particularly for children. But why should we care about how these people are being treated?

The report describes the now-familiar wretched conditions of refugee detention. Tents that leak in the rain and become unbearably hot and humid by 10am. Burning white rocks underfoot, little natural shade, dust everywhere, only electric fans for cooling in most areas of the camp.

Mosquitoes that prevent sleep and may carry diseases. Overwhelming boredom. And the hopelessness, helplessness, frustration and despair that accompany radical uncertainty about the future.

The authors detail the effects of this environment on the physical and mental health of asylum seekers. And, not unexpectedly, they recommend changes to the detention centre. This implies, of course, that current conditions should change; that the damage we are doing to these adults and children is unacceptable.

But the Australian government disagrees. It claims current policy is justified because it prevents asylum seekers from dying at sea. Let’s assume for a moment that this is truly the purpose of offshore mandatory detention. The goal – preventing deaths – is worthy, but what means are justified to reach it? Continue reading