Mon, Dec 04, 2017 - Page 7 News List

Australia’s offshore detention regime:
a brutal piece of self-delusion

The billions spent on an armada to Australia’s north and west is stopping people smugglers, not the government’s needlessly cruel stance on asylum seekers

By Ben Doherty and Helen Davidson  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Yusha

The most dangerous mistruth in current Australian politics is that in order for lives to be saved at sea, other people — accused of no crime — must be indefinitely and arbitrarily punished offshore.

Asserted with increasing confidence as fact, this unproven link is used to justify Australia’s brutal regime of offshore detention in Nauru and on Manus Island as a necessary condition for a policy that, however harsh, ultimately serves a greater good.

The need to be seen to be “tough on borders” has outweighed all other considerations, pushing successive governments towards increasingly extreme positions, grotesque cruelties and risible rhetorical contortions in insisting their actions are reasonable, legal or morally defensible.

Since its inception, the policy has been roundly and repeatedly criticized — but mostly outside Canberra. Failure, scandal, abuse and death have occurred under the watch of both main parties.

In recent weeks, the world has watched aghast as the Papua New Guinea arm of the policy on Manus Island lurched toward its bitter end, driven along by swinging metal bars and the enforced thirst of hundreds of men.

Reduced to its basest element, Australian government policy is to begrudgingly treat those who legally sought its asylum — by one mode of transport, by boat — with axiomatic cruelty, in order to discourage others from paying people smugglers and hopping into leaky boats across Southeast Asia.

This policy saves lives, they say, because it deters others.

However, it is not this policy that is stopping the boats from reaching Australian shores. Australia has spent billions of dollars putting an armada to sea in the waters to the country’s north

and west.

Asylum boats continue to ply the waters of the region and attempt to reach Australia. They do so in much smaller numbers now because they are intercepted, boarded and their passengers and crew forcibly turned around. Protection assessments are conducted at sea — a policy considered illegal under international law by almost every expert opinion, including that of the UN.

If Nauru and Manus were emptied tomorrow, Australia’s “ring of steel” — Australian Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Peter Dutton’s phrase — would continue to stop boats.

When Australia abdicated responsibility for its detention center on Manus Island, withholding food, water and electricity, hundreds of men stayed in the center they loathed. They felt — and had evidence to back their claims — that they would be unsafe on alternative sites in the main town of Lorengau.

The Guardian reported from the detention center on what Australia’s policy had become reduced to: the poisoning of wells and the gouging of water tanks, police destroying food supplies and using metal batons against refugees whom Australia is legally required to protect.

Among the refugees holding out there — drinking dirty water and rationing their dwindling food — there was defiance amid the decay, and a solidarity born of new agency.

After four-and-a-half years of having to line up for every meal, of having to fill out a form to request medical treatment that might never come, of being corralled and quarantined behind high steel fences and sequestered into smaller and smaller cells, the men on Manus were briefly back in charge of their lives.

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