MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA. REPORT FROM GREG BARNS AND ANNA TALBOT. This past Tuesday Australia’s Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, stood in front of world leaders and claimed his government’s refugee policy was the best in the world. But many people in Australia will tell you that Mr Turnbull’s boasting was misplaced.
Australia’s policy is based on deterrence, building on 15 straight years of fear mongering and demonization of the world’s most vulnerable by Australia’s political elite. In 2001, the ‘children overboard’ affair ushered in a new era of lies, which would come to characterise policy around asylum seekers and refugees. The then-Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, accused asylum seekers of throwing their children off the boat they were on in an effort to manipulate Australian authorities into offering assistance. The asylum seekers were trying to ensure that their children were safe. The boat was sinking beneath them. A few months prior to this disgraceful episode Mr Howard had refused entry into Australian waters of a cargo vessel, the Tampa, which had rescued asylum seekers whose boat was sinking.
We have spent $A9.6 billion over the past three years on our refugee policy. It consists of an immigration detention system that includes two offshore detention centres on the impoverished Pacific Island nation of Nauru and on Manus Island, off the coast of Papua New Guinea, mandatory onshore immigration detention, and turning back asylum seeker boats (usually to countries where the occupants face persecution, torture and even death). UNICEF estimates that Australia spends at least $A400,000 detaining each individual asylum seeker in offshore detention each year. It costs less than half that to detain a single prisoner. Then there is the disastrous deal with Cambodia, where the Australian government handed over $A40 million in aid to that nation in exchange for four, yes four, asylum seekers being resettled there.
What do Australians get for their money? A cache of more than 2000 incident reports known as the Nauru Files was recently released by the Guardian newspaper. It details terrifying levels of despair. Threats of self-harm are reported on a near weekly basis. Actual self-harm, including suicide attempts, are reported nearly as regularly. Sexual assault of children is rife, with numerous reports of guards and others touching young girls. One child described how someone had ‘cut me from under’, pointing to the vagina area of a cut out doll to further clarify what had happened to her. Another child reported being handed a sexually-explicit note by a local guard. The note is reproduced in the incident report. In child-like lettering, it invites the recipient to ‘come and kiss my pins’; ‘come and gigey xxx’; ‘come and kiss my botm’.