The issue of just treatment of asylum seekers is close to my heart. I am Jewish and the child of refugees who fled the Nazis. As a child of immigrants in Australia, I was picked on for being “different”.
My life of activism for social justice is rooted in this history. I am driven by a passion that all human beings should be included, should be valued, should be embraced. Inclusion is a fundamental value for me.
When we look at what this country is doing to people incarcerated in our detention centres, what other word can we truthfully use besides “cruelty”?
The horrors of the treatment of young indigenous boys in a juvenile detention centre in the Northern Territory were recently beamed into our living rooms on national television. It is no accident that parallels were immediately drawn between Australia's policies towards asylum seekers and these young boys.
The horrors of Don Dale matched those of the gulags on Manus Island and Nauru.
Cruel, expensive and unlawful
Culturally, historically and morally, these two types of cruelty are cut from the same historical cloth. Cruelty and lawlessness are built into the fabric of this country. Xenophobia and fear of being “swamped by Asians” run deep. We have not yet put the White Australia policy behind us.
Our current policies towards asylum seekers and refugees are xenophobic, mean-spirited, cruel and ludicrously expensive.
Our share of the over 60 million people today fleeing for safety in some part of the world, is ludicrously small, especially when compared with the burden placed on the impoverished front-line states in the Middle East.
In the year to June 2015, the National Commission of Audit reports that the government spent $1.2 billion on locking up asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru. That is $400,000 per person per year.
Within Australia, detention costs $239,000 per person per year, a little over half the cost of offshore detention, though still a huge sum.
Allowing asylum seekers to live in the community while their claims are being assessed costs $40,000 per person, and less if they have work permits.
Asylum seekers on Nauru face sexual assault, humiliation, mental anguish and denial of proper health care. A recent joint report by Amnesty and Human Rights Watch notes that basic supplies like bandages and sterile gloves are unavailable and dental services are limited to extractions.
There is an epidemic of self-harm. In the year to July 2015, there were 188 recorded incidents of self-harm on Nauru and 88 on Manus Island. This does not include the cases that occurred in onshore detention centres and in the community.
Current Australian policies towards refugees and asylum seekers are the very opposite of a cosmopolitan, humanitarian and cost-effective approach. Not only are these policies xenophobic, cruel and incredibly wasteful, they are lawless and woefully stupid.
The underlying philosophy is deterrence. It says to asylum seekers that no matter what suffering they have been through or are experiencing, Australia will treat them worse, with greater cruelty, with greater lawlessness, to deter them from even attempting to come to Australia.
Australia's detention policy is unlawful, as, under our treaty obligations, we are bound to consider all applications for asylum on our shores.
Our legal process is also severely compromised in terms of justice and integrity. Offshore detention puts asylum seekers beyond a lot of effective legal advice and support, let alone media attention. Our legislation severely curtails their rights of appeal to the courts.
In their report, Amnesty and Human Rights Watch said: “Few other countries go to such lengths to deliberately inflict suffering on people seeking safety and freedom.”
Yet, cruelty and xenophobia reflect only one aspect of Australia. The dark angels of fear and xenophobia are countered by our better selves, our light angels of fairness and humanity.
Australia's record on multiculturalism is hardly perfect. However, we generally manage to balance social inclusion with fostering diversity. Compared to other places in the world, we do quite a good job of integrating new arrivals when we put the necessary resources into it. And social researchers tell us that multiculturalism is seen as one of the most important values for Australians.
If we are to defeat the dark angels, we must appeal to the better nature of Australians, their sense of a fair go, of compassion and equality.
In the refugee advocacy group People Just Like Us, we focus on enabling people to meet asylum seekers and refugees. We believe in the power of human stories to reach people. When they hear the stories and experiences directly from refugees and asylum seekers, they can connect at the human level.
Stories abound of how Australians have taken refugees into their hearts when they have the opportunity to meet them as “people just like us”, whether on the sports field or in other social contexts.
Refugee rights movement
There are an enormous number of groups and individuals working to counter the cruelty and indifference of the Coalition and Labor while advocating and providing services for refugees and asylum seekers. There have been countless rallies and actions.
But none of them have been big enough to place real pressure on government. It is a real paradox that despite this enormous energy and generosity, the political impact over the last 20 years in terms of turning back policy has been minimal. In fact, despite some small victories, the situation is getting worse.
Why is this?
Firstly, this broad movement is incredibly fragmented. Each group is doing its own thing, regardless of the rest. We have failed to unite into a powerful force for change.
Secondly, the official narrative on asylum seekers still has many Australians in its grip.
When the 267 asylum seekers flown to Australia for medical treatment were threatened with being returned to Nauru, the #LetThemStay movement arose. So far, to our knowledge, none have been sent back to Nauru.
However, a February 2016 poll showed 39% believed they should be sent back and 25% did not know, while 40% believed they should be allowed to stay.
In the same poll, 34% said they thought conditions for asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru were "good" or "very good".
These views are the direct result of the deliberate veil of secrecy thrown over these gulags by the federal government. So we have a real challenge ahead of us to turn the situation around.
A successful strategy must work on two levels. It must reach the grassroots of the community and mobilise the grassroots to pressure the political class and achieve change.
Pledge for a Just Policy for Refugees
People Just Like Us believes it is essential to unite the fragmented refugee advocacy movement to pressure the government for change. To this end, in partnership with Refugee Action Coalitions around the country, we have developed a Pledge for a Just Policy for Refugees.
The aim of this pledge is two-fold.
Firstly, it identifies a positive way forward. The Pledge is a positive alternative to the negative cruelty of the current policies.
It identifies five policy points that no one can reasonably disagree with. They are:
• Immediate release and settlement for all those suffering at our hands. This means immediately closing offshore centres and bringing all asylum seekers and those assessed as refugees to Australia for permanent settlement.
• End mandatory detention. There should be no detention of asylum seekers. There should be open reception centres for health, identity and security checks. These must be independently monitored for conformity with human rights and the wellbeing of the residents.
• Raise the refugee intake substantially. Australia must substantially increase the number of people to whom we offer asylum. Only then will we have the moral authority to expect other developed nations such as the US and Japan to step up and do their share.
• Safe passage of asylum seekers to Australia, with no punishment based on means of arrival. Working with the UNHCR, Australia needs to provide safe alternatives to people seeking asylum, with fair and timely processing of their claims in countries of transit such as Indonesia and Malaysia. Those who are successful in their claims should be flown to Australia for re-settlement.
There should be no discrimination against asylum seekers who arrive on our shores by boat. We should ban boat turnbacks.
• Provide permanent settlement visas, with full rights, including citizenship, right to work and family reunion. Those applying for refugee status should have the full legal rights available to others, such as tourists, including the right to work and legal review.
Those accepted should have the same rights as other Australians, including eventual citizenship if desired. There should be no refoulement or deportation to danger.
As well as offering a positive way forward, the Pledge provides a program which the fragmented refugee advocacy movement could potentially unite and mobilise around.
We must not minimise or dismiss the huge task confronting the world.
Globally, there are more than 60 million displaced people. People are becoming more and more desperate. Currently, the most impoverished nations on Earth are carrying a hugely disproportionate share of the load.
The government's so-called “regional solution" involves pressuring and paying the poorest countries in our region to take on our responsibilities.
A true regional solution would involve helping assess people in so-called transit countries and flying refugees safely to this country.
Asher Hirsch of the Refugee Council Of Australia writes “It is important to recognise that our taxpayer dollars are being used to systematically abuse and torment asylum seekers. Not only are we ethically compelled to find humane alternatives, it also makes simple economic sense'.
Surely we can spend on humanity instead of on cruelty? We can do it and we must.
[This is based on an edited and abridged version of a speech given on August 4 at Politics in the Pub Sydney.]