This week marks eight years since Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd declared "Any asylum seeker who arrives in Australia by boat will have no chance of being settled in Australia as a refugee".
Farhad Bandesh — who was in an immigration prison on Manus Island and, after being brought to Australia under the Medevac law, was imprisoned in Melbourne’s Mantra Hotel until he was abruptly released earlier this year — put it this way.
“19 July marks 8 years of torturing innocent people absolute neglect of humanity.
"This policy murdered Reza Barati and 12 other innocent refugees.
“19 July imprisoned hundreds of children, women and men and took their rights and destroyed their lives for no reason!
“Dirty policy created to kill hope from people who need help ... instead the government deliberately tortures them mentally and physically!
“There are hundreds still remaining imprisoned and suffering. We all need to fight for permanent visas and to end this cruel policy!”
Why is this happening?
The demonisation of asylum seekers began in 2001 under the Coalition Prime Minister John Howard government and the “Tampa election”. He began offshore detention by establishing a camp on Nauru.
But many became disgusted with the scheme’s cruelty and, by 2005, more than 70 towns had declared themselves to be “refugee welcome zones”.
In 2007, Rudd won the election with the promise of ending the Pacific Solution.
Yet, in 2009, he caved in to Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s mantra of “stop the boats”. His about-face on refugee policy culminated in his fateful declaration on July 19, 2013.
During this time asylum seekers became a political pawn, maneuvered by the major parties in a show of toughness on borders.
This was to distract voters from pressing issues, such as climate change, employment policy and First Nations’ rights.
That changed profoundly when then Immigration Minister Scott Morrison directed that refugees and asylum seekers would be called “illegals”, after the Coalition returned to power in 2013.
Rather than a political game, refugee policy became a matter of “us” versus “them”. The message was: “Unless you are already one of us, then you never will be”.
Asylum seeker advocacy groups assume that people know little about refugees and their torture by the government.
Likewise, they assume people know little of the money wasted by the government on offshore detention. They urge communities to shame governments into adopting a humane policy.
But shame has not worked. The government has no shame: it simply shrugs off the murders, suicides and medical neglect it is responsible for. It has no shame about the staggering amounts of money it hands out to firms involved in the detention centre industry.
The government has extended its refugee contract for garrison and welfare services on Nauru with construction firm Canstruct International at a cost of $179 million for 6 months. The Brisbane-based company is a Liberal Party donor.
There are 108 refugees there who are living in the community: $1.660 million is being spent on each asylum seeker. But the government does not shrug.
We are facing a barbarism that only serves itself.
It is vital we educate each other and fight harder for these people.
Most of all we must never give up, no matter how baffling and how bleak it sometimes seems.
[Niko Leka is the convenor of the Hunter Asylum Seeker Advocacy.]