Truth overboard: how lies and censorship prop up the detention system

It is often said that truth is the first casualty of war. It is also one of the first casualties of maintaining a detention system that seeks to demonise people fleeing persecution and cover up human rights abuses.

Immigration minister Peter Dutton’s comments that refugees leading a five-year-old Papua New Guinean boy into the detention centre caused distress to locals and led to them firing into the air near the centre, is one of these lies.

Dutton’s claim has been rejected by everyone in PNG, from refugees who posted photos of the bullets holes on April 14 to the head of the PNG police force. No one had heard or said anything remotely close to Dutton’s claim until he said it, days after the shootings.

Dutton has likely conflated an incident when refugees helped a 10-year-old PNG boy who came to the centre begging for food more than a week previously. Refugees took him into the centre, gave him some fruit and he then went on his way. Refugees have called on Dutton to release CCTV footage of the incident to prove their innocence.

Dutton has since refused to apologise and is hiding behind the excuse of acting on information from the Australian Border Force that cannot be made public. He has claimed that locals were angered by numerous incidents of sexual assault, but refused to provide any evidence.

The widely-held view is that refugees were playing football just outside the centre when a drunken off-duty naval officer started a fight. This led to refugees leaving the ground and returning to the centre, followed by locals who threw rocks at them. Later, navy personal shot about 100 live bullets into the centre, which refugees have described as “like a war”.

These sort of incidents happen when detention centres are located in places such as Manus Island — where there is a severe lack of resources and services and many people living off subsistence farming.

PNG locals and guards have attacked the detention centre before — resulting in the murder of Reza Barati.

Dutton and Labor have repeatedly dismissed calls to bring the refugees here and both major parties have looked for ways to justify the cruelty. This is another of those times.

Dutton’s comments are also designed to falsely paint refugees as paedophiles. It fits the rhetoric of far right groups, who hold placards with slogans such as “rapefugees” and images of a woman running away from a horde of brown people. It builds on the false narrative that refugees do not hold “Australian values” and are a threat to our way of life.

On the contrary the federal government does not even recognise fleeing sexual assault as a valid asylum claim.

This is far from the first time the government has lied about refugees to make them seem undeserving of asylum. One of the most notorious incidents is the “children overboard” saga under then-Prime Minister John Howard in 2001. In the lead up to an election and facing increasing opposition to his refugee policy, Howard said asylum seekers were throwing their children into the ocean as part of a plan to be granted asylum in Australia. It was part of Liberal Party election propaganda in which Howard said: “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”.

It was later revealed not only to be false, but the government knew it was false and had manipulated photos and withheld video footage to prove its argument.

The refusal to disclose information is another hallmark of the detention system, especially when it contradicts the government’s claims. For example, Dutton has refused to speak about boat turnbacks or other maritime matters for security reasons, yet says the government has stopped the boats.

Heavily redacted documents revealed under the Freedom of Information Act after years of court proceedings by the Guardian, clearly show asylum seekers have been attempting to come to Australia via boat but have had their boats turned back by the Australian navy.

The government has also been attempting to stop information coming out of detention centres. This has led to an attempt to ban refugees’ access to mobile phones — although so far this has been blocked in the courts. It was only through refugees messaging activists in Australia and posting on Facebook and Twitter that the Good Friday shootings were made public.  

The government has also passed laws that censor medical professionals and social workers who have worked in detention centres from speaking out. They are threatened with jail time if they report incidents of refugee children being sexually assaulted — which the Nauru Files revealed happens frequently.

Access by journalists to detention centres is severely limited. To go to Nauru you must apply for an $8000 visa that is not refunded if the visa is denied. Applications from the ABC, SBS, the Guardian and Al Jazeera have all been denied.

The only media organisations that have been granted access are those sympathetic to the government. A Current Affair was granted access last year, after the presenter Caroline Marcus wrote opinion pieces in the Daily Telegraph supporting Dutton and Australia’s refugee policy.

Another lie that successive governments have presented as fact is that there are no children in detention. Dutton, probably feeling the pressure from the Let Them Stay campaign, said last year there were no children in detention and they were all living in the community. This was clearly false: community detention is still a form of detention and there were photos of children protesting for freedom inside Nauru detention centre.

The Labor Party, in government in 2010, also claimed there were no children in detention. Refugee activists travelled into the middle of the West Australian desert to Leonora Detention Centre and saw children behind the fences.

The efforts by refugees in detention, journalists, detention centre workers and activists to get the information and stories of the detention system is pulling down the walls of lies the government is using to try to justify mandatory detention.

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