Government blames 'misty-eyed' refugee advocates for deaths

May 6, 2016

Oppressed people around the world have long used self-immolation to protest grossly unjust regimes.

Thich Quang Duc protested the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government in June 1963 by burning himself to death at a busy Saigon intersection.

The Arab Spring famously began when Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight in December 2010 in response to repeated harassment and humiliation by local officials.

In a classic case of victim blaming, immigration minister Peter Dutton has blamed refugee advocates, rather than his government's policies, for the current spate of refugee self-immolation, which comes 15 years after Pakistani refugee Shahraz Kayani's death after setting himself on fire outside Parliament House in Canberra in April 2001.

Dutton deflected blame for the self-immolations to refugee advocates "who are encouraging some of these people to behave in a certain way, believing that pressure exerted on the Australian Government will see a change in our policy in relation to our border protection measures.

"These behaviours have intensified in recent times and as we see, they have turned to extreme acts with terrible consequences. Advocates who proclaim to represent and support the interests of refugees and asylum seekers must frankly hear a clear message ... their activities and these behaviours must end."

Asked whether he believed self-harming refugees were mentally ill and desperate, rather than acting at the behest of advocates, Dutton said they had "paid thousands of dollars to people smugglers to come to Australia and they haven't arrived in Australia. They are frustrated by that. I can understand that."

On cue, the Nauru government agreed. "Refugee advocates must stop giving refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru false hope and stirring up these protests. Nauru cares deeply about each person who is a part of our refugee community ... locals have reached out to them and continue to consider them as our friends and neighbours," it said in a statement.

Refugee Action Coalition spokesperson Ian Rintoul said: “The government itself is playing a dangerous game with the lives of asylum seekers and refugees — in Australia and on Nauru. Offshore processing and the government's mismanagement of the situation is costing lives.

“Peter Dutton does not have a shred of evidence that advocates encourage refugees to self-harm. This is the same line Scott Morrison tried about the Save the Children workers in 2014 and that was shown to be completely false. But Dutton has learned nothing.

“His dismissive attitude to the distress of the asylum seekers and refugees on Nauru will only put more people at risk. He should seek the advice of mental health experts before he makes such ill-informed pronouncements.”

But, despite Dutton's attempts to deflect the blame, it is the Australian government that is responsible for the deaths and injuries on Nauru.

Conditions in Australia's detention centres in Nauru and Manus Island are bleak: the tropical heat is extreme: air conditioning is rare — except for guards and staff; the guards and surrounding locals are hostile; and detainees are regularly physically and verbally abused.

But the worst aspect is the uncertainty of the detention, and that so many of those who have been found to be refugees have still been held for more than three years and face an indefinite future in detention.

Australia's policy towards asylum seekers is one of deliberate and calculated barbaric cruelty. It is clearly designed to make asylum seekers' situations intolerable, to dehumanise them, and to force them to return to the countries they originally fled.

That the policy is intentionally cruel is shown by the government's rejection of offers from New Zealand and the premiers of all Australian states, to resettle those currently in detention. Dutton rejected the offers out of hand; Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull thought it would not be a good marketing look and described those who oppose the government's policy towards asylum seekers as "misty-eyed".

In late April, representatives from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees visited Nauru and told detainees that none of them would escape from the camps within 10 years. Given no hope, two refugees set themselves on fire as the only way to end their suffering. But the cowards and hypocrites in the government say that this is merely another attention-seeking device.

The camps in Manus Island and Nauru have ceased to be mere detention centres. They are now concentration camps. It is well past time to end the disgraceful asylum seeker policy that both sides of politics have pursued in our name.

Dismantle the camps, fulfil our obligations under international treaties and resettle the refugees in Australia.

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