I went on a political demonstration today. Well, it was called a vigil, and it was quiet, peaceful and non-confrontational, but it was a protest. It was expressing concern about Australia’s treatment of asylum-seekers, specifically several hundred man on an island in Papua New Guinea, Australia’s northern neighbour.
Realistically, there is very little prospect, right now anyway, that our government will make a major change to its refugee policy, but we have to try. Down the track, change must surely come.
Because Australia has slipped ever so easily into a casual brutality in its treatment of desperate people, and one day we must surely be shamed into recognising how low we have sunk.
A harsh policy
Australia’s refugee and “border protection” policies are all about controlling and limiting the number of asylum-seekers settling in Australia. With conditions in countries like Sudan, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan so dangerous for many, there is a large incentive for persecuted and endangered people to try to reach a safe and rich country like Australia.
There must be practical limits to how many we can accept – we could surely accept more, but the government wants to reduce the numbers reaching our shores and then needing to be processed. So the policy was to make asylum seekers face long waits before a decision is made whether they can stay, and for conditions in the internment camps to be so difficult that there is no attraction for even desperate people to get on an overloaded boat and try to reach safe haven in Australia.
Eventually the strategy evolved to not allow anyone arriving by boat to set foot on Australian shores, ever, so internment camps were set up in neighbouring countries, Papua New Guinea and Nauru, and all boats intercepted and either turned back or their occupants taken to these camps before they can reach Australian territory. Conditions in these camps are harsh and not safe – there have been several murders and suicides.
And it works! After the harsh policy was put in place more than a decade ago, boat arrivals slowed to a trickle, but when a new and more humane government softened the policy, arrivals soared. The harsh policy was restored and arrivals have again been reduced.
The men on Manus
One of the detention centres has been on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. The centre houses men only, and about 1,500 asylum-seekers have lived there over the past 5 years.
There have always been tensions – between the Australian and the Papua New Guinea governments, and between the occupants and the local population, including the local police. Finally the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court ruled the centre was against PNG law, and ordered it closed.
The centre was officially closed at the end of October, but several hundred men in the centre refused to relocate elsewhere in PNG, saying they would not be safe outside the camp perimeter. The Australian and PNG governments have not yet carried through on their threat to move the men on by force, instead they have withdrawn facilities like food, water and electricity. Many of the men are suffering debilitating physical injuries and severe psychological conditions and their medicine has run out. Conditions are described as “squalid” and “horrendous”.
When the Manus men started collecting rainwater in barrels, the barrels were deliberately emptied.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has expressed alarm at the government’s actions, which it has long regarded as against the refugee and human rights conventions which Australia has signed. It describes the present policies as leading to “unconscionable human suffering”.
How did we end up here?
Aussies generally believe in a “fair go” for everyone. We like to think we are people who will always help someone in need. Yet here is our government brutalising suffering people and claiming their policies are a virtue. If we treated dogs like this, the RSPCA would take action.
How has this happened?
It is easy to say that Aussies have become comfortable and selfish, unwilling to share our wealth with others. It also seems likely that we have become more fearful, especially of refugees from Muslim countries.
But I can’t help feeling we once would have responded better than we are now. So what has changed?
A chilling analysis
Robert Manne is a former Professor of Politics at an Australian university. He recently published an analysis of how he believes Australia has arrived at this point (Australia’s Uniquely Harsh Asylum Seeker Policy – How Did It Come to This?).
Manne nominates several government attitudes that he thinks were partially responsible, leading to an inflexible approach to the issue. But one of his reasons stood out to me.
The banality of evil.
Manne drew on an analysis by philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt of how the atmosphere created within Nazi Germany allowed evil acts to be “perpetrated by conventional individuals because of their blindness, their loss of the capacity to see what it was that they were doing.” Instead of evoking horror or disgust, evil things came to be seen as banal.
In the same way, he said, Australia’s asylum-seeker policy was “a process whereby we gradually lost the capacity to see the horror of what we were willing to do to fellow human beings.”
He cited one particular example by current Immigration Minister Peter Dutton: “Last year, an inmate on Nauru set himself on fire and died. Peter Dutton argued in response that people self-immolate so they can get to Australia. It took thirty years of brutal behaviour for a remark like this to be possible and for Australians not to notice how truly remarkable was the Minister’s brutality.”
There is no doubt that refugee re-settlement is a difficult matter to address, with no easy answers. I don’t pretend to have a simple answer to end the difficulties and put things right.
But I do know one thing. When a policy causes or allows us to behave in callous and brutal ways towards fellow human beings in distress, warning bells should be ringing loud and clear. Something is wrong!
Where is God in all this?
The Bible is very clear that God wants us to care for the helpless. The Old Testament is full of commands, such as:
“The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 19:34
“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” Proverbs 31:8-9.
The New Testament is also clear. Jesus said (Matthew 25:31-46) we’d be judged by how we treated people in need, including strangers.
But many christians seem to be as callous towards asylum seekers as their fellow citizens.
I wonder whether we have lost sight of Jesus’ teaching to seek God’s kingdom first (Matthew 6:33)? I wonder if we have become so comfortable in our wealth and privilege that we have become willing to overlook brutality if it protects our privilege.
Have we become victims of the banality of evil?