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April 2002 issue of
World Press Review
(VOL. 49, No. 4)
Slams its Doors on the 'Less Civilized'
Wait in Fright
Seccombe, Andrew Clennell, The Sydney Morning Herald
(centrist), Sydney, Australia, Jan. 26, 2002
The story of
Moses in the bullrushes is one which would be known, at least
dimly, to most Australians. When Moses was an infant, his parents
placed him in a basket on the Nile. They did it, so the story
goes, to protect him from a pharaohs decree that all male
Hebrew children be slain at birth. With Biblical irony, the
great prophet of the Jewish and Christian faiths was found adrift
by the pharaohs daughter and raised in the royal court.
The Bible makes it clear that Moses parents took this
action out of desperate love.
with a high-powered water cannon truck patrol the Woomera
detention center after it was deliberately set ablaze
by the detainees, Dec. 19, 2001 (Photo: AFP).
Yet when some boat people, fleeing their own persecution, allegedly
did something very similar off northern Australia, they were
condemned for behaving in a way which was alien to the Australian
culture and its Judeo-Christian basis. The point is that the
moral of a story very much depends on the way it is told. Sympathy
and compassion can be encouraged or denied according to the
way events are related.
When one of the Howard governments most senior advisers
on immigration, Neville Roach, resigned this week, he cited
the way the government was telling the story of boat people
as a principal reason for leaving. The labeling of asylum seekersemotively
and incorrectlyas queue-jumpers, illegals, criminals,
and even potential terroristsby numerous members of the
government, including the prime minister, John Howard, was worse,
he said, than the policy of detention itself, harsh though that
He deplored the way the government has attempted to create a
sense of crisis about the asylum-seeker problem, to create fears
of an impending flood of arrivals. Australia faces
a minor problem by world standards. While it processed 8,000
asylum applications in 2000, Britain processed 50,000, Germany
100,000, the United States and Canada 420,000. We have about
2,000 people in detention, of whom 447 are Afghans. Even worse
than the terminology used, says Roach, was the way the government
had sent the message that these people were fundamentally different
from us, less civilized, and presented a threat to the fabric
of Australian society. Roach argues that this threat to the
social fabric comes from the language of vilification, which
suggested the Australian government was not simply controlling
population flow, but protecting Australian civilization from
alien values. It was deliberately conveyed, he says, in statements
to the effect of We dont want people like this in
this country. People who throw their children overboard.
Roach, of Indian descent, was one of the first beneficiaries,
in 1961, of the abandonment of the White Australia policy, and
considers the growth of Australia since into a relatively harmonious
multicultural society to be a modern social miracle.
His expertise as an adviser to government was not in policy
to do with asylum seekers, but in policy to attract business
migrants and broader multiculturalism.
Howard government defends its harsh policies as the only
way to stanch an immigration flood. But a
worldwide comparison shows that Australia is the destination
of relatively few asylum seekers.
But he was aghast as popular prejudice grew to encompass not
just those unauthorized arrivals by boat and those in detention,
but Australian citizens of Islamic faith, Middle Eastern, or
South Asian appearance.
It touched his own life recently when his wife was insulted,
while putting garbage into a bin outside their home, by a woman
who suggested people like you more normally just
threw rubbish in the streets. Thats how pervasive the
negative stereotyping had been: A woman going about her business
outside her comfortable home of Sydneys North Shore, 40
years an Australian, married to a man who ran IBM in this country
for 15 years and who was now chairman of Fujitsu, was assumed
to be uncivilized.
And when you ask Roach for suggestions on how the damage done
to Australia by the asylum-seeker controversy might be undone,
his first suggestion is abandon the rhetoric of division.
Even if they dont change the policy, that at least could
stop, he says. He has little hope that will happen so
long as politicians see electoral advantage in it.
During the federal election, the issue worked for the Liberals.
Now the protests by detainees against their treatment at the
Woomera detention center in South Australia is seeing a replay
of the issue in that states election campaign. We
saw yesterday the [Immigration] Minister [Philip Ruddock] and
[South Australias Human Services Minister] Dean Brown
talking, Roach notes.
Dean Brown saying how appalled he was. And it was very
emotive and you had to remember there was an election around
the corner. Brown found it barbaric that 60-odd
people in Woomera had sewn their lips together as a protest,
including, allegedly, one or two children whose parents inserted
the stitches. Only later did a spokesman for the immigration
minister concede that far from sewing their mouths shut, most
of the protesters, including all the children, had a single
stitch inserted at the corners of their mouths. And the children
referred to were adolescents of the same age as many Australian
kids who pierce body parts to dubious aesthetic effect, with
their parents approval.
That is not to suggest that the lip- sewing episode, like the
hunger strike by more than 200 Woomera residents, is not an
indicator of a problem in Australias detention system.
But does it point to barbarism on the part of the inmates or
the system? The mounting evidence, which the government never
publicizes, is that it is the latter. In March last year, long
before the Tampa hove into view, [senior assistant ombudsman]
John Taylor reported that long periods in detention could lead
to mental illnesses in detainees. File notes written by a former
counselor at Woomera, Wayne Lynch, obtained by The Herald, tell
the story of the state of mind of some of the people there.
I have just seen [detainee] and will recommend to the
Woomera medical officer that he be admitted to Woomera Hospital,
one of the files, dated early last year, says.
Upon visiting him, he was lying in the fetal position,
crying. He is clinically depressed, has not presented for meals
today...and is unable to manage activities of daily life.
One of the saddest stories, reflected in the case notes, is
that of Mohammed Dawood, a man The Herald reported on
in March last year. A Palestinian, Dawood became so disturbed
after his stay in detention that Ruddock allowed him to be released
into the community for treatment. When The Herald reported
on him, he was effectively in solitary confinement under observation
at the Maribyrnong detention center in Melbourne to stop him
from harming himself. At one stage, he broke a fluorescent
tube and started eating the glass, Ruddocks spokesman
told The Herald last year.
According to Lynchs case notes of October 2000 at Woomera:
His current psychological problems began about five weeks
ago when, as a consequence of having been advised his visa had
not been granted, he began displaying signs of his very labile
emotional behaviorcrying and irrational one minute and
calm and rational the next. Dawood said he wanted to kill
himself, and made several attempts.
The Herald revealed in December that 12 people from Woomera
had been referred to psychiatric hospitals this financial year.
Dr. Bernice Pfitzner, who worked at Woomera for nine months
and is a former South Australian Liberal MP, expressed concern
this week on how the government was handling people at the center,
saying they were going mad after six months there, in the absence
of information on their applications.
She claimed that in the past six months, acts of self-harm had
occurred almost daily as people were fed up with spending so
long in the center. They were not being given refugee status
and not being sent home either. (This particularly derives from
the fact that Australia cannot return failed asylum seekers
to Iraq or Afghanistan.) Some of them have been there
for two years and theyre still in limbo, [told] nothing
about whether they can stay or go home, she said. It
would be a relief to some of them to know they are refused.
In December, The Herald reported that Australia was holding
497 people who had been in detention for more than a year. Of
those, 66 had been detained for between 24 and 36 months, and
19 had been held for more than three years. Ruddock rightly
blames court appeals for some detainees being kept for such
a long period and also blames detainees for not volunteering
to go home, but they are a minority of cases.
The usual claim from the Department of Immigration is that 80
percent of cases are decided within 14 weeks. But at times,
particularly after large inflows of boat people such as at the
end of 1999 and again at the end of last year, this has slowed
Woomera opened in November 1999, and yet its first releases
were not until June 2000, after the mass breakouts and protests
at three detention centers. This meant that many people had
been in detention for seven months. A similar situation is emerging
with the 238 Afghans at Woomera. Of those, 222 have been there
for between five and 12 months, and 16 for more than a year.
The Immigration Department has refused for operational
reasons to tell The Herald how many Afghans now
in Woomera have had primary decisionsthat
is, initial assessments about refugee statusmade about
them, but primary decision making on Afghans officially stopped
on Nov. 19. But the duration of detention is one thing; the
atmosphere of detention is another.
Chris Conybeare was secretary of the Department of Immigration
from 1990 to 1996, and was in charge when the Port Hedland center
was set up to deal with the previous wave of boat people, mostly
from Cambodia and China.
He supports, in general, the policy of detention of asylum seekers
but warns: Theyre not criminals, and they are entitled
to respect. It may be there are some troublemakers among them,
but to deal with them in the broad-brush, crude way is a surefire
way of increasing the problems of managing them.
He blames the increasing problems in Australias detention
centers on what he terms a conveniently slack approach
to management. Lets just say there is not much care
being taken to avoid provocation, he says. He also criticizes
the provocative and aggressive way in which the
government communicated the cessation of processing of the claims
Conybeare is one who supports the exploration of
concessional treatment for women and children.
Yesterday, in a significant shift in Opposition policy on the
issue, Labor leader Simon Crean endorsed exactly that approach,
but Conybeare sees little chance of the government going the
same way. The government has painted itself into a difficult
corner, he said.
But if Howard felt cornered yesterday, it did not show. He argued
that in making conditions more humane for asylum seekers through
any type of release youre going to encourage more
people to come to this country.
Really? Australia is the only country that has a policy of mandatory,
non-reviewable detention of asylum seekers. Many countries detain
people for a period if they arrive without documentation but
then release them into the community while they are being processed.
There are no indications that a more humane approach has exacerbated
the problem of asylum seekers.
Sweden, for example, had a detention regime similar to Australias
in the early 1990s, and suffered many of the same problems:
attempted breakouts, hunger strikes, self-harm among detainees,
and public controversy. After a 1997 inquiry, the country changed
its approach. People seeking asylum spend just a few weeks in
detention upon arrival and are then released into supervised
custody. No child can be held in detention for more than three
days, or six days in extreme circumstances. Not only did the
violence and protests in the detention centers stop, the incidents
of racially motivated violence in the general community fell.
Thats what can happen when you look for solutions rather
than election issues.