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From the April 2002 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 49, No. 4)

Australia Slams its Doors on the 'Less Civilized'

Wait in Fright

Mike Seccombe, Andrew Clennell, The Sydney Morning Herald (centrist), Sydney, Australia, Jan. 26, 2002

Immigration Australia
Police 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).
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 pharaoh’s 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 pharaoh’s daughter and raised in the royal court. The Bible makes it clear that Moses’ parents took this action out of desperate love.

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 government’s 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 seekers—emotively and incorrectly—as queue-jumpers, illegals, criminals, and even potential terrorists—by numerous members of the government, including the prime minister, John Howard, was worse, he said, than the policy of detention itself, harsh though that was.

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 don’t want people like this in this country. People who throw their children overboard.’ ”

The 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.
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.

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. That’s how pervasive the negative stereotyping had been: A woman going about her business outside her comfortable home of Sydney’s 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 don’t 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 state’s election campaign. “We saw yesterday the [Immigration] Minister [Philip Ruddock] and [South Australia’s 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 Australia’s 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,” Ruddock’s spokesman told The Herald last year.
According to Lynch’s 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 behavior—crying 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 they’re 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 dramatically.

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 decisions”—that is, initial assessments about refugee status—made 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: “They’re 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 Australia’s detention centers on what he terms a “conveniently slack” approach to management. “Let’s 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 of Afghans.

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 “you’re 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 Australia’s 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. That’s what can happen when you look for solutions rather than election issues.

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