Boil with anger! End the detention of asylum seekers

Submitted by sam on Fri, 11/03/2016 - 12:07

Among the messages of support for Fremantle Council's decision to stop doing business with companies that profit from the offshore detention regime I fully expected some criticism. However Anthony Brown's comment piece "Enough" was really just a meandering rant.

For him everything in Fremantle is terrible. All the problems, both the real and imagined ones, are the fault of the council. He chastises us for taking action on on a federal matter but then includes in his list of complaints issues that require state government action. Is the irony lost on him?

Mr Brown's assertion that the Council's endorsement of the No Business in Abuse campaign was ill considered, financially reckless and all about pre-election "jousting" is just nonsense. The decision will not require anyone to pay an "army of lawyers" as he suggests. We will get a report from officers explaining how the City can exit from the relevant contracts in an orderly manner. Furthermore it was adopted unanimously and with little fuss.

But let's get to the heart of the issue. Australia is a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. This obliges us to offer sanctuary to refugees as defined by the additional "1967 Protocol". There is simply no basis in these documents for prejudicing someone's claim because of their method of arrival, or for asserting that people should make their first claim for asylum in a country other than Australia. If every signatory country took that approach then the treaty would be a dead letter.

To indefinitely imprison people who have committed no crime is by itself a human rights abuse and an act of torture. If this weren't bad enough, the detention regime has been a breeding ground for further forms of abuse.

Heather Marchesani claims in her letter that the council decision caused her to "choke on her drink". I doubt it, and she should consider herself lucky. Luckier than Reza Berati who was bashed to death on Manus Island. Two detention centre workers have been charged with his murder.

How about Abyan who fell pregnant after being raped on Nauru (allegedly by a security guard), was transferred to Brisbane for a termination, but then whisked out of the country before this could happen for fear that her lawyer might prevent her being deported. Minister Dutton, the one who thinks that a female journalist doing her job is a "mad fucking witch", then lied to the public and claimed that Abyan had decided against the procedure.

These stories are the tip of the iceberg. As of May 2015, as reported to a Senate inquiry, thirty-three detainees on Nauru claimed that they had been raped or sexually abused with many more claiming routine sexual harassment. There were a staggering sixty-seven allegations of child sexual assault, thirty alleged to have been perpetrated by detention centre staff.

As a survivor myself of child sexual assault I have some insight into the bewildering trauma caused by this crime. But I had access to proper support and my day in court. The victims of violence and sexual assault on Manus and Nauru will almost certainly never get justice. If this doesn't make you boil with anger it bloody well should.

Meanwhile the policy of "turn backs" is the complete abandonment of the Refugee Convention in all but name. Australia has amended domestic legislation to allow our authorities to intercept vessels in international waters (piracy) and abduct the passengers. These asylum seekers aren't just towed to third countries such as Indonesia, but in the case of some Sri Lankans returned directly into the hands of their torturers and tormentors.

Furthermore Australian taxpayers have gifted navy patrol boats to Sri Lanka to prevent people escaping a country where torture and "disappearance" remains routine. This really is the abyss and anyone who endorses it has lost their moral compass.

This is the reality of the offshore detention regime and "turn backs". People who have committed no crime, ask us for our shelter from persecution and war, being vilified and then subject to gross and systematic deprivation. The City of Fremantle and our community have every right and obligation to do what we can to bring it to an end.

It's worth reminding ourselves that the total number of refugees settled in Australia is tiny in both absolute and relative terms. The "Stop the Boats" scare campaign touched off by John Howard back in 2001 was not about any serious threat to our well-being but a piece of political theatre designed to distract people from the real causes of insecurity in their lives. It was gutless racist scapegoating. It rested then, as it does now, on the remnants of the White Australia Policy and a fear of the foreign hordes over the horizon.

What have we got to show for a decade and half of beating up on people in a weaker position than ourselves? It hasn't solved the housing affordability crisis, built the public transport infrastructure we desperately need or created one new apprenticeship for our youth. This line by the late British Labour MP Tony Benn really nails it,

"The way a government treats refugees is very instructive because it shows you how they would treat the rest of us if they thought they could get away with it."

For the dignity and safety of those who've sought our protection, for our own dignity and future, we can be better than this.

I invite all Fremantle residents to join with the Mayor, Councillors and the members of the Fremantle Refugee Rights Action Network as part of the Freo contingent at the Palm Sunday Walk for Refugees (Sunday 20 March 1pm at St Georges Cathedral, Perth). Meet us there or gather at 11:30am Pioneer Park (opposite Freo station) for a photo and then take the train in.