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Advance Australia unfair: Je suis les refugees du Manus

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(Image via @lucyham)

Australia's treatment of refugees on Manus Island has disturbing similarities to the treatment of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany before World War II says Lyn Bender, whose parents fled Poland before the War.

As Tony Abbott praises the great work of guards in riot gear rushing in to control helpless refugees imprisoned in a compound, the suffering, attempted hangings, swallowing of razor blades, thirst and hunger continues at Manus. I ask myself: what have we all become?

My father was a refugee. So was my mother.

Is it this fact that prompts me to ask why are we not all horrified at the cruelty and abuse of our refugee “policy”? How can a government that thinks like a reincarnated Nazi machine, get away with such brutality? How can they refuse to disclose the true story while professing to champion free speech?

Drawing comparisons between Australia’s offshore detention centres and the Nazi concentration camps is usually slammed as over the top and as a travesty.

Yet Thomas Keneally, author of Schindlers Ark, in 2004 compared Australia’s detention centres to concentration camps.

They have not improved since.

How do we dare to compare our civilised government with that atrocity? Easily. For starters, refugees have been imprisoned indefinitely in sub-standard camps and without trial, merely for seeking our help The plight of the refugees on Manus is easily as horrendous as the plight of the Jews trying to flee Nazi persecution in the nineteen thirties. My father was a refugee and so was my mother and her family. I would not have been born, had they not been allowed to live in Australia.

My parents did not arrive on small boats; but on ocean liners. To be allowed to come to Australia, you needed sponsorship from an Australian citizen. Sponsorship was hard to get. Many friends and family remained behind in Poland. My paternal grandparents, aunts, uncles and their children were slaughtered when the Nazis invaded Poland. With such a family background, it is not surprising that I feel an emotional connection to the plight of asylum seekers on Manus Island. But it took me a while to recognise that the parallels were deeply connected.

Historian Professor Bernard Wasserstein has revealed the commonality of the attitudes towards the plight of Jewish refugees in World War II and towards today’s asylum seekers. He cites all too familiar terminology in his scholarly work; Gertrude Tijn and the fate of the Dutch Jews.

They were called "queue jumpers" and "economic migrants" and some were sent back to Germany. Others were granted temporary settlement, while some drowned during desperate journeys on unseaworthy ships. Despite the awareness of the danger that the refugees faced, strict quotas were applied. Britain accepted only 65,000, Holland 30,000 and the United States 150,000. Wasserstein attributes the reluctance to welcome refugees as due to xenophobia, anti-Semitism and fear of refugees being an economic impost. Sound familiar?

The Evian Conference was convened by the U.S. in 1938 to discuss the issue of increasing numbers of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution — the "refugee problem".

At that conference, Australian delegate Thomas White stated about this country:

"It will no doubt be appreciated also that as we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one by encouraging any scheme of large-scale foreign migration …"

All this has a familiar ring in today’s Australia.

Collective guilt at the fate of Europe’s Jews may have driven the establishment of the 1951 Refugee Convention. This grants the right of those fearing persecution to seek asylum. They have the right not to be returned to danger. The importance of this Convention to Australia’s treatment of refugees is at least threefold:

  • Those fleeing danger have a legal right to seek asylum and this right should be honoured.
  • Asylum seekers should not be punished for seeking asylum.
  • They should not be returned to danger.

On all three counts, Australia, as a signatory to the Convention, scores a big fail.

So how bad is life on Manus? At least as bad as the conditions that I observed while working at Woomera Detention Centre in 2002. Hunger strikes, sewn lips, suicide attempts, the last resort of the powerless, were and still are featured daily. In a twisted form of remembrance, the compound names are even the same: Oscar, Foxtrot, Mike and Delta. The compounds have names, but detainees are given numbers. Children become extremely depressed. The remoteness is meant to discourage media scrutiny and accountability, but the truth emerged at Woomera — just as the truth about Manus is also emerging.

The Liberal Party is singing in unison the chorus of “no compassion here”. For a Government that professes to champion free speech, that right is not being granted to refugees.

A member of the recently disbanded Immigration Health Advisory Group, psychologist Amanda Gordon, contends that refugees are using their bodies to express protest.

She says:

“For some it is a break down of mental health; but for others it is in fact a sign of resilience. The sewn lips illustrate that no one is listening and that they have no voice.

"Do you lie there and do nothing or do you make a statement?.... Don’t just treat me as a voiceless person …. If I had murdered someone I would have a right to a voice. The hunger strike is an expression of utter hopelessness”

Yet Foreign Minister Julie Bishop – with customary sang froiddeclares:

“It is a volatile situation because these people clearly don't want to accept the safe haven that's being offered to them. However this kind of behavior will not be rewarded with a visa to Australia.”

Safe haven! She has got to be in satire mode.

Peter Dutton has admonished the desperate on Manus as though they were misbehaving children, saying they will never be settled in Australia. Just as was done with “resettlement” of Jewish refugees, Dutton will be scurrying off to overburdened Cambodia to finalize an agreement to dump Australia’s refugee problem on another poor country.

It seems, from footage, that the current protestors are calling for freedom.

There are reported fears of forced “resettlement” in a hostile PNG. After the murder of Reza Berarti, you could argue that they have a well-founded fear.

We are now the persecutors. Both side of politics have shamelessly played with the lives of traumatised men women and children.

The irony is that Australia has prospered and thrived with its influx of pre and post war refugees. Without the enrichment brought by the European, middle eastern and Asian migrant culture, where would we all be? Stuck in a flag draped, bigoted, White Australia, Groundhog Day in Abbottland 

Happy Australia Day, but not for those unfortunate enough to seek our protection. Advance Australia unfair.

You can follow Lyn Bender on Twitter @Lynestel. And please support IA by making a donation.

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