New Australians

Manus Island: A crime of the heart

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"The Australian Government is deliberately inflicting upon people the worst trauma I have ever seen.”

Events on Manus Island reflect a a total collapse of our collective capacity for empathy, compassion and human generosity, writes Dr Jennifer Wilson.

LET US go back to the beginning.

In 1954, Australia signed the UNHCR Refugee Convention offering our country as a sanctuary to those who sought to flee persecution in Europe. In 1967, the protections of the Convention were extended to universal coverage and Australia ratified that protocol.

Australia, as a signatory, invites those fleeing persecution to seek sanctuary here.

Now you might argue, as many do, that the Convention is out-dated, and an ill fit with challenges presented by the current global refugee crises. There is a valid argument to be had here. However, the Convention, like our Constitution, still carries legal authority, both internationally and domestically, and, like our Constitution, ought to be upheld until such time as it is renegotiated.

In an entirely unforeseeable conflation of the Refugee Convention and the Australian Constitution (as in, no one could make this stuff up) LNP cabinet minister Josh Frydenberg has sought to defend his failure to adequately address his citizenship issues by invoking the Holocaust and his mother’s status as a Jewish refugee entering Australia with her family from Hungary in1950. What is remarkable about this turn of events is that Frydenberg is a member of the Government that is currently persecuting another group of refugees who fled persecution and who, unlike Frydenberg’s family, were incarcerated for having the presumption to request sanctuary.

With breathtaking irony, of which he is apparently entirely unaware, Frydenberg declared, as part of his defence:

“A lot of people came without documentation, or minimal documentation.”

The lack of documentation of more recent asylum seekers has been used by successive Australian governments, including this one, to discredit their asylum claims.

In 2001, I visited the Woomera Detention Centre where, at that time, some 1,500 asylum seekers, all boat arrivals, were imprisoned. I was permitted to speak with a number of men, all of whom told me they’d come to Australia because they believed we accepted refugees. They believed this because we said and by virtue of being a signatory to the Convention continue to say, that we offer sanctuary.

In other words, we extend the invitation. We then persecute those who accept that invitation. We do not have the moral courage to withdraw from the Convention. We likely would not have a seat on the UN Human Rights Council if we’d withdrawn from the Convention. We are hypocrites — and much worse.

It is 16 years since I saw a man imprisoned in Woomera fling himself repeatedly at the razor wire fence, howling and thrashing in an extremity of despair that was terrifying to witness. Huddled children looked on in frightened silence. I later learned the man had recently been told his family were dead. The guards took his grief in their stride. Oh, he’s just going off again, they observed.

It’s 16 years since I watched babies try to walk barefoot on scorching red desert because there was no grass for them to play on.

It’s 16 years since I learned that women in the prison were forced to line up and request sanitary pads from male guards every day of their menstruation.

It’s 16 years since detainees who attempted suicide or self-harmed were punished by being handcuffed and placed in isolation

It’s 16 years since I requested visits with a number of women in Woomera and was refused because, the guards said, they were “playing up and had lost their privileges”.

It’s 16 years since then Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock claimed on ABC TV’s 7.30 Report that:

“These people have attempted to invade our sovereign territory. They have jumped the queue of legitimate refugees legally attempting to achieve asylum in this country.”

It’s 16 years since children were sexually molested in Woomera and their plight ignored.

It’s 16 years since children in Woomera attempted to kill themselves.

It’s 16 years since prisoners sewed their lips together in a ghastly metaphor for the dehumanisation inflicted upon them by Australia and in grim acknowledgment of the power of Australia to deny them an existence.

One of the methods used in calculated dehumanisation is to deprive the prisoner of the opportunity to be the subject of another’s loving, or concerned or compassionate gaze — the gaze that makes our humanity visible to ourselves and to others. Calculated dehumanisation, compounded by identifying “them” with a number, not a name.

Silenced voices in the landscape of the gibber desert. What better place to incarcerate those whose stories you want erased?

Sixteen years ago, I received a letter:

'I want to go back to Afghanistan. At least there they are honest and will kill me with a gun. In Australia they kill me with a pen.'

And, this, from a guard to a prisoner:

"You are an animal. We will deal with you like an animal."

In 16 years, things have not improved for those who accept the invitation we continue to extend.

Australia has found even better places to silence people and has called this, in a chilling echo of Nazi terminology, the "Pacific Solution”. Tropical islands where visiting is impossible, and the refugees are more hidden than any of us had thought possible.

Now Australia has refused food, water, medicine, and safety to the men on Manus Island, breaching, lawyers argue, their constitutional “right to life.” 

Now Australia has refused the men on Manus the most fundamental human right: the right to have rights.

On Nauru, where the women and children are held, medical assistance is refused by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, or deliberately delayed.

A trauma expert with more than 43 years experience says, after 14 trips to Manus and Nauru:

“The Australian Government is deliberately inflicting upon people the worst trauma I have ever seen.”

In 16 years, Australian governments, elected by Australian people, have continued to torment, torture, persecute and kill those who legitimately sought sanctuary here, because they believed, and have every right to believe, sanctuary is what we offer.

They have committed no crime. They did not arrive here illegally. They did not jump an imaginary queue. We invited them.

I suggest that to refuse a group of refugees and asylum seekers water, food and medicine is to commit genocide. The Australian Government and the Australian people know that without food, water and medicine, 600 men on Manus Island will die. Politicians know this. We know this.

These are, among many other legal offences, crimes of the heart. They are a total collapse of our collective capacity for empathy, compassion and human generosity. These crimes of the heart have been and continue to be committed by Australian governments of both political persuasions. These crimes of the heart have been endorsed, repeatedly, by the Australian people.

How do we cease to commit these crimes?

Bring them here.

You can follow Jennifer Wilson on her blog No Place for Sheep or on Twitter @NoPlaceForSheep.

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