Human rights Opinion

Indefinite detention is a disgrace: We must vote to end it

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The Coalition has been criticised worldwide for its inhuman treatment of refugees (Image by Dan Jensen)

Some of Australia's refugees have been detained for a horrifying nine years. Meanwhile, we've kept voting for the people who are doing it, writes Hannah Thomas.

THE GOAL OF Australia’s mandatory detention policy appears to be the systematic, slow-motion destruction of individual refugees to warn persecuted peoples thousands of miles away that Australia is hostile territory.

But whether intended or not, the policy has served another sinister purpose; to desensitise us to the utter depravity of it all. Some refugees currently detained with bipartisan blessing have been so for nine years and in those nine years, life has gone on. Little fuss, comparatively, has been kicked up. We’ve kept voting for the people who are doing it.

The regular protests, whistle-blower revelations and condemnation from groups of this world like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have become background noise.

We’ve even become accustomed to locking refugees up in the heart of our major cities. A detention centre, just kilometres from the newspaper offices which routinely condemn China for its suspected detention centres. Indefinite detention without trial, just kilometres away from criminal courts which abide by the almighty presumption of innocence. Torture, just kilometres from one of the first state parliaments to pass a Charter of Human Rights.

Locking up refugees is now as Australian as celebrating genocide in January. And the longer they are locked up, the easier it gets to think they deserve to be, as this Government does everything in its power to convince us that’s the case.

The same thin-skinned politicians who aggressively sue members of the public for alleged defamatory comments use their massive platforms to broadcast insinuations that refugees are child molesters, rapists and terrorists. And of course, they’ll take every opportunity to smear their refugee status, as their gang leader did recently.

It's telling that when that anti-vax tennis brat briefly experienced immigration detention, the many who are silent on refugees were outraged that he had been treated like a criminal. The clear inference being, that the refugees imprisoned alongside him were criminals. Thus, the lie has seeded and flourished in our brains, fertilised by the Murdoch clan and shrinking our souls like a toxic weed.

Yet it’s truly sickening when you reflect on what is done in our name. Australia runs torture camps. The people imprisoned in these camps have not been charged with any crime, yet their sentences are infinite. They exist in an unending stage five lockdown with no end in sight. And there’s no point to any of it other than to break them so that hypothetical others see them in pieces.

Offshore detention camps have been plagued by allegations of physical and sexual abuse of asylum seekers by guards, serious and chronic mental health concerns, deplorable physical conditions and inadequate medical care.

The government knows this, we know this. But that is the system operating as intended, to convince the persecuted elsewhere that whatever dreadful oppression and violence they face, Australia will raise the stakes on their suffering.

As Amnesty International said, the system was:

'... explicitly designed to inflict incalculable damage on hundreds of women, men and children...'

It does this as an act of deterrence, by isolating them:

"... on a remote place from which they cannot leave, with the specific intention that these people should suffer harm.”  

What did they do to deserve this? Exercise their human right to seek asylum.

As Mehdi Ali – a refugee detained in Melbourne's Park Hotel said:

'All I did was ask for safety when I was a child and I did the time for that by spending almost a decade in detention.'

It’s the kind of extreme cruelty we’d boycott the Olympics over or use to justify a foreign invasion.

Let there be no doubt who the real criminals are here. They are the neoliberals in blue and those opposite them in red. But also, every part of this system that promotes, profits from and passively permits this torture is complicit.

Every participant in the barbaric banality of it all and every cog in the administrative machine: from the inert bureaucrats perpetuating the myth that asylum seekers are illegal and the government lawyers defending Australia’s right to breach international law to the private companies whose key performance indicators are tied to torture, and to the perverted creatives developing campaigns like the Zero Chance film competition.

Actual criminal justice is not a fanciful concept for those most culpable, as demonstrated by the recent sentencing of Denmark’s former immigration minister to two months imprisonment after a court found her guilty of separating several couples of asylum seekers, thus violating the 'European Convention on Human Rights'.

Australia’s treatment of refugees is more heinous for two reasons.

Firstly, this is a settler state, violently stolen from its true owners. Those preaching hard-line border control are descendants of those who practised hard-line border invasion. The settlers of this country are indigenous to Britain. This land isn’t theirs. Aboriginal sovereignty was never ceded and a treaty was never entered into. Therefore, Britain’s legal claim to this country was a fiction and the continued occupation is a proceed of a crime that will continue until true reconciliation. The treatment of refugees is a crime upon a crime.

Secondly, Australia is in the business of creating refugees. We are a lapdog of the U.S. — a grotesque corporate war machine masquerading as a state.

By following the U.S. blindly into conflicts, from Vietnam to Afghanistan, we’ve destroyed nations and displaced millions. And now we actively, enthusiastically, create generations of climate refugees across the world by our utter refusal to put the planet before profit. Our role in creating refugees – in addition to our wealth and vast, sparsely populated lands – requires that we welcome refugees. And yet, as with climate action, we refuse to play our part in addressing a problem for which we bear much responsibility.

So, what do we – the hopefully increasing number of people who are so sick of this depravity – do?

More of the usual. Protest, write, talk and post about it. Email and call politicians incessantly. Support refugee advocacy organisations. Elevate the voices of Mehdi Ali, Joy Miah and other refugees.

But more crucially, vote wisely in the upcoming Federal Election. We must not continue to endorse this cruelty. Instead, we should vote for parties and candidates who will fight to end the torture. Getting rid of political regimes that would maintain the current state of despair is the only way we can close this dark chapter.

Hannah Thomas is a lawyer currently working in public policy. She has a keen interest in Australian and Malaysian politics.

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