#NauruFiles: Public concern over brutal treatment of refugees is starting to bite

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(Image courtesy of http://www.bringthemhere.com/#BringThemHere)

Following the release of the #NauruFiles, public concern about Australia being seen as a "pariah state" because of its brutal treatment of refugees is starting to bite. Barry Hindess reports.

THE SECOND week in August was not a good time for Australian governments. First, on 9 August, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) website was shut down at a time when thousands of Australians were doing their best to complete their census form online. Naturally, the Bureau's designated helpline number was overwhelmed.

All this after widespread concerns about security and the possible loss of privacy and assurances from ABS that all would be well.

Next day, as many furious Australians woke to discover that their problem with the website was neither an isolated incident nor just a problem in their locality, The Guardian announced a huge cache of leaked files from the Nauru detention centre.

The Nauru files embarrassed the Federal Government by detailing numerous reported incidents of violence and sexual abuse inflicted on detainees, many of them children. These were not simply “allegations” but staff reports of incidents.

Following The Guardian's release of the files, the issue was taken up by other Australian media outlets. Internationally, the issue was taken up by news outlets and politicians in Europe with the BBC running it as the lead story.

The U.S. Australia's immigration detention regime was condemned by two UN High Commissioners (for Refugees and for Human Rights), Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other humanitarian bodies. This lead to some Australian commentators suggesting that Australia risked becoming a "pariah state".

Both the census debacle and the Nauru files provoked lively discussion on social and mainstream media, apart from the Murdoch press and commercial free-to-air broadcasters. Several social media commentators suggested that Australia was more concerned about an IT failure, not to mention the Olympic medal tally, than it was about the treatment of detainees on Nauru. Is this right? I think not and I'll give reasons shortly.

As if the Census bungle and Nauru revelations were not enough, on 11 August,  the Northern Territory Chief Minister Adam Giles revealed that he, too, had been a victim of the Don Dale affair.

“I’ve been particularly targeted, I’ve had death threats, other colleagues of mine have had death threats over a report of something that was done six years ago.”  

Giles did not claim that, like several of its inmates, he had been brutally attacked by Don Dale staff. His point, rather, was that the ABC had timed the broadcast of its Don Dale material to damage his Government ahead of the NT election, due on 27 August.

Finally, to round off a stellar week, Federal Treasurer Scott Morrison declared that for (undisclosed) security reasons, a Hong Kong based company that already controls power supply networks in Victoria and South Australia would not be allowed to bid for Transgrid, a NSW Government-owned power distribution company, thereby dashing the NSW Coalition Government hopes of a several billion dollar windfall to fund major infrastructure projects.

Leaving aside the hapless Adam Giles and the disappointed NSW Government, how might we compare Australian reactions to the Census debacle and the Nauru files? Far too many of us have been messed around by government and business websites. In such cases, the fury we feel is of a different order than our feelings over immigration detention. The first is more immediate, while also confirming, at least in my case, long-standing expectations about state and business organisations, while the second has built up over time, although some of us have felt all along that our immigration detention regime was unconscionable.

Unpleasant reports have been leaking out of Nauru and Manus Island for years. (Immigration Minister Peter Dutton complained that many of the incidents in the Nauru files had already been reported and also that, presumably unlike government ministers, asylum seekers have been known to lie.)

As a result, a widespread sense that something was amiss on Nauru had built up well before The Guardian released its files. In a sense then, far from being a shocking revelation, the Nauru files merely confirmed what many already suspected. The absence of an immediate response in this context does not necessarily indicate the absence of concern.

Why would Australia keep refugees in immigration detention camps? Perhaps the most powerful case for the camps is the claim that refugees have to be held in order to send a message to people smugglers, and to their clients, so that the boats will stay stopped.

Frank Brennan (along with Tim Costello , Robert Manne and John Menadue) has argued, on the contrary, that all we need to stop the boats is to continue our current system for turning them back — see Eureka Street, August 15. I'm sure they're right.

Yet, while there appears to be substantial public support for resettling the refugees in Australia, many immigration and border protection officials and senior figures in the Federal Labor and Liberal parties still talk as if a “harsh” – Turnbull's description – detention regime is required to stop the boats. Some may even believe it, but I doubt this is the reason our two major parties remain committed to offshore detention.

The most substantial obstacle is politician's fear that closing the camps risks appearing weak on border protection losing support in crucial electorates in the outer suburbs of Sydney and other large Australian cities. The story about needing a harsh regime is just a ploy to help them sleep at night. But are our politicians starting to listen to the voting public at last?  

Labor’s push for a Senate Inquiry into Nauru and public commitment to allow journalists back into detention camps shows that public opinion against the unnecessary brutality in these camps is starting to bite. 

Barry Hindess is emeritus professor at Australian National University’s School of Politics and International Relations.

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