Humanity in the Land of the Fair Go

Words by Johan Ariff

The Manus Island Detention Centre has been officially closed for nearly a month now. Images of the inhabitants’ anguish and the Centre’s rotting facilities have been replaced once again by headlines decrying the looming Citizenship Crisis engulfing the Federal Parliament.

Many Australians surely felt that this final rejection of the humanity of these asylum seekers represented some form of watershed moment for Australia’s refugee policy. As Australians protested at the Melbourne Cup, as Russell Crowe condemned “Australia’s shame”, and even as New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern offered to help bring an end to the crisis, there was the undeniable feeling that our Government had finally reached the limit of its inhumanity.

This has not turned out to be the case.

Image: Australian Medical Association

As Immigration Minister Peter Dutton contradictorily acknowledged New Zealand’s sovereign right to make a bilateral deal with Papua New Guinea while simultaneously threatening diplomatic consequences for such a deal, our Government has entered a new frontier. No longer can our Government claim that it seeks a durable solution for these asylum seekers, for so many are available. Rather, with each passing comment on the “hypocrisy” of activists and each admonishment of the many genuine refugees choosing to remain in the detention centre, our Government comes closer to implicitly admitting that it never really cared about the plight of these vulnerable, abused human beings.

Manus Island is the centrepiece of the policy adopted by successive Governments of ‘stopping the boats’. This phrase has over the years calcified into an ugly rhetorical tool spouted by those without the backbone to give the Australian public a concrete explanation as to why indefinite detention of genuine refugees is necessary to stop helpless, misinformed people from boarding people smuggling boats in Indonesia.

Asylum seekers who get onto a boat bound for Australia are not flagrantly defying our laws, nor do they represent some vast, sinister threat to our sovereignty. No, they are people who have suffered tremendously for years in nations they once thought of as their homes. They are people who left places like Syria, Iraq, and Bangladesh without a TripAdvisor handbook or an iPhone with which to look up the provisions of the Migration Act.

Image: Sydney Morning Herald

The violence and brutality that these people are so desperately fleeing is far beyond the imagination of the ordinary Australian. In spite of this, our Government chastises them for their mistakes as if they were an Australian tourist who, despite frequent warnings online and on TV, decided to bring a bag of coke into Bali Airport. It seems the height of Western privilege for our politicians to punish people fleeing poverty-stricken, under-resourced war zones, because in their despair and terror they failed to visit the Depart of Immigration’s website. Maybe their WiFi dropped out.

We need to depart from this characterisation of asylum seekers who used irregular means of getting here as ‘queue-jumpers’. As with ‘stopping the boats’, this is a rhetorical tool used by the Government to encourage false empathy in ordinary Australians for those refugees who choose to wait in the ‘queue’.

The current exodus of asylum seekers from the Middle East and, increasingly, South Asia just isn’t something which can be squared with any part of the Australian experience as we know it. Yes, we all hate people who queue-jump at Subway, and I’m sure many will say that they would gladly support legislation to indefinitely detain 2am Maccas queue-jumpers. But fleeing war is a different thing entirely, and to conflate ‘boat people’ with the ‘queue-jumpers’ we see in everyday Australian life is like comparing apples to bowling balls.

Image: Sydney Morning Herald

Putting aside this inhumane distinction between ‘boat people’ and ‘regular migrants’, there is a far more sinister factor underlying much of the discourse around our refugee policy. As is obvious each time Pauline Hanson delivers another misguided diatribe on ‘Sharia Law’ or ‘the Burka’, there exists in some corners the sentiment that allowing too many asylum seekers into Australia will disrupt the delicate balance between so-called Australian values and Islam.

Before I go any further, I’ll point out that at its closure, there were 690 people in the Manus Island Detention Centre. Australia’s current population is around 24.13 million. These statistics make it pretty clear that even if Australian values were somehow incompatible with Islam (which they are not), the balance is neither delicate nor open to significant disruption by the entrance of 690 people of varying religions.

Any informed Muslim will tell you that Islam requires Muslims in a foreign land to abide by the laws of that territory. The idea that Muslims will one day overthrow our centuries-old judiciary and implement some hard line interpretation of Sharia Law is both ridiculous and in total inconformity with what Islam teaches its adherents.

Are we so insecure about the fortitude of our cultural institutions that we feel the only way to preserve Australian values is to turn away asylum seekers because of their religion? I find it hard to believe that any Christian in Australia is going to wake up one morning, see their Muslim neighbour conducting their Morning Prayer, and think “Geez I better get myself one of those prayer mats too”. No matter how many Muslims choose to order their parma without ham, no local hotel is going to stop you or me from ordering ours topped with four slices.

As a recently elected member of the United Nation’s Human Rights Council, we have a duty to uphold the rights deemed so important by the international community. What is and has been happening in Australia’s offshore detention centres for the past few years denies asylum seekers their most basic rights.

Image: Green Left

Indefinitely detained without trial, demonised for making a desperate decision in search of safety, these individuals don’t seek to defy our laws or derogate our cherished Australian values. They merely want to live in a place where they and their families will be free from harm and persecution.

In this land of the fair go, with “golden soil and wealth for toil”, surely we can find a place for them.

Feature image: ABC


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