Imprisoning the Other: Australia’s malicious approach to outsiders

Australia’s approach to immigration detention is more than flawed - it’s outright malicious.

The global refugee crisis ebbs and flows in and out of the political agenda. A few months ago, the Taliban’s sudden revival sent the world reeling. It flooded social media feeds across the globe – Instagram posts, Facebook shares, Snapchat filters, and many more. Then, more recently, the Russian invasion of Ukraine drew even more attention to the soon to be displaced peoples of both nations.

However this time, it was met with a different approach. CBS News reporter Charlie D’Agata openly proclaimed: “[Ukraine] isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European – I have to choose those words carefully, too – city. One where you wouldn’t expect that, or hope that it’s going to happen”.

I was stunned. What does a certain place need to look or sound like in order to receive compassion from humankind? Instead of focusing on the ordinary citizens whose lives would be turned upside down, the media – and this example was one of many – decided to contrast Ukrainians and Russians against the Eastern World and its expatriates. 

Since this bigoted coverage has started to unravel, I found a sudden interest in Australia’s response to these sorts of crises. We are a relatively multicultural nation. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ 2016 Census, nearly half (49 per cent) of the Australian population was born overseas or has at least one parent born in another country.

At the very least, this seems like an asset to our nation. Benefits are evident from both an economic standpoint, through an expansion of the labour force and an increase in productivity, and from a social standpoint – an active process of learning, insight, tolerance and peace are nurtured. And these facts, often thought to be manufactured and promoted in a positive light by institutions in favour of multiculturalism, are not as isolated as one may think. In fact, 84 per cent of Australians see multiculturalism as beneficial for the country.

It’s clear that our nation has a multicultural composition and is able to reap the benefits of multiculturalism, and for the most part, believes that multiculturalism is a strength to our greater society. With this in mind, and returning back to the concept and attitudes towards displaced peoples, we must consider why Australia’s approach to ‘unlawful’ outsiders is of a malicious and criminal nature. 

Post-Vietnam War, after the dismantling of the White Australia Policy, Australia welcomed Eastern immigrants on its shores. Sociology professor Stewart Firth writes, “initially welcomed when most were fleeing communist Vietnam, asylum seekers have become increasingly unwanted by Australian governments in recent decades”. Within the span of forty odd years, Australia has withdrawn from its welcoming stance. With the implementation of the Howard government’s ‘Pacific Solution’, all asylum seekers arriving by boat were taken to mandatory detention centres on islands in the Pacific. Australia then surrendered to a passive, convenient solution to avoid dealing with its role in the global refugee crisis. From a time where asylum seekers’ safety was of concern, to modern times where Australian governments neglect their human rights, we now witness a normalised violation of social justice and international law. 

Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and The Republic of Nauru are at the crux of this violation; host islands to the detention centres asylum seekers are kept in when arriving in Australia by boat. However, the easy dismissal of their existence has taken its toll on the humans being imprisoned there. 

In her comprehensive examination of these islands, Madeline Gleeson, author of Offshore: Behind the Wire on Manus and Nauru, delves into the violative conditions of Australian detention centres. For example, she writes that in 2014, when International Health and Medical Services (IHMS) sent experts to review the health of detainees, “a large number of the issues people presented with – skin infections, ear infections, allergic conjunctivitis, upper respiratory tract infections, thrush, back pain and dental issues – were either caused or aggravated by the environment and facilities themselves”. Her all-inclusive book provides countless examples such as these where the environment of these detention centres has been described by former detainees as “torture”, “psychological warfare” and a “living hell”. 

At this point in my research, I realise the paradox of the matter. The global refugee crisis – including Australia’s place in it – is rightfully categorised as a social justice issue. But, ironically, attempts by nations to manage this issue have created a further crisis. Refugees’ state of being is worsened. Their identities are left scathed. Their humanity is put into question when they extend their hand to a government who trivialises their suffering. 

I am by no means an expert in the matter. I come from a family of asylum seekers who are now settled refugees, nay, Australian citizens of almost thirty years, so there is a personal connection. But experts from an array of fields would be far more qualified, wouldn’t they? We call them experts. And I don’t mean your average, unqualified Australian with unsolicited opinions. I’m talking about a group of qualified experts, like social workers, lawyers, psychologists, and medical professionals, gathering in a room to work out how Australia needs to act when dealing with its influx of asylum seekers. 

A solution may be found in a ‘Royal Commission’, like the two currently investigating veteran suicide and discrimination against people with disabilities. As I mentioned, I am no expert on the matter, but my colloquial two cents may be enough to jumpstart my suggestion. The Commission could begin by accumulating first-hand recounts of the asylum seeker experience in island detention centres. Conceivably, the Commission could form subcommittees involving the aforementioned experts who can draft reports of their experiences in dealing with asylum seekers from Nauru and Manus. These experiential reports should, evidently, suggest the damaging implications of offshore detention and be the basis for new legislation. In the meantime, I have purchased Gleeson’s book; I even paid for express delivery. My stomach turns at the thought of sitting idly by with the federal election around the corner.  These proposed initiatives would be an effective and logical method in handling the sensitivity of the issue. Until then, us social justice activists must continue to do what we always do: attend protests, write to MPs, donate to organisations and, most importantly, start open conversations about the unjust treatment of asylum seekers in Australian detention centres. For example, reading is my way of educating myself so that I can then inform others. Perhaps then the malicious approach our nation has taken in dealing with Eastern outsiders can be rectified, and a new chapter, distanced from events like the White Australia Policy and the Pacific Solution, can be inscribed in our social justice history.