Australians seem to forget that asylum seekers deserve to be treated with decency and respect. While the government expressed deep shock over the abuse of juveniles at a facility in the remote Northern Territory and ordered an inquiry into the abuses, it was shockingly unmoved by reports about sexual assaults and violence unleashed on asylum seekers, most of them Asians, in its off-shore facility on the tiny Pacific islands of Nauru and Manus. Successive governments have distorted the debate on asylum seeker policy by focusing on borders and boats, totally ignoring people. They set up a veil of secrecy to hide from view what they know will offend people’s sense of basic human decency. Although Canberra announced Wednesday that it would close the Manus Island facility, it reiterated that asylum seekers there would not be allowed into Australia, casting doubt on their fate.
MELBOURNE, Australia — They are two of the most disturbing cases of alleged institutionalized brutality against children in recent memory, hitting the national consciousness just weeks apart.
But the response from Australia to disclosures about child abuse in its youth justice system has been in stark contrast to its reaction to abuse claims at its off-shore processing centers for asylum seekers.
When footage emerged last month of juveniles being assaulted, teargassed and stripped naked at Don Dale Youth Detention Center in the remote Northern Territory, Australia’s political and media class instantly expressed shock and indignation.
Within hours of the images airing on the national broadcaster, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced a Royal Commission into conditions at juvenile correctional facilities in the sparsely-populated quasi-state, where 97% of young detainees are Aboriginal.
“Like all Australians, I have been deeply shocked, shocked and appalled by the images of mistreatment at the Don Dale Centre,” Turnbull, the leader of a coalition led by the center-right Liberal Party, told media.
Just three weeks later, local media dropped another bombshell with the publication of a trove of leaked incident reports detailing horrific conditions for asylum seekers at the off-shore processing center run by Australia on Nauru, a tiny island republic in the South Pacific.
The 2,000 files, prepared by detention center staff and leaked to The Guardian Australia, contain numerous instances of alleged physical abuse, sexual assault and self-harm among asylum seekers moved to the island after trying to enter Australia illegally by boat.
More than half of the recorded incidents involved children, including a guard allegedly threatening to kill a boy and a security worker requesting sexual favors from a young girl in exchange for being able to take longer showers.
The government, however, has not only ruled out an inquiry, but gone to considerable lengths to deny there is much of a problem at all.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said asylum seekers had an incentive to lie about abuse and sometimes even committed self-harm expressly so they would be brought to Australia for treatment.
“Some people have even gone to the extent of self-harming and people have self-immolated in an effort to get to Australia. Certainly some have made false allegations,” Dutton said.
The Nauru files have similarly failed to move much of the media. On the ABC, analysis program Media Watch lamented a “remarkable” lack of coverage, noting that the issue was receiving more attention internationally than at home. In comparison, the Don Dale revelations received wall-to-wall coverage here for days.
“Not all, but a large number of Australians and both political parties have gradually hardened their hearts to the people on the off-shore processing islands,” Robert Manne, one of the country’s most prominent public intellectuals, told Asia Times. “And in a way, almost whatever happens there doesn’t move the people any longer, move the majority or the political leadership.”
In a policy that attracts rare bipartisan consensus here, Australia sends unauthorized boat arrivals to Nauru or Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, to have their asylum claims assessed. The government refuses to settle even verified refugees in Australia, arguing that it would encourage people to undertake the dangerous sea journey here from Indonesia.
Various attempts to resettle refugees in third countries while maintaining the deterrent to travel have failed, leaving about 2,000 people on Nauru and Manus Island in limbo for the last three years.
Following an earlier ruling by a Papua New Guinean court against the constitutionality of the policy, Canberra announced on Wednesday that it would close the Manus Island facility. But it reiterated that asylum seekers there would not be allowed into Australia, casting doubt on their fate.
Illegal boat arrivals have been an explosive issue in domestic politics since 2001, when the then government of conservative Prime Minister John Howard refused a Norwegian freighter carrying some 400 asylum seekers permission to enter Australian waters.
In what become known as the “Pacific Solution,” Howard introduced off-shore processing, declaring “we decide who comes into this country and the circumstances in which they come.”
While succeeding Labor Party Prime Minister Kevin Rudd dumped the policy in 2007, he ultimately reintroduced it in even stricter form after a massive uptick in unauthorized boat arrivals, which peaked in 2013 at more than 20,000 people.
Today, the two main parties argue that the tough immigration policy is necessary to protect the border and undercut people smugglers, whose shady business is believed to have led to around 1,200 deaths at sea.
“Successive Australian governments have distorted the debate on asylum seeker policy,” said Daniel Webb, director of legal advocacy at the Melbourne-based Human Rights Law Center.
“They have deliberately made it about borders and boats, but it is actually about people. It’s crucial we remember that – this is about people, and all people deserve to be treated with decency and respect.”
Another likely reason conditions on Nauru have failed to generate action is the simple lack of visual documentation from the island. While the abuses at Don Dale had been reported before, they didn’t cause widespread outrage until the ABC obtained footage from inside the center. On the other hand, journalists are almost completely banned from Nauru and potential whistle-blowers risk up to two years in prison.
“What you’ve got to remember is that successive governments have gone to extraordinary lengths to keep the suffering of people seeking asylum hidden from public view,” said Webb.
“These off-shore detention centers are on remote parts of remote islands in the territories of other countries and people working in those centers face prison for speaking out. The government has set up a veil of secrecy to hide from view what they know will offend people’s sense of basic human decency.”
Nevertheless, activists sense that a change in public mood — and accordingly the political status quo — could be around the corner. Webb pointed to large protests earlier this year after an Australian court cleared the way for the government to return more than 250 asylum seekers brought here for medical treatment.
Manne said change would require the main parties to put aside partisan point-scoring and work together on a fundamental solution.
“The coalition has to cease trying to take political advantage of the issue and work creatively with Labor to come up with a national solution,” he said. “I think that’s the most important thing.”
John Power is a journalist who has reported on North and South Korea since 2010. His work has appeared in outlets including The Daily Mail, The Christian Science Monitor, Mashable, NK News, Asian Geographic, The Diplomat, The Korea Herald and Narratively, among others. He is currently based in Melbourne, Australia.
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