The rebadging of the Australian customs and border protection service as the Australian border force illustrates a phenomenon that’s been apparent for some time – the entwining of refugee policy with the war on terror.
Today, the institution tasked with responding to desperate people fleeing persecution has been thoroughly militarised. Its personnel are uniformed; its key leaders comes from the army and navy, and treat the most basic information about refugees and their conditions as a state secrets.
But recent events – particularly the government chartering a RAAF jet to secretly fly a pregnant refugee out of Australia to escape a court injunction on Friday – remind us of another, less obvious, intersection between the treatment of asylum seekers and the treatment of terrorists, one that relates to the American policy known as “extraordinary rendition”.
On 16 September 2001, the then US vice president Dick Cheney told NBC that the war on terror required Americans to work on “the dark side”. The CIA duly drew up new protocols for interrogations, authorising the use of waterboarding, sleep deprivation, stress positions, slapping and other coercive measures.
But the worst torture was generally performed by others, with detainees secretly transported to US-friendly regimes willing and able to inflict medieval brutality on America’s hapless captives. The former CIA agent Robert Baer explained the smorgasbord of violence available to his agency: “If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear – never to see them again – you send them to Egypt.”
There were obvious advantages for Washington in this outsourcing of cruelty.
Detainees held in US custody could – at least theoretically – seek redress from the courts. Such prisoners were easier for journalists to find; they were more readily accessible to advocates and human rights lawyers. And, worst of all, they might eventually bring the American government to account for the treatment it dished out.
By contrast, prisoners handed over to friendly military dictatorships essentially disappeared. The US courts exercise no authority over secret prisons in Egypt or Jordan, and American reporters were exceedingly unlikely to uncover inmates there.
When suspects were transported to the custody of friendly regimes, the CIA could ensure the detainees were subjected to bone-breaking brutality, while simultaneously disavowing any responsibility for the conduct of a foreign state.
Obviously, the Australian government doesn’t seek to extract information from asylum seekers. Nevertheless, offshore detention of refugees utilises a very similar methodology.
On Friday, hours before a court hearing on an injunction, the government removed a refugee who had come to Australia to seek a termination for a pregnancy. The pregnancy was the result of being raped while she was held on Nauru.
While the woman – known under a pseudonym Abyan – was in detention in Villawood in Sydney, her lawyers requested to speak with her – as afforded by Australian law and the 1951 Refugees Convention, but was not allowed.
Her lawyers later sought an injunction after hearing she was to be moved back to Nauru. But in court, they were told that Abyan was already out of the country, and had been flown by a RAAF jet to the Solomon Islands capital, Honiara. She was then taken to Nauru.
On Thursday, the Nauruan justice minister explained that his police force might charge another woman, who had complained of sexual assault, with the criminal offence of making a false statement. This extraordinary suggestion came after the Nauruan government had earlier released the woman’s name and intimate details of her allegations.
Now, both woman had applied to Australia for asylum. They had been transported to Nauru by Australians; they had been detained in an Australian-run camp. But that facility is not in Australia but rather on the sovereign nation of Nauru – and so Malcolm Turnbull and Peter Dutton could deflect all enquiries about the shameful treatment to the officials of an entirely different country.
It wasn’t an Australian problem, you see – it was an issue for Nauru.
Extraordinary rendition depended on the CIA’s ability to exert de facto control over its allies while remaining at arm’s lengths from the dirty work they performed.
Australian refugee policy works in the same way.
“People who are in the regional processing centres are the responsibility of either the Nauruan government or the PNG government,’ Dutton told Emma Alberici on the ABC’s Lateline program earlier this month.
Of course, Nauru was formally administered by Australia until 1966, just as PNG was until 1975. Both nations are heavily dependent on Australian aid. When they were asked to host detention centres, the suggestion was, as Marlon Brando might put it, an offer they could not refuse.
The camps now run more or less the way they were designed to operate. They were always intended to be punitive (otherwise they wouldn’t function as a deterrent) and they were always meant to be inaccessible (ever since 2001, Australian officials worried that press images of refugees might “humanise” people seeking asylum in the eyes of the public).
But, by locating the facilities offshore, the Australian government has outsourced both the job of controlling the detainees and the related job of controlling the media. If it shrugs its shoulders over rape allegations, it also pleads innocent to charges of censorship – even as Nauru increases the asking price for a journalist visa from $200 to $8000.
In September this year, NZ suspended aid to Nauru, on the basis that the rule of law in the country had essentially collapsed. A Nauruan opposition leader has been stripped of his passport and suspended from parliament, along with four of his colleagues. The government has also shut down Facebook, a platform being used both by refugee advocates and supporters of the opposition.
But don’t expect Canberra to follow in Auckland’s wake.
In the wake of 9/11, the US needed authoritarian regimes to do its dirty work. With refugee policy, Australia, too, is working on the dark side – and that means contracting out its skulduggery to compliant allies.