Torture is an evocative word. It conjures up images of shackles, chains, beatings, burnings, suffocation, and waterboarding. Almost everyone has watched a movie that incorporates some element of torture. Blind fold over face and knife to throat, submersion into a watery pit, a bucket full of scorpions. While this visual imagery is captivating, in reality the threshold as to what constitutes torture is not as high as many Australians think.Graphic scenes of torture in movies and TV series are seen as entertainment and definitely not part of reality. It is only reality in third world, war torn countries, or in underworld gangs in faraway cities infested with organised crime. Certainly, state-sanctioned torture has no place in a Western, democratic, developed nation. There is an uncomfortable denial from many that Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers amounts to torture.
The Australian Government is unrepentant in its asylum seeker policy. Prime Minister Tony Abbott is determined to do whatever it takes to fulfil his ‘Stop the Boats’ election promise. This includes the guarantee that no genuine refugee, let alone economic migrant, who attempts to come to Australia by boat, will ever ‘call Australia home’. Those who do attempt the journey are either turned back to Indonesia or held in detention in offshore processing facilities on Manus Island or Nauru.
In March 2015, the United Nations slammed Australia for violating international obligations with its treatment of asylum seekers, stating that it amounted to torture. This followed the November 2014 ‘children in detention’ report from the Australian Human Rights Commission. The report found systematic exposure to and horrific cases of sexual and physical abuse of children in immigration detention.
Despite the independent and sustained reports of torture and abuse in a regime funded by the Australian taxpayer, many people remain apathetic. And the Government’s recently enacted laws which may see doctors, health workers and counsellors jailed for reporting abuse, will further remove any potential discomfort from the minds of many Australians.
But for those who do engage, the conversation often revolves around whether those subjected to abuse in detention are ‘genuine refugees’. In a strange twist of logic, it seems that the government-defined classification of the asylum seeker is entirely relevant as to whether a fellow human being should be tortured at the taxpayer expense.
“They’re not genuine refugees, they are economic migrants,” is a common response to any condemnation of the asylum seeker policy.
As if this makes all the difference.
Are these Australians really so callous as to endorse Government-funded torture, simply because a person, labelled an ‘economic migrant’, dares to seek a better life?
“They’re not real refugees. They should have waited their turn. It was their choice to get on a boat. If they can afford to pay people smugglers, they can afford a visa.”
Are Australians, as a nation, really saying that where they believe a person is not escaping torture, genocide or persecution, it is acceptable to detain and torture them for simply seeking a new life in another country? Are Australians actually comfortable with their tax dollars being spent on this?
The assumption behind Abbott’s policy is that the people smuggling business will be thwarted by removing all hope of settlement in Australia. Abbott has made it clear that “If you want to start a new life, you come through the front door, not through the back door.” He believes that if there is no chance of seeking a better life, the incentive to get on a leaky boat is removed. But desperate people, escaping persecution, have little option when the alternative to getting on a boat is death in a jungle.
And the Government, in its failure to acknowledge that the vast majority of asylum seekers are genuine refugees, will no longer even ask if a person will face torture if returned to their country of origin before turning back a boat.
The Australian Government is quite clearly telling all asylum seekers, regardless of their personal situation, that if they want safety and security, Australia won’t help. If they make it to Australia by boat, they will be locked up indefinitely in detention. Their babies will spend their formative years exposed to abuse. Their punishment for seeking a better life is torture.
The recent rage surrounding the ‘housing affordability’ debate and ‘tampon tax’ campaign highlights the contrast between white Australian expectations and the reality for those seeking asylum.
First home buyers, faced with rising house prices in major cities, have rightly been offended by out-of-touch Treasurer Joe Hockey’s flippant advice that they should get a good job with good pay if they want to buy a house in Sydney. But while many of these people may be currently living with their parents in the leafy suburbs, in a share house near the CBD, or renting a perfectly suitable home, asylum seekers are housed in barely liveable conditions that are ‘rat-infested, cramped and very hot’.
Australian women, angry that essential health and hygiene products are taxed as ‘luxury items’, are well within their rights to lobby for change. However it is no surprise that a Government who considers pads and tampons ‘luxury items’ for Australian women, has no concerns about restricting access to sanitary products for asylum seekers. Abbott might think a little differently if it were his wife and three daughters walking around with blood clots running down their legs.
If housing affordability comments and unfair taxes can cause so much outrage amongst Australians, why doesn’t the torture of asylum seekers?
The hypocrisy in the messages is astounding.
One group of people is subjected to torture, cruel and inhumane treatment for seeking a better life, while another group is actively encouraged to do so. And what is the difference?
Only people lucky enough to be ‘Australian’ are entitled to better their circumstances. Only people who already have a pretty good standard of living are entitled to improve their situation. It is not the responsibility of Australia to help asylum seekers. But not only that, if they come to us for help, we will torture them.
If a person is from a country destroyed by war, a minority persecuted in their homeland, stricken by poverty, we will make their life so hellish in our detention centres they would rather face persecution at home.
The ‘Stop the Boats’ policy has never been about saving lives. It was always a populist tactic to appeal to voters who believe the media rhetoric around ‘queue jumping’ and ‘illegal immigrants’. While Australians fear that ‘economic migrants’ will steal their jobs, there will always be support for draconian asylum seeker policies and no widespread condemnation of appalling conditions.
The Australian Government spends more than $1.2 billion a year on offshore detention facilities, endorsing torture, and physical and sexual abuse. It has promised to pay Cambodia $40 million to accept refugees; a country known for human rights abuses. That is a lot of money which could be spent in Australia, boosting the local economy and creating jobs for Australians.
There is no justification for the way the Australian Government is treating asylum seekers.
None at all.
It should make no difference at all if a person is a genuine refugee or economic migrant. They must be processed quickly, humanely and allowed to get on with their lives.
Staying silent is condoning the torture.