Australia’s Refugee Policies Are Designed to Inflict as Much Harm as Possible

By Anna Shea: Amnesty International Researcher/Advisor on Refugee and Migrant Rights

In an out-of-the way, dingy watering hole, a young woman I’ll call Jane told me: “I picked this place because it was very noisy, so there’d be less chance of being monitored.”

Up until that point, we had only communicated by encrypted messages, so that the local authorities wouldn’t know about our meeting. I was in a country that had recently enacted legislation  allowing it to prosecute and imprison people who disclosed information about offshore government operations. By meeting with me, Jane was demonstrating real courage. Many other people were too scared to meet with me—or even speak on the phone.  At the bar, Jane spoke for hours about the human rights abuses she had witnessed. At several points, she broke down in tears. 

As a human rights lawyer with Amnesty International, I’m used to making elaborate arrangements to ensure the safety and anonymity of the people I interview in authoritarian countries. I’m also accustomed to hearing traumatic stories of abuse.

But this clandestine meeting didn’t take place in Belarus or China or Uzbekistan, but rather in liberal, democratic Australia. And what we were discussing were not state secrets, but simply the health and wellbeing of the women, men and children who had sought Australia’s protection.

A new report released by Amnesty International “Island of Despair” exposes in painstaking detail the lengths to which the government of Australia goes to repel asylum-seekers from its territory, and to conceal the magnitude of the abuse that takes place in its “offshore processing” facilities.

Australia’s approach to asylum-seekers—those fleeing dangerous countries such as Iraq, Somalia and Syria—is aimed at deterrence. If anyone tries to enter Australia irregularly by boat, they are either pushed back, or rounded up and confined to remote “processing” centers.

One such center is located on Nauru, a tiny, remote island in the Pacific, with a population of 10,000 people and a total area of 21 km2.  Once there, asylum-seekers and refugees receive inadequate medical care, are the target of abuse by the local population, and their children are subject to abuse and denied an education. They cannot leave Nauru even after they are recognized as refugees.

Astonishingly, the government of Australia has managed to “sell” this model as humanitarian.

In George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty Four, he coined the term “doublethink.” The act of doublethink is “to know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it.”

Doublethink is the only way to explain how the government of Australia has hoodwinked its electorate and the rest of the world about its policies towards people seeking international protection.

For at the same time that the government of Australia claims that its policies are humanitarian and are aimed at saving lives (by supposedly discouraging people from trying to reach Australia on dangerous boat journeys), the government also acknowledges that for the policies to “work,” they must be cruel. Indeed Australian Prime Minister Malcolm  Turnbull has admitted that the policy of offshore processing is harsh, and could be called cruel. So is it perhaps doublethink that enables  Turnbull, when he tells the United Nations that Australia’s border policies are “the best in the world”—and Australia’s Minister of Immigration Peter Dutton, when he says Nauru is “safe” for refugees, to keep a straight face?

But the doublethink does not stop there.

For instance, Australia claims that refugees on Nauru are the responsibility of the Nauruan authorities. And yet it is Australia that has blocked those same people from accepting offers from a third country—New Zealand—for resettlement. As well, the government of Australia, in response to the thousands of leaked incident reports recently released by The Guardian, said that these documents—which paint a devastating picture of a failed system and deliberate neglect—demonstrate to the contrary that its incident-reporting system is robust.

Apparently, in the twilight zone that is the Australian government’s discourse on refugees, “war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength.”

Jane, who was one of the many brave people who risked criminal prosecution in order to share information about Nauru, has seen through the official doublethink. For the sake of the nearly 1,200 women, men and children trapped on Nauru, it is high time for others to follow suit.

But more broadly, the “saving lives” sham propped up by the Australian government must urgently be exposed for the lie that it is, and dismantled. The argument that ends justify means leads down a very dark path—one that would make Nineteen Eighty Four pale in comparison.

LEARN MORE: Visit Amnesty International’s global campaign for refugee rights, “I Welcome Refugees”