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Indecent asylum policy damages us all



In the last week Malcolm Turnbull has lauded, as the world's best refugee policy and a shining light to the rest of the world, a system that has resettled no refugees over three years.

Peter Dutton with blood soaked hand stands on 'the world stage' and sings 'you should do it my way'. Cartoon by Fiona KatauskasImmigration Minister Peter Dutton has stated that asylum seekers will continue to be processed in Nauru for decades. He has also described the Australian policy, of which detention on Nauru is part, as compassionate and effective.

These comments follow recent reports by NGOs Save the Children and UNICEF, as well as the Australian Human Rights Commission, on offshore detention. Both urge an end to it. Although the primary concern of these organisations is to defend and safeguard the human dignity of the people subject to detention, their reports situate Australian asylum policy in a broader context.

As well as instantiating the damage it causes to the physical and mental health of its victims, they also consider the international movement of peoples caused by war, terror and famine, the impact that this global movement has on the nations in the Asia Pacific region, and the financial and reputational costs to Australia of the present policy.

Both outline elements of a better policy in which the heavy costs would be lessened and people who seek protection be treated with respect.

The Human Rights Commission had earlier published The Forgotten Children report, a scathing and forensic account of the damage done by the circumstances and conditions of life for children in detention on Nauru and in Australia.

Its recent report steps back from the personal and anecdotal detail provided in the earlier document. It situates the Australian policy in its regional context, points out its costs and its contradictions, and urges that it be replaced by a policy that provides protection through regional cooperation for people fleeing persecution.

The Save the Children — UNICEF report focuses particularly on the plight of children trapped by the present policy and details the damage done both to children and adults by its workings. It estimates the direct costs of detention and points out the indirect costs in lost opportunity and in future mental illness, not to mention the human suffering of those detained and the damage done to Australia's reputation.


"As the rhetoric of Turnbull and Dutton shows, politicians can accept wasteful expenditure and strong criticism of their pet enterprises. These things will not convince them that a policy is indecent. "


The emphasis on the monetary and reputational costs of the Australian refugee policy in these reports is strategic. It is based on the judgment that politicians and the Australian public are inoculated against ethical arguments based on the suffering caused to people seeking asylum, but that the financial and reputational costs of the policy may encourage rethinking.

This is a legitimate strategy, but also open to question. Unnecessary expenditure and the loss of reputation may be seen as regrettable consequences of a necessary policy. As the rhetoric of Turnbull and Dutton shows, politicians can accept wasteful expenditure and strong criticism of their pet enterprises. These things will not convince them that a policy is indecent. They need first to be persuaded by public opinion that the policy is indecent before they address its consequences.

The primary task of groups working with and for people who seek protection is to keep before the public the human consequences of an indecent policy so that they will see that it is wrong to detain people indefinitely in order to persuade other people not to make a journey; wrong to treat them brutally in order to horrify others, wrong to harry, hassle and neglect people, wrong to conceal the reality of what is being done to people. If people do not read the scroll of agony unrolled before their eyes, they will be undeterred by the costs to the Australian community.

The starting point for judging any policy must be the effect on the people subjected to it. Where suffering is inflicted as part of the policy for goals that are extraneous to the welfare of the people affected, it is indefensible. It makes a mockery of any pretensions to humanity, compassion or right to lecture other nations on behalf of the policy.

The staff of Save the Children, UNICEF and the Human Rights Commission know that. They have done the hard yards and been abused for speaking the plain truth about what they have seen and heard in detention centres. So they have a right to speak about the other costs of the policy.

Morally indecent policies are always accompanied by heavy costs in the shorter or longer term. Mistreating human beings ultimately damages the societies and groups that mistreat them. Sexual harassment and bullying hurt companies. So does brutality damage governments. The financial and reputational costs brought out by the two reports do not make the policy bad. They are the effect of an indecent policy.


Samuel Dariol Samuel Dariol is a social and environmental activist and coordinator of the Catholic Alliance for People Seeking Asylum.

Cartoon by Fiona Katauskas

Topic tags: Samuel Dariol, Malcolm Turnbull, asylum seekers



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Existing comments

These recent declarations accompanied by surely the most devious twist yet in the specious ethics of border protection: that our multicultural harmony at home is dependent on calculated brutality at our borders. And in our name, on the world stage, they would trumpet our presumed connivance in that?

Quentin Dignam | 21 September 2016  

In an effort to convince people to their way of thinking, many writers are extravagant with both words and facts. I was of the understanding that in the past 3 years, there are no more children in detention. Syrian refugees have come to Australia and are in the process of being settled. Australians are not brutal people as described by Quentin Dignam or have brutal policies and I object to such extravagant terminology. terminology. There is more to the Australian way of life than refugees, there is the matter of domestic violence and murder and children who go home to a war zone every night of their desperate lives. Think about them.

shirley McHugh | 22 September 2016  

Thank you Shirley McHugh for establishing the necessary balance that is often missing from largely emotional approaches to human issues. Children are often exploited to tug the heart strings of potential supporters of a cause. It would be more productive if the asylum seeker supporters ditched the emotion and stuck to the facts. Truth is the best weapon. Sadly it doesn't always suit a cause.

john frawley | 22 September 2016  

I notice Shirley and John seem to think that trafficking humans to rot in other nations, state sponsored rape, torture, murder and child abuse are not harsh and cruel policies.

Marilyn | 22 September 2016  

It is hard to believe that our PM would say we are 'world leaders' in the treatment of refugees. If all countries adopted Australia's policies virtually no-one would be able to find a safe place to live - no matter what their situation was. Our global humanity is at stake!

Brigid Arthur | 22 September 2016  

Shirley : "Think about them." Don't just think about them. Do something. What ever you can. But don't just ignore the position of the refugees because of other problems. John: "emotional approaches to human issues". Just because emotion is involved in an approach doesn't mean that the issues are not real, or that real help is not needed. A lot of fact have been produced to show the need for remedies. Just because there are other problems as well doesn't alleviate the need to help suffering refugees. "Truth is the best weapon". The Truth is that the Refugees need help. Face it.

Robert Liddy | 22 September 2016  

It seems the unfortunate people still stuck in our tax-payer funded detention centres are like the unwanted stepchildren in a blended family - that so often get abused and neglected by a reluctant step parent. Does that analogy suit better? This is about reality, not words and comparisons.

AURELIUS | 23 September 2016  

A very good argument put plainly and effectively. Good work Samuel Dariol.

William Spencer | 23 September 2016  

Detaining a refugee on Manus or Nauru costs $400k per person pa. In Australia it costs $239k p.a. Source "Refugee action Coalition Sydney". Of course Dutton crows about the success of the offshore detention process. For a guy who walked out of Parliament during the Rudd apology, he has a heart as big as a pea.

francis Armstrong | 23 September 2016  

Thank you Samuel, yes it is indecent and only public pressure will change it. I am glad the reports are out there, as maybe some international pressure may help too.

Karen | 23 September 2016  

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