Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Why it's futile to beg for refugees' human rights



A recent Australian Human Rights Commission report on risk management in immigration detention has come and gone with little notice. To many readers the topic will seem recondite and the possibility of it producing change low. Both the report and the response to it by the Department of Home Affairs, however, demonstrated the irrelevance of human rights in the development and administration of policy concerning people who seek asylum.

Fences and locked gates of detention centreThe report itself is methodical and helpful, offering an overview of the number and variety of Australian immigration detention centres, the categories of people held in them and the points at which perceived risks are eliminated at the cost of respect for the humanity of the people detained. The report and its recommendations were informed by interviews with people detained, visitors to the centres and officers of the Australian Border Force. The recommendations are modest, but if fully implemented would make the conditions of people detained marginally less soul-destroying.

The report also offers examples of the human effects of risk management procedures on people. The possibility of smuggling or introducing harmful substances in food, for example, prevented a visitor from bringing in a cake for a detained child to celebrate her second birthday party.

The report and the response reveal the gulf between the philosophies and priorities of the government and its plaintiffs. People who take human rights seriously do so because they believe in the unique value of each human being. For this reason they believe that law and its administration must work within a framework of respect for human dignity. They expect that if they point out violations of human rights the response will either deny such violation or will correct it by changing legal and administrative processes. Humanity trumps instruments of control.

The Australian government's treatment of people who seek asylum, however, is based on subordinating the humanity and rights of people to a policy of control, with all the laws and processes that implement it. Humanity and human rights are expendable when set against instrumental policies and regulations. That is true of the detention regime generally and of the way in which it is administered. The distress and loss of faith in humanity of a family whose birthday party is spoiled counts for nothing in comparison with the goal of seamless control.

The Department's response to the Commission's recommendations is understandable in this context. It is unyielding to its insistence, based on Australian policy, that the integrity of the detention regime be maintained and that the controlling principle of its administration is security. To visitors to the centres the response will read as a chilling demonstration of power over humanity. The Commission's appeal to human rights will seem like a little boy holding a flower to turn back an advancing tank.

The difficulty with policy that is built on disregarding the humanity of those whom it touches, whether it be in immigration, justice, welfare, Indigenous affairs or health, is that its administration produces the risks to whose elimination it then gives priority. To take one example, the report pleads for more discrimination in relating the conditions of detention to the risk of violent or disruptive behaviour. The response insists on the priority of security against such behaviour.


"To beg respect for human rights is a merciful thing to do. But Boochani's scream of outrage at the injustice of it all seems a cleaner response."


Violent and disruptive behaviour, however, may be expected when people have made atonement for crime by serving sentences in prison, or have been imprisoned indefinitely without having been found guilty of any offence, and are then promptly imprisoned again awaiting a protracted process of appeal. Harsh conditions of imprisonment designed to meet the risk of antisocial behaviour further encourage the cycle of fury and preventative repression.

The natural endpoint of this cycle is the punitive arbitrariness analysed by Behrouz Boochani in No Friend but the Mountains. People are treated as risks to be managed in a way that eliminates all risk, and are therefore stripped of their humanity.

The arbitrariness of the treatment of people in detention, indicated at many points of this report, reflects the operative principle that all risk is to be avoided whatever the cost to the humanity of the people detained. In Boochani's experience and description, Australians were homogenous and unreflective parts of a machine designed to dehumanise, cow and corrupt the people who sought protection from persecution. This report and the departmental response suggest that in on-shore detention the human destruction is not directly intended. It is seen simply as irrelevant.

To beg respect for human rights, as the AHRC report does, is a merciful thing to do, and if crumbs of concession fall from the tables of the powerful, the humiliation of begging will have been worthwhile. But in the long run Boochani's scream of outrage at the injustice of it all seems a cleaner, if in the short term no more effectual, response.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, refugees, asylum seekers



submit a comment

Existing comments

When we are wounded emotionally a healthy response is to articulate our pain. When the wounding continues with seemingly no prospect of relief then strong emotion predominates. Every time we (the wounders) do not show mercy when it is possible to do so, we forsake our own humanity. Operating a system which belittles people for the sake of our 'security' is very cruel and Australia as a whole community shares in that cruelty. Our responsibility.

Pam | 26 June 2019  

Thank you Andrew for continuing to write precisely and with such clarity. Straight to the point. I am chilled, even in the reading . JOB

Julie O'Brien | 28 June 2019  

Thank you for a deeply distressing article. The truth needs to be told and the facts acknowledged. The policies are unspeakable and the implementation of them belittles us all. I continue to advocate for refugees' rights, despite the hopelessness, because not to do so is unimaginable. As the saying goes: "Evil exists when good people do nothing".

Judith Taylor | 28 June 2019  

We’re the bad guys. When they make the movie, we’re the ones who will be hissed, from the perspective of a future in which the survivors of the detention centres, and their children, are happpily settled in humane and welcoming countries. Their grandchildren will hiss at the evil Aussies and go off to play. Who will there be to understand or forgive us?

Joan Seymour | 28 June 2019  

Indeed, Judith, I echo every word of your concern which haunts me unceasingly. Bravo for your choice of words! / Kévin Aryé Hatikvah Smith, Sydney []

Kevin G Smith | 28 June 2019  

This analysis is terribly chilling. Have we Australians sunk so low? I fear so. These words ring true. I am so ashamed.

Margaret | 28 June 2019  

An excellent article that puts the current situation into a perspective from which the position of all sides can be understood.

Harold Zwier | 28 June 2019  

I cannot be objective on this subject. My parents grabbed the opportunity to migrate to Australia after WW2 because, in my father's words, "the only time there will be peace in Northern Ireland is when we are at war against a common enemy". Within 14 months of the end of WW2 the Orange Lodge marches were back in force. We were blessed to have friends in Australia who sponsored us as migrants. But intentionally my parents had a genuine fear of religious/political persection. The push factor to leave Ireland was much stronger than the pull factor of Australia's being a long way from UK. I'm grateful Australia gave us refuge. That gratitude remains. What saddens me is the current treatment of refugees being defended as a warning against others. Desperate parents will do desperate things for the sake of their families. And yet they are treated as criminals. Border Protection is a weasel phrase for disguising xenophobia & selfishness. It suffocates anyone daring to beg for compassion. The asylum seekers have been dehumanised.

Uncle Pat | 28 June 2019  

Thank you Andrew Hamilton. I stopped reading the report because the politeness of it distressed me. There is a view in some quarters that the cruelty of Detention is accidental, not really meant, a sort of by-product of a necessary system. As a witness to the 2013 changes brought in with BorderForce, I know this to be a lie. Detention has always been harsh but in April 2013 this was systematised directly from Canberra. We appealed to stop the separation of friends into fenced locked compounds -told that they could request to visit friends. This was never allowed. As we appealed against the use of “ mechanical restraints” aka Handcuffs for medical appointments etc, we were told orders from Canberra-no. As we asked that women not be physically searched, hands and fingers squeezing arms legs,fingers under bras and into the groin, we were told again orders from Canberra. As we asked that ex prisoners and asylum seekers be placed in separate compounds-again no. They use the excuse of a higher security population to justify the treatment of all by mixing everyone up then applying cruel measures to all. There is independent mechanism to audit the abuse.

Pamela | 29 June 2019  

Andrew misses the point of the AHRC report. Whilst the total number of people in immigration detention has decreased significantly in recent years, the average length of time in detention as increased to almost 500 days. In on-shore detention there's been an increase in the number and proportion of detainees who've had their visa cancelled. How Home Affairs Department manages the associated 'risks' is the subject of the AHRC report. The AHRC report doesn't 'beg' for human rights, but rather fulfills its charter to inform the government of its obligations under human rights conventions and the imperative that Australia protects the human rights of all people held in immigration detention. The Department of Home Affairs response, under the current regime, is predictably bureaucratic and dismissive of most though not all AHRC recommendations. Those involved in action for change to our immigration detention policies need to understand what is really going on, and help give a push to AHRC recommendations. For example, the immediate closure of Blaxland compound at VIDC. Of the 900 innocent refugees and people seeking asylum held in indefinite offshore on Manus and Nauru, we need listen to Boochani and maintain the rage.

Darryl | 29 June 2019  

Andrew I love your continued patient and faithful upholding of the human rights of our people in detention. Another example in his book of crushing the human spirit is when queuing for the phone upon which so much depends someone is denied on technical detail. It's not Australian. But it's the job. Horrible.

Marie Bourke | 01 July 2019  

I agree one hundred percent with Andrew about the chilling ways that systemic abuse through maintaining rigid control systems in immigration disregarding humanity, seems to extend to the justice systems, prisons, mental health, aged care,hospitals, banks and the churches and government institutions "subordinating the humanity and rights of people to a policy of control." We have seen royal commissions into most of these areas. Recently I heard a radio program on the theme of "laborism" and its four pillars. I cannot credit the makers of the program as I missed the credits. Anyway they mentioned three of four of the pillars of laborism. The first pillar was careerism, the second pillar was "cult of personality"and the third pillar mentioned was that businesses seem to have no conflict in exploiting workers and nature to achieve their ends and I missed the fourth pillar. We must ask ourselves as a society and especially as a Christian community, how "careerism', "cult of personality" and "exploitation of nature and workers" may contribute to creating a system of control in our institutions and workplaces and our immigration department. Workers fear unemployment and the lack of career possibilities so therefore toe the institutions policy of control at the expense of humanity, and building up of people's egos, especially with politicians and all of us buying into the "cult of personality" and this leads to systemic failures where people vie to be the "leader"and may be a poor leader and make decisions based on ego driven concerns and at the expense of their conscience,and also at the expense of humility and good decision making which may be better suited to someone else. It would be good if the churches could model humility better. In art,music and literature we all too easily buy into the individualistic,ego stroking cultures. Maybe if we had the faith of a mustard seed, where we were all anonymous, were all living for the day, and were not in occupations where we exploited nature and people for personal gain then we might have a chance of seeing this modelled in our workplaces and institutions and immigration department. In the meantime maintain the rage.

Roz | 01 July 2019  

It would be great to hear the good news, here on Eureka street: The refugees from Manus Island will be now moved to Port Moresby....

AO | 20 August 2019  

Similar Articles

Dictators, democrats, and Egypt after Morsi

  • Irfan Yusuf
  • 24 June 2019

Egypt's first and thus far only democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi died in court while being tried for espionage following a lengthy period in prison. He is described as an 'Islamist' but never as a democrat. It's as if the two are necessarily mutually exclusive. Must they be? Was he any less democratic than his predecessors?


Devils in the details of 'optimistic' jobs report

  • Kate Galloway
  • 21 June 2019

Inevitably, employers will use the report to counter calls by casual employees for more secure work. It is a shame therefore that the report does not pay greater attention to identifying the gaps in work security and the risk that this poses not only to individuals, but to society more broadly.