Communist Party of Australia

We acknowledge the Sovereignty of the First Nations’ Peoples.


Journal of the Communist Party of Australia

ISSUE 66December 2017

Book Review

The Undesirables – Inside Nauru

Australia’s record with refugees is, in the main, not one to be proud of. At the end of World War II, while people everywhere celebrated the final defeat of fascism, Australia’s immigration minister was making our country a safe haven for escaping Nazis, fascist collaborators and anti-Soviet terrorists angry at the defeat of the Germans they had had such high hopes for.

That minister was Arthur Caldwell, Roman Catholic, from the right-wing of the Labor Party, and fiercely anti-Communist. Many of the people his officers helped to come to Australia after the war were not fleeing the aftermath of war so much as fleeing retribution for their unsavoury part in it.

But while these people suited the Australian ruling class politically, they did not suit ethnically. Australia, you see, according to the powers that be, was not just White, it was Anglo-Saxon, and they were determined to keep it that way. So we had the “Bring out a Briton” immigration campaign and the £10-boat-fare subsidised passage to Australia – for migrants from Britain.

In the 1950s, when I was in high school in Sydney, we had a small but very upright woman from Dr Barnardo’s outfit come to the school cadging money for their scheme that took the children of poor people in England, mainly Londoners, and sent them far away to Australia where they provided cheap – or free – labour on farms and never saw their parents again. No matter, they were poor so their rights were of no significance.

This lady drew herself up to her five-foot-nothing at a special school assembly, stood stiffly at attention, and informed us “I’m proud to be Australian, but I’m prouder still to be BRITISH!” Fortunately, that was an antiquated sentiment then; today it probably resonates only with the likes of Tony Abbott.

Our next big influx of refugees were not British at all, but they were suitably right-wing: Vietnamese who had thrown in their lot first with the invading colonial French and then with the invading Yanks and now were obliged to flee the wrath of their victorious countrymen. We took about 25,000 of these refugees, most of whom came unofficially and by boat, making them clearly “boat people”, but curiously no stigma was attached to them for that.

There was a serious hiccup in our right-wing refugee policy during the tenure of the Whitlam Labor government, which gave refuge to left-wing refugees from Chile following General Pinochet’s bloody overthrow of the elected government of Salvador Allende.

After that aberration, the policy of Australian governments towards refugees reverted to its default position: regard them all as undesirable and treat them as criminals. There was no political advantage to be gained for the government among actual or potential Liberal Party supporters by recognising the rights of refugees. Quite the opposite in fact.

Since most of the wars that created refugees likely to seek safety in Australia were being fought in some part of Asia, refugees from these conflicts were suitably “other”, racially and culturally “alien”, easily made the targets of Australia’s ultra-Right racists. Australia had helped draft the UN convention on refugees, but reactionary Federal governments – with the full support of the right-wing leadership of the Labor “opposition” – had no qualms about abandoning our responsibilities towards them.

About half of all refugees who come to Australia arrive here by air via countries where they can without too much difficulty obtain visas to enter Australia: usually short-term visas for study, tourism or business. Once in the country they apply for asylum. While their asylum claim is being resolved they are allowed to remain at large in the community. However, those who do not pass through countries that have signed the 1951 Convention on Refugees and hence cannot obtain such visas live in constant fear of detection and being returned to the country from which they were trying to escape.

As Julian Burnside says in his excellent foreword to Mark Isaac’s book on Australia’s concentration camp for “boat people” on Nauru, The Undesirables – Inside Nauru: “In Indonesia, asylum seekers who are assessed as refugees may wait ten or twenty years before they are offered a place in a safe country. In the meantime they cannot get jobs and their kids cannot go to school, for fear of detection. ... Not surprisingly, some of them – those with initiative and courage – place themselves in the hands of people smugglers, commit themselves to a dangerous boat trip and end up in Australia.”

Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, a party founded on opposition to multi-culturalism, gained considerable support with scare campaigns claiming Australia was being “overrun” by aliens. The Liberal Party under John Howard, afraid it might lose its position as the leading right-wing party, adopted a high-profile posture of hostility towards refugees, claiming amongst other things that they tossed their children overboard when approached by the Australian Navy. This kind of lie shored up the Liberal government’s support from racists and other ultra-rightists as intended, but to become government policy it meant Australia had to ignore its obligations to assist refugees under UN conventions and other treaties.

The cunning solution the Libs came up with (with the full support of Labor) was to pay neighbouring Papua-New Guinea to allow Australia to establish concentration camps on Nauru and Manus Island, to use the Navy to intercept boats carrying refugees and to divert them to PNG where the refugees are incarcerated indefinitely. All they are promised is that they will never be allowed to enter Australia. This was called “the Pacific Solution”.

The full horror of just what the Australian government’s policy towards refugees actually entails is graphically and chillingly revealed in Isaac’s book. The book first appeared in 2014 but Hardie Grant Books has published a new edition this year. As Julian Burnside notes in his excellent foreword, refuting a claim the right-wing make constantly, “boat people are not ‘illegal’: coming to Australia the way they do to seek protection is not an offence against any law.”

It was that pillar of support for democratic rights Scott Morrison who militarised the Department of Immigration and Citizenship when he was appointed to the portfolio by Tony Abbott in 2013. Morrison changed the name of the department to Immigration and Border Protection. “From that point on,” says Burnside, “news about boat arrivals was restricted as ‘an operational matter’.”

However, we should not forget that it was the Gillard Labor government that had revived the Pacific solution in August 2012. Being “tough on refugees” is seen as a vote catcher by both major parties, so that is also the approach taken by Labor leader Bill Shorten, who is nothing if not opportunistic.

The Abbott and Turnbull Liberal governments have made their supposed “success” at “stopping the boats” a major feature of their propaganda. And yet, as Burnside points out, “the language of ‘border control’ and ‘border protection’ is completely misleading. ... At any one time, there are about 60,000 [people from among the four million visitors and 150,000 annual migrants] who have overstayed their visa and are thus staying in Australia in breach of the law. By contrast, from the mid-1980s to the early 2000s, the arrival rate for boat people averaged about 1,000 per year ...

“When 60,000 backpackers and students from Europe and America stay on for years, there is no mention of border protection. When a much smaller number of terrified people seek our help, it is absurd to believe that they represent a threat to our borders.”

That this absurdity is recognised by both the Australian government and the Opposition is shown by the restrictive laws they have passed to ensure silence on the issue. As Deborah Snow said in The Sydney Morning Herald, “Eyewitness accounts from inside Australia’s detention centres are rare. Walled in behind government secrecy, contracts which bind them to silence, and fear for their livelihoods, staff and former employees of the groups running the centres bite their tongues or confide only in close colleagues, family members or friends.”

Amnesty International was not impressed when it reported on the Australian-run detention centre on Nauru in 2012: “Amnesty International has found a toxic mix of uncertainty, unlawful detention and inhumane conditions creating an increasingly volatile situation on Nauru, with the Australian Government spectacularly failing in its duty of care to asylum seekers.”

A year later, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported that “the current policies, conditions and operational approaches [at the detention centre on Nauru] do not comply with international standards ...”

It is no secret that the money being spent by the Australian government to keep asylum seekers safely locked away on Nauru would allow each of them to be bought a house in country NSW every year! Instead, they are imprisoned under dreadful conditions without hope. The Australian government actually tried to persuade them to agree to being resettled in poverty-stricken Cambodia with no hope of a future, but not surprisingly had no success with this ploy.

On 27th April, 2016, an Iranian refugee in Australian-dictated offshore detention could take it no longer and doused himself with petrol and set himself alight. He died two days later. Cathy Wilcox, cartoonist with The Sydney Morning Herald, highlighted the hypocrisy of the Australian government’s boasting of its success at stopping “boat people” by drawing a man engulfed in flames with the caption “Not drowning”.

The Australian government had given the job of ministering to the needs of the inmates on Nauru to the Salvation Army, presumably feeling that since, unlike other religious organisations which can be inconveniently critical about things like poverty and homelessness, the Salvos depend on these things as their raison d’être. The only major religious organisation that never spoke out against the Vietnam War, the Salvos have never taken part in any political debates on any social or economic questions. They were clearly a safe bet for involvement in Australia’s off-shore concentration camp program. And so they might have been, but for a young man from Sydney named Mark Isaacs. Mark was one of the people they hired as “support staff” on Nauru. His book about his experiences is a damming exposé of the conditions there, and of the policy of the Australian government towards asylum seekers as exemplified on Nauru.

First published in 2014, a revised edition has been published this year by Hardie Grant Books. As Deborah Snow noted in her review in 2014, “Isaacs was only 24 when, on the strength of a single phone call and with no experience, he was hired by the Salvos and sent to Nauru with less than a week’s notice to ‘provide support’ to asylum seekers detained there.” He has no criticism of the Salvos: they did their best in a situation they should never have taken on.

“I wasn’t given any training before I was sent over,’’ he says. “No preparation, no cultural diversity training, I didn’t know anything about Tamils, or people from Iraq and Iran, and I was one of the comparatively well-informed. There was an 18-year-old there! How can you expect an 18-year-old to look after traumatised, war-torn people?’’

Isaacs completed five rotations through the camp, each of several weeks’ duration. Then in June of 2013, the desperate inmates burnt most of it to the ground. The following year, equally-desperate inmates at the other Australian concentration camp for “boat people”, on Manus Island, rioted leaving one man dead and scores injured.

Because the people in these camps have no hope and therefore little to lose, Isaacs argues that future violence is inevitable. “Criminals were given a sentence to serve: these men were not even given that,’’ Isaacs writes. “They feared they would die in Nauru, that they would be forgotten, that they would become non-people.’’ The Turnbull government has tried to wriggle out from under this problem by resettling the refugees not in Australia but in America! That mad scheme seems to have hit a few snags but “negotiations are continuing” we are assured.

Meanwhile, seizing people who have committed no crime and penning them indefinitely on small Pacific islands and leaving them in limbo is certainly no way to “solve’’ the asylum seeker “problem”. But because the Australian government finds it expedient to regard them as criminals, they are treated with the cruelty and contempt that applies in prison. Isaacs witnessed many moments of heartbreak in the Nauru camp.

“Reza, an internee to whom he had been giving private English lessons, nearly succeeded in taking his own life with a toxic cocktail of cleaning fluids, mosquito repellent, antidepressants and sleeping tablets. One of the camp’s most respected religious leaders, Ali, descended into three days of psychotic madness [when he] lost a child, having tried, and failed, to transfer funds back home for the sick youngster’s treatment. A third moment of heartbreak came when the camp poet, Pez, whom Isaacs had befriended, tried to hang himself in the dank, dark laundry.”

Isaacs was left feeling as though he was working in a “death factory’’. He writes, “the camp was built around destroying men, grind[ing] them into the dust.’’

And like all prisons, it ran on myriad petty rules that were chopped and changed: no hair dye, swimming for inmates banned because of health and safety concerns, no vocational training for internees because that would break the “no advantage’’ rule (they were not, under the policy, to receive any “advantage’’ over asylum seekers still awaiting processing in UN centres).

Isaacs was mysteriously blacklisted from the camp for a few weeks, and was later told it was because of complaints by security staff that he was too willing to fraternise with camp inmates. Staff were repeatedly warned against speaking out about what was going on behind the camp gates. At one stage, Isaacs says, he was told there was an “intel’’ file on him. “You were not allowed to email your loved ones about what was happening, even what the food was like,’’ he said. “They said that people were checking our emails and FaceBook. It felt like being in a fascist state.’’

John Howard tried to justify Australia’s hostile policy towards refugees on humanitarian grounds: we were “saving lives”. That furphy won’t wash anymore, so the government has simply clamped down on any discussion of the subject while trying to forcibly send the refugees somewhere – anywhere – else.

But it is not a problem that will just go away. While imperialism goes on making innumerable wars around the world and destroying national economies, there will be refugees. And some of them will try to come here. We have a legal and a humanitarian commitment to help them.

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