The Punishment That Fits No Crime

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Monday, 22 October 2012 13:23 by Marian Dalton
Things are looking up for the government. The first study on the effect of carbon pricing indicates a related fall in carbon emissions, without the stupendous price hikes predicted by the Opposition. Australia comfortably won the vote to gain a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council, despite Opposition pessimism, doubt, and what looked suspiciously like sour grapes. Prime Minister Gillard’s numbers are up, and the government has even started to fight back in two-party preferred polls.

Yes, things are pretty rosy – and you know what happens next, don’t you?

The Opposition shift the ground. There’s always another issue on which they can fall back. This time, it’s asylum seekers – again. Specifically, the Coalition decided to take aim at the government’s part-adoption of the Pacific Solution, detaining asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island.

The Greens don’t want anyone on Nauru (or in mandatory detention at all, for that matter) – but are low on specifics as to how to implement their preferred ‘regional approach’. The government won’t tell us exactly how their ‘no advantage’ system is supposed to work – that is, how long asylum seekers on average would have to wait to be processed and granted refugee status. We’ve got some vague statements about making sure that those who come on boats don’t manage to get ahead of people ‘in the queue’ in refugee camps – never mind that the ‘queue’ simply doesn’t exist – but no numbers whatsoever.

Surprisingly, the one party who are giving us details is the Coalition. And those numbers are, frankly, horrifying.

Opposition Immigration spokesperson Scott Morrison announced that, under a Coalition government, asylum seekers should expect to be detained on Nauru for a minimum of five years. In what looked remarkably like a game of ‘Dare-You-Double-Dare-You’, he suggested the government adopt the same position, while Immigration Minister Chris Bowen countered by urging the Coalition to get on board the Malaysia solution. As usual, neither side wants to give an inch.

But let’s look at the Coalition’s proposal a bit more closely. Five years minimum mandatory detention. By anyone’s standards, that’s a long time to be stuck on an island with no idea whether you will eventually receive some certainty for your future. Add to that the fact that these are effectively stateless people, confined to sub-standard camps with poor facilities in a landscape devastated by phosphate mining, and sweltering in temperatures of over 30 degrees Celsius with very high humidity. Then take into account the fact that they can’t leave. They can’t decide to go for a walk, see a movie, have a picnic, or go shopping for a treat.

Looks a lot like a prison, doesn’t it? Of course, prisoners have an allowance, which they are allowed to spend. Asylum seekers simply cannot receive any form of financial assistance until they are out of detention – when they can apply for help from the Asylum Seeker Assistance Scheme. Generally, too, it’s a fairly straightforward process to visit a prisoner – one doesn’t need to find money for an international flight and visa, have a current passport, and jump through the bureaucratic hoops needed to gain permission to enter the detention centre.

While we’re on the subject of comparing prisons and asylum seeker detention centres, let’s look at that number again – at least five years. How does that stack up to sentences given to convicted prisoners?

According to a 2011 report prepared by the Sentencing Council of Victoria, of 228 people who received a custodial sentence for the crime of rape, over 80% were sentenced to less than six years. Half of those were eligible for parole in under four years.

Less than four years. Those who commit rape, a crime which our society regards as one of the worst outrages that can be inflicted on a human being, are imprisoned for roughly the same time it takes to complete a university degree – or hold two Federal elections. Under the Coalition’s plan, asylum seekers would be detained for at least a year longer.

Why such a long detention period? What have asylum seekers done, to warrant such strict conditions?

The short answer is: NOTHING.

Seeking asylum is not illegal. Despite the oft-repeated assertions of Morrison and his Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, people are absolutely entitled to seek asylum in Australia – and we have an obligation to process them, if not re-settle them in our country. We are, after all, signatories to Refugee Conventions. By referring to them as illegal, however, the Coalition plants the idea that something shifty is going on here.

It goes further. The Coalition suggests such people may not be ‘real’ refugees. Often they arrive without identification – what have they got to hide? They pay huge amounts (around US$4000) to people smugglers – why are they trying to get ahead of all those (real) refugees waiting patiently in camps around the world? If they’ve got money, why don’t they just leave normally? Any attempt to bring even a little factual evidence – or even logic – into the discussion is met with blustering rhetoric and accusations of being ‘soft on border protection’.

And make no mistake – Abbott knows exactly what he is doing. He knows that the official term used for boat-borne asylum seekers is ‘Irregular Maritime Arrivals’. He knows they’re not doing anything wrong by trying to get here. He knows that detaining people for long periods on remote islands, preferably ones that are not even part of Australia, tends to fade from the headlines if there are no faces to go with the protestations of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. If he plays the waiting game long enough, there will only be a few voices speaking up against a xenophobic attitude that he has done nothing to counter, and everything to encourage.

It’s really no surprise, then, that the Coalition should be now insisting on what can only be called an entirely punitive sentence for people who have committed no crime, circumvented no process, and are simply trying to save themselves and their families. It’s business as usual – demonise the victims, while claiming to ‘protect’ them from evil people smugglers and risky boat voyages.

Oh, and that five years? Is the low end of what the Coalition thinks is appropriate for mandatory detention. Morrison gave no figures for the maximum time an asylum seeker could be detained. Given that even twelve months’ detention on Nauru under the Pacific Solution resulted in adverse mental health outcomes that afflict refugees to this day, the prospect of five, six, or even more years smacks of outright, deliberate cruelty.

Lest we let the government off scot-free, however, it’s worth repeating: the Coalition have given us a minimum number. The government have given us nothing. We have no idea how long the government would be happy to keep someone in detention, other than some vague mutterings about being equivalent to the ‘average’ time taken to process someone in a camp in our region. As the UNHCR pointed out, though, it’s impossible to even establish an average time. It’s a meaningless concept – and since there is evidence of people in camps waiting for ten years or more, that ‘no advantage’ test starts to take on truly horrifying possibilities. The government seems to think that if one person suffers terrible hardship and interminable delays in having their refugee claim processed, then it’s acceptable for others to undergo the same ordeal. So sorry, but you understand how it is – we have to be fair, after all.

It’s not ‘fair’. It’s coldly, calculatedly inhumane. Whether it’s the government’s ‘we’re-not-telling’ or Morrison’s ‘five-years-and-counting’ solution, the treatment of asylum seekers has gone way past a race to the bottom. The major parties know that this issue can be manipulated in an election campaign, and are only too eager to play to the xenophobic strain that seems to run right through Australian society (with the help of certain areas of the media) if it will gain them votes.

Now, maybe I’m doing Prime Minister Gillard and Abbott a disservice. Maybe they do care about the welfare of asylum seekers, and the way they deal with them is sacrificing personal feelings for the long-term gain of the ‘top job’.

That only makes it worse. Whichever way the next election goes, asylum seekers lose. They will be packed off, out of sight, to Nauru (or Manus Island, or Malaysia), and treated like prisoners of war who have no idea who is winning, or if it will ever end. Sadly, this is the best outcome – because even if the boats don’t stop coming, and the current strategy proves to be an utter failure, neither party is likely to retreat from a hard-line stance. They’d lose far too much face, and give their opposition a great deal of ammunition. The alternative is to become even more punitive, more harsh – and given the appalling state of affairs that exists now, that possibility is terrible. Human lives would become less than pawns.

And we would all be culpable.

The Political Sword welcomes a new author, Marian Dalton, who is, in no particular order, an editor, blogger, reader, writer, poet, mother, graduate student and sometime academic. She currently works as a freelance editor, citizen journalist and media advisor. Clients have included national political parties, lobby groups and community associations. Her blog, The Conscience Vote, provides accessible analysis of Australian political and social issues and aims to engage all people in public debate.