Leadership, compassion and integrity are impressive words commonly heard in politicians’ speeches or read in the newspapers.
While they are key qualities expected of our leaders, and key indicators of their ability to deliver on promises, it appears they are too often just a means to say one thing but do another.
For instance, during question time in Federal Parliament on Thursday, March 27, 2014, the independent Tasmanian MP, Andrew Wilkie, asked prime minister Tony Abbott: “Currently, there are 315 children in prison-like facilities on Christmas Island—some for almost a year. According to the president of the Human Rights Commission, conditions are so bad that these kids have stopped talking and refer to themselves by number rather than by name. Prime Minister, when will this stop? When will Australian governments stop being responsible for such abuse of children?”
Tony Abbott responded, “. . . we certainly do not want to see children in detention. I can inform (Mr Wilkie) that at the end of the Howard government era there were only four people in immigration detention who had arrived illegally by boat, and none of them were children. I regret to say that in the period between that time and this time more than 50,000 people arrived illegally in Australia by boat, including 8,000 children. I deeply regret the fact that so many people, including so many children, took this very dangerous journey. Let us be blunt. The reason that the boats started coming was Labor and the Greens closed down the policies that had in the past stopped the boats.”
Mr Abbott concluded that he was “looking forward to the day when no-one is in immigration detention.”
There was no denial that children of asylum seekers were being abused; only a blame-laying defence of the harsh detention policy.
Among asylum seekers, children are the most vulnerable and deeply affected. They are victims of adult policies and decisions over which they have no control. If incarcerated for long periods, their emotional reactions can include an absence of feeling, anti-social behaviour and suicidal tendencies. Mr Wilkie made that point very powerfully with his question to the prime minister, without getting an answer.
Yet Mr Abbott overflowed with compassion when supporting a Channel Seven Telethon event in Perth (prior to the Senate election) regarding the distribution of around $20 million in donations to help sick and disadvantaged children.
Statistically, the number of people displaced by persecution and conflict as at December 31, 2012 was estimated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) at 45.2 million. The five countries hosting the largest number of refugees were Pakistan (1,638,456), Iran (868,242), Germany (589,737), Kenya (564,933) and Syria (476,506). Meanwhile, Australia’s number of refugees was 30,083. In 2012, of the 2,011,334 people who sought asylum globally, Australia received 29,610 applications (1.47 percent), of which 8,367 were recognised as refugees (0.61 percent of the global total).
The number of boat movements across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen in the five years to December 2013 totalled 406,061, an annual average of 81,212; boat movements across the Mediterranean Sea to Greece, Italy, Malta and Spain totalled 197,217, an annual average of 39,443. Over the past five years, Australia has received 51,637 boat arrivals, an annual average of 10,327.
Based on the current global refugee crisis and these figures, and so long as Australia remains a signatory to the Refugee Convention, it is hard to imagine how Mr Abbott’s “special day” – when no-one is in detention – will come.
Politicians come and go with their governments, but the problem of people needing asylum is a constant. Their fears and desperation will be as valid tomorrow as they are today, and many will still see our part of the world as a safer option than the persecution and other dire troubles they have to flee. Punishing them for coming, via policies of deterrence and detention, is not the answer – either morally or from a practical point of view.
The Australian government is spending an exorbitant amount of money to drive a deterrence policy that, until the reported boat arrival in the past week, was trumpeted as having successfully achieved no boat in more than three months.
But should we be celebrating?
In 2009-2010 the actual costs of our “efforts” were $608 million at a time when Operation Sovereign Borders did not exist. According to the government’s forecasts, the military-run policy will cost $3.5bn this financial year. This includes the cost of on-water operations, processing claims and running detention facilities.
Where is the rationale for spending billions of dollars on an issue that has been on-going for so long? For an issue that, despite the government’s optimism, is likely to resume once the political will to maintain such a costly deterrence measure inevitably wanes, or, as the latest boat arrival shows, because desperate people will still try to come regardless of the obstacles?
The prime minister shared his optimism when, in the tail of his response to Mr Wilkie, he said: “The boats are stopping. I am pleased to tell the Member for Denison that four detention centres have already closed because of the good work of the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, and there is more good work still to come.”
The minister, of course, is Scott Morrison, whose maiden speech to Parliament in February 2008 offers some interesting reading. He said: “We must also combat the negative influences on our young people that lead to depression, suicide, self-harm, abuse and antisocial behaviour that in turn threatens our community…from my faith I derive the values of loving kindness, justice and righteousness, to act with compassion and kindness, acknowledging our common humanity and to consider the welfare of others; to fight for a fair go for everyone to fulfill their human potential and to remove whatever unjust obstacles stand in their way, including diminishing their personal responsibility for their own well-being…”
Meanwhile, guards at Australia’s detention centre on Manus Island are ordered to carry hooked knives, used to cut ropes when asylum seekers try to hang themselves.
Treating asylum seekers in a more humane manner, so that they do not want to end their lives, would be a better expression of the “loving kindness” and other values, which Mr Morrison espoused six years ago.
Carina Hoang is participating at an IQ2 Debate on Tuesday 6 May in Sydney on the topic “History’s judgement will be to vindicate our treatment of ‘boat people.’”