Franklin D Roosevelt gave a powerful speech about America’s moral duty to assist the Allied forces to win the Second World War in 1940. I paraphrase, but he said that when your neighbour’s house is burning down, you don’t quibble about how much he should pay you to use your garden hose. You should let him use it, and if it is destroyed you can deal with any costs after the fire is out. It was called the ‘good neighbor policy’.
In Australia’s case, asylum seekers are sold as the fire. In reality, they are the next-door neighbour. The metaphorical hose they are asking Australia for is shelter; safety from the war and persecution that made them leave their homeland.
The government is sending these asylum seekers to Manus Island and Nauru, under the pretense that that’s where we store our hose. On Manus Island, 94% of residents are infected with malaria according to the World Health Organization. Supply of water at both processing centres is not guaranteed. Accommodation is mostly tents, or ‘marquees’ as the department calls them, which leak water when it rains and don’t provide any privacy. As one might imagine, tents don’t provide any sort of comfort in 90% humidity during 35 degree nights in the tropics.
Beyond that, detention is proven beyond any and all reasonable doubt to cause mental harm. This is particularly the case with vulnerable people who have experienced prior torture or trauma, which is around 58% of long-term detainees. In a January report by Humanitarian Research Partners, 80% of asylum seekers in long-term detention were found to have mental health problems, and 68% had problems as a direct result of, or exacerbated by, their detention. This includes insomnia, anxiety, depression, self-harm and attempted suicide.
Asylum seekers detained at Manus Island and Nauru face even greater mental stress. They are prevented from lodging an application for asylum altogether, and live without any knowledge of if or when they will be able to leave detention, and no way of appealing their detention. This is known as arbitrary and indefinite detention, which is prohibited under international law (Article 9 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights). The government’s persistent refusal to define the ‘No Advantage’ principle is not just unfair, it’s a human rights violation that creates mental anguish for the thousands of people who are indefinitely detained as a consequence of this indecision.
Australia says it is not responsible for what happens to asylum seekers whilst they’re in detention at Nauru and Manus Island. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees disagrees, stating that Australia has a ‘shared and joint legal responsibility under the Refugee Convention and other applicable human rights instruments’. He’s said it many times.
Responsibility to protect an asylum seeker arises at first contact, when a person at a border engages with an official and requests asylum. This often happens when the navy intercept a boat or upon arrival at Christmas Island. Australia recognizes that it has some responsibility to assess refugee claims; otherwise it would not build in requirements to its agreements with Nauru and Papua New Guinea to act in accordance with Refugee Convention and human rights obligations.
There are laws in Australia that deal with the concept of agency; criminal responsibility for procuring someone to commit a crime on someone else’s behalf. If, for instance, I hired a mobster to kill a business competitor, I would be equally responsible for the murder; I would go to jail for the same amount of time as the goon who set the concrete shoes and threw my competitor off a bridge.
Following the logic in the mobster hitman scenario, Australia directs Nauru and PNG to detain asylum seekers on Australia’s behalf, and pays for all costs incurred under the agreements. Therefore, Australia is jointly responsible. Makes sense.
What doesn’t make sense is that our neighbor has alerted us that their house is on fire. Not only are we standing back and refusing to help, we are sending them into another inferno and pretending it’s a better outcome for everyone involved.
It’s not. Putting the interests of asylum seekers to one side, just for a minute, we should consider whether it is valid to target people smugglers for punishment as the ‘absolute scum of the earth’ who according to our former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, should ‘rot in hell’.
People smugglers, at least the ones towards whom Mr Rudd directed those comments, don’t get caught travelling by boat to Australia. The Indonesian boys and men who crew the boats that carry asylum seekers to Australia are not smugglers, and there’s some argument that they are also victims. In the dozen or so people smuggling trials I’ve witnessed this year, the men on trial told the same story.
After a severely disadvantaged childhood, often running away from home around age 10, they became subsistence fishermen in rural villages. None had continued schooling beyond grade 5. When they were approached to crew a vessel on a ‘long trip’ that paid well, they may have had their suspicions. But every accused smuggler maintained they still thought they were going on a fishing trip.
They boarded the vessel in the afternoon and travelled along the coast until nightfall. All of a sudden, rubber duckies approached laden with supplies and people. As soon as they came, the inflatable boats left with a final instruction: take this GPS and point the boat towards the dot. Don’t turn back.
While the real smugglers sit in Jakarta, the crews sit in Australian jails with three square meals a day and the knowledge that they will be released on a certain date. The asylum seekers, who asked for our hose because their house was on fire, are sent to islands with no natural water sources, one of which is infested with an untreatable strain of malaria. They have no idea if or when they will be released.
From a house fire to an inferno - what good neighbours we are.