When we celebrate Australia Day, we believe ourselves to be celebrating a compassionate and egalitarian nation-state. We purport to be a country where everyone, irrespective of his or her background, is given a fair go. The recent events on Manus Island suggest otherwise.
Images of the asylum seekers’ protests on Manus Island have been nothing short of horrifying. In the wake of the Liberal government’s plans to resettle them to Papua New Guinea, half the population of Manus Island have joined a hunger strike. Fourteen detainees have sewn their lips shut; three have attempted to take their own lives in protest. These are not the actions of extremists engaging in emotional blackmail; these are a remonstration of conditions the UN Human Rights Commission have pronounced inhumane.
Unfortunately, the protest at Manus Island is just another instalment in the long story of abuse and neglect that constitutes Australia’s asylum seeker policy. When the Abbott government failed to respond to the brutal death of Reza Berati at the hands of prison guards, I found myself in a state of disbelief. My disbelief grew when Hamid Kehazaei died from a bacterial infection after being denied basic medical treatment. I make an effort to use the names of these individuals; to our government they are merely statistics.
It wasn’t long before my disbelief morphed into dismay. In his 2014 Christmas address, Abbott bid Australians across the nation to celebrate the success his government had achieved in stopping the boats; it is clear that sanctioning the suffering of asylum seekers on Australian shores is a means to achieving a political end. I argue the horrific stories and images emerging from Manus Island play directly into the government’s hands. In allowing these images of suffering to proliferate in the public imagination, the government hopes to encourage those seeking a place of refuge to look elsewhere.
It may seem like I am exaggerating the brutality sanctioned by the Liberal government. After all, it doesn’t seem plausible that the democratically elected government of our ‘great nation’ would authorize blatant violations of human rights. However, the government manages to justify their actions by characterising innocent refugees as health risks and threats to border security. As a result, they have successfully transformed Australia from a beacon of safety to a hellish place where distressed refugees are afraid to seek protection. When the alternative is indefinite detainment in Australia’s offshore processing centres, a Tamil might reasonably prefer to endure persecution at the hands of the Singhalese government. Make no mistake: the Abbott government sees this as a success. Their objective is to deter those facing persecution from seeking a safe haven on Australian shores.
We came together as a nation to mourn the tragic deaths of Tori Johnson and Katrina Dawson, brave Australians who died in the siege of the Lindt Café in Sydney. We proved ourselves capable of solidarity in the face of tragedy, yet we continue to turn a blind eye to the suffering endured by asylum seekers under our government’s care.
Perhaps we are only capable of experiencing remorse for the suffering of those in our community, not for those kept behind barbed fences in offshore processing centres. Perhaps we have bought into the political rhetoric that demonises asylum seekers and casts them as criminals. Perhaps we have come to believe the manufactured myth that displaced peoples deserve punishment even though they are innocent of crimes. I trust our society would react with concern and compassion if our next-door neighbours were subject to systematic abuse and neglect; yet we make hardly a whimper in response to the events occurring on Manus Island.
I am proud of how our society came together to mourn Katrina and Tori, but our compassion needs to extend beyond Sydney barristers and small business owners. We must extend our empathy to those who live behind the barbed fences that surround our offshore detention centres. Only then will our politicians address the trauma experienced by refugees. Only then can Australia make claims to mateship and a fair go for all.