Children, Women, Men: The ALP’s Conscious Cruelty

Govt confirms they have sent women and children refugees overnight to the detention camps in Manus Island indefinitely. Shameful. – Senator Sarah-Hanson Young on Twitter, 21 November 2012

In 2001 Four Corners aired a watershed episode on the mandatory detention of children in Australian refugee detention centers. The pain and suffering of six-year-old Shayan Badraie, a focus of the episode, moved many people to action. The campaign that followed over many years contributed to the release of all children from ‘secure detention facilities’ following a report from the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. As ChilOut asked, ‘Who are these children?’:

They are aged zero to eighteen, they have fled war zones, watched family members killed or persecuted, or who have been subject to persecution and harm themselves. Many are alone, they are frightened, they are traumatised. They are incarcerated by Australia.

In 2008 the Rudd government’s Key Immigration Detention Values Statement was released, and with it the ALP determined that ‘children, including juvenile foreign fishers and, where possible, their families, will not be detained in an immigration detention centre’ and that ‘detention in immigration detention centres is only to be used as a last resort and for the shortest practicable time’.

We know now how little effect this statement would be allowed to have, and not just because mandatory detention was maintained as ‘an essential component of strong border control’. From 2009 the ALP successive regressive ‘solutions’ in response to the manufactured panic over ‘boat arrivals’ – ending with the defeat of its proposed ‘Malaysia solution’ and the reinstatement of offshore processing at other regional locations.

While it is clear that children are vulnerable to the psychological impact of mandatory detention, there has been a tendency to highlight the plight of women and children to the exclusion of or above the predicament of adult men. In doing so, two problems arise.

Firstly, there is the consequence of suggesting mandatory detention of adult men is more acceptable. To my mind, it is unnecessary to argue a hierarchy of ‘bad’ in a system that causes such great damage to all it abuses. While children may be able to ‘cope’ less well because of their level of maturity and psychological development, it is grossly inappropriate to imply that adult men are ‘resilient’ to detention. Many adult men are harmed so badly by this process that they commit suicide, attempt suicide, cut themselves, starve themselves, and sew their lips together. If we slightly rewrite the above ChilOut statement, we can see it is equally applicable to the adult men Australia ‘detains’:

Who Are These [Men]: They are [adult men], they have fled war zones, watched family members killed or persecuted, or who have been subject to persecution and harm themselves. Many are alone, they are frightened, they are traumatised. They are incarcerated by Australia.

Secondly, demoting the circumstances of adult men in detention the campaign does naught to counter the demonisation of adult refugee men as dangerous and the ‘other’. If detention is so unacceptable that we demand children and women must be immediately released into the community, then we must argue equally as forcefully that this should be the case for adult men. To not do this is to suggest that these men, who are largely not white and many Muslim, are a hazard to be secured away from the normal population; that treating them as less than human is appropriate.

In her analysis of two Commonwealth Ombudsman’s Reports of March 2001, Angela Mitropoulos looked at this issue and argued eloquently (and correctly) that:

Whilst the release of anyone from the internment camps is welcome – and would perhaps be an occasion for celebration if all those who were released were not then subject to a 3-year visa with limited rights, or better: if the camps were simply shut down – the preoccupation with “women and children” is in fact an argument for the continued imprisonment of adult men who arrive by boat and without papers.

Indeed, such a proposal is founded on a series of slanders against adult male detainees which serves to justify their continued internment — a slander that is undeniably linked to racist depictions of ‘non-white’ men as threatening, less than human and necessarily requiring incarceration.

Proposals to ‘release’ women and children are not a challenge to racism and xenophobia. Rather, they are a direct appeal to such sentiments and a continuation of them in a form other than the increasingly discredited one of ‘invasions’. If there are grounds to release women and children from the camps, then there are grounds to release men from the camps also. If there are those who can accept the former but cannot accept the latter, this is undoubtedly because of a resort to sexism (and ageism) which views women and children as passive and therefore not bearers of the same level of threat that only a xenophobia is capable of discerning in the first place.

The Australian Greens have been one of the key progressive political voices on the issue of mandatory detention. Their policy on refugees does not delineate between men, women and children, and these terms do not even appear. Yet the party’s spokespeople continue to emphasise these distinctions. While clearly Sarah Hanson-Young, whose tweet opened this post, believes all refugees should be released from their incarceration, the focus on children and women in her campaigns and statements reproduces the marginalisation and ‘othering’ of adult men; the same adult men who are by far the majority in our detention camps.

At a time that the federal ALP is again ramping up the rhetoric and punitive policy on this issue, we must also turn our minds to the failure of the movement to make any serious inroads on this issue over the medium term. The effective return of Temporary Protection Visas is another defeat for the movement. These visas leave refugees without the security of knowing they can make a new life in Australia, and forbid them from working when the welfare payment they are provided is a fraction of a livable income. The early victory of ending detention for children has given way to cruel and sickening government policy. The anguish on the part of Hanson-Young and others in the Greens is clear – morally, the ALP’s policy is reprehensible. However, putting a ‘moral’ position on this issue is perhaps one of the key problems. It is therefore timely to think again how the campaign to end mandatory detention might be refocused.

The ALP government, with few voices of dissent, is now completely committed to enacting a consciously cruel policy, allegedly to scare off others hoping to come here to make better lives for themselves. Within official politics and the media there is little criticism of this, and it is usually painted as an unfortunate necessity or evil. As Lenore Taylor reported in the Sydney Morning Herald last week, ‘Labor is politically locked in to achieving a slowdown in the boat arrivals, and for now it has to rely on “cruel” policy to send a rapid message of dissuasion’. Taylor argues, ‘since August when Labor jettisoned its own policy and accepted “stopping the boats” and stopping the drownings as its overriding political goal, a reputation for cruelty is – to some degree – exactly what it needs to achieve’.

The Greens and others involved in the campaign to demand a compassionate refugee policy must have a more political approach to this issue.  There is no point in simply calling on the government to adopt a humane approach when the current policy framework is deliberately crafted to be inhumane. Indeed, rather than being about ‘saving lives’ it is intentionally crafted to achieve certain political and electoral ends. The ALP has decided that being cruel to refugees will work in its favour electorally, whether or not this is actually the case. They have not determined this path because they are unaware they are being brutal and vicious. We need to call a spade a spade – the government has adopted a sadistic policy for political ends, and this must be the core of what we argue. It is morally reprehensible that they do this, but an appeal for them to behave more ethically will not take the campaign far.

Elizabeth Humphrys

Dr Elizabeth Humphrys is a political economist in Social and Political Sciences at UTS, and the UTS Student Ombud. Her research examines work and workers in the context of economic crisis and change, including neoliberalism, climate change and workplace disasters. Elizabeth is an Associate of the Centre for Future Work at The Australia Institute. Her first book is How Labour Built Neoliberalism (Haymarket 2019).

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  1. Thanks Liz. The women and children rhetoric has been irking me too, although I’m not sure refugee men have been more demonised as a result. Refugees have got a pretty bad rap in general – and the media haven’t really been more sympathetic to women in detention. (Not that I’ve noticed anyway.)

    What do you think are the first steps the Green should be taking in a political response?

    And as someone with an inside perspective, do you think this is an issue they could have withdrawn their support for the government over?

  2. I didn’t say the media was ‘sympathetic to women in detention’, it’s more complicated that that. Muslim women are still the other of course, however it appears there is a demonisation of men as perpetrators of ‘bad’ and of Muslim and Arab women as the victim of that. I think Sara Farris puts it well in her article ‘Femonationalism and the “Regular” Army of Labor Called Migrant Women’:

    The current contraposition between male and female Muslims, with the latter playing the role of the passive victims of non-Western male “congenital violence” who require protection, can be regarded as constituting the contemporary form of a well-known Western mythology, or an “old ploy” as Leila Ahmed calls it, namely, that of the “white men [claiming to be] saving brown women from brown men,” to use Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s apposite phrase.

    The emphasising of women and children over men within the frame of the campaign, plays into this frame to my mind.

    In terms of the Greens, I think simple things like changing how they put their position. Instead of saying this is illegal under human rights law or this is inhumane and the ALP must follow the law, they should really be highlighting that the ALP’s policy is deliberately racist and being used for political ends. It is not that the Greens never say the latter, so it is perhaps what they prioritise saying.

    And I think taking up the question of who is to blame for the racism against ‘boat people’ is key. Donna Mulhearn stated on Twitter the other day that people in Western Sydney were to blame for the government’s policy on asylum seekers (a tweet she has now deleted saying it did not come out right). It may not be what she intended, but I do not find this an isolated position in the left. People want to blame racism on various elements of the community without really thinking through what the impact of long-term bipartisan racist policy is on the electorate. At election time there is always a lot of ‘thank you uneducated working class people for voting for Howard/Abbott/etc and being racist fucks’.

    The slogans on SHY’s home page today, related to refugees, are ‘No Children in Detention’ and ‘We Can Save Lives Today’. This is my thinking on the spot, but I believe a return to a frame of ‘End Mandatory Detention: Stop the ALP’s Racist Policies’ would be a step forward. Or perhaps ‘Stop the Racist Border Policy: Every Refugee living safely in our community’. But I worry people don’t want to use those sorts of words (such as saying the ALP is racist), and even calling the ALP cruel could be seen as partly covering/softening the fact they are deploying racist policies. The next question is then what action you take to enact that different frame. One of the biggest jumps in Greens membership and vote occurred off the back of their campaigning on refugees, against the wars, and in support of Hicks and Habib (including the heckling of Bush). Compare that to The Greens work on refugees now, and the fluffiness directed at Obama when he was here. I think things have really taken an unfortunate turn.

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