Punitive refugee detention: how much worse can it get?

The breaking news about the fatal attacks on asylum seekers in Manus Island is horrific. But over the last few years that I have been representing refugees, I have heard many stories that compete in their nastiness.

I have heard about a man with an acute mental illness detained for days on end in solitary confinement in a detention centre in searing heat. I have heard multiple stories of rape in detention. I heard about a male child who was repeatedly raped, after warning guards that it would happen. He was told he could not be moved to another location. I heard directly from the parents of a female child raped in detention, so crippled with shame she withdrew her police complaint within hours of making it. I have heard about women being administered vaccinations while pregnant. I have heard many stories of women miscarrying, including incomplete miscarriages without proper medical care.

If you are living in the community and you are taken into detention, you are required to hand over any valuables to Serco, who run the detention centres. I heard about a widow who handed over her jewellery and her precious, precious savings, only to be told upon release that they were missing. The jewellery is one of her very few physical mementos of her husband, killed in war. She has never seen any of those possessions again.

I know that people are flown to the mainland to receive medical treatment regularly, but it’s not clear how this policy is implemented. Currently, it seems that all pregnant women held on Christmas Island are being flown to Australia to undergo routine scans and then flown back again. This policy seems to have started after a woman lost her baby offshore. Ominously, I’ve heard nothing about care given to pregnant women in Nauru or Manus Island.

Consider: if you are held in an offshore setting in another country, Minister Morrison insists he owes you no duty of care at all. In Australia, one way we hold people accountable for breaching their duty of care (when we have proven that duty exists) is enlisting the help of a lawyer and suing the person responsible for negligence. It is very difficult to access asylum seeker clients, especially as many require an interpreter and to fly to where they are held is prohibitively expensive.

Moreover, by a happy accident for the department – or, more likely, by design – such people are often far too terrified to sue, even when they are no longer in detention. The department has taken on the mythical characteristics attributed to the Stasi: it is regarded as all-knowing, all-powerful, unaccountable and invisible. As a result, we end up with policy that is clearly dangerous, contorted idiotically by the department’s obsession with evading (while at the same time outright denying) liability for the welfare of refugees.

The other option for holding the government responsible is to have journalists investigate and report on these stories. But with the government leading the stern criticisms of the ABC in recent weeks, I have noticed a ‘chill factor’, which makes it seem increasingly unlikely that journalists will feel able pursue the stories I have outlined.

The system we currently have is dangerous, inefficient, impractical – as well as obviously morally wrong. The movement of people through the system is utterly chaotic. People are being flown all over the place. Contractors breach their obligations all the time without consequences. It is policy made on the fly, dedicated to upholding small ideas without any consideration of consequences, material or otherwise. It results in a senseless waste of money and resources. This is not a government that knows what it is doing.

So, punitive deterrents are not actually stopping the boats. What alternatives do we have? There are about 26,000 refugees in Indonesia. There are currently about 31,000 people in immigration detention in Australia (both in centres and community detention), on bridging visas or detained offshore. We currently supposedly issue about 20,000 visas annually under our humanitarian program. Something has got to give.

Basically, we could fix some of the immediate problems if we tripled our intake over the next twelve months. That would mean accepting 57,000 refugees, which would still probably represent only about 23 percent of the 250,000 or so migrants we accept each year. In contrast to all the punitive strategies that have been put forward in the last decade, this strategy probably has the best chance of actually stopping the boats. People who are detained or are on bridging visas would then obtain the right to work and build a life. We would also save somewhere in the vicinity of $1 billion. There would be increased costs of resettling people but these are likely to be cheaper than the current system – and even if they’re not, it’s surely better to spend the money on something other than a system designed to break the spirits of vulnerable people. Instead of thousands of people damaged by detention, we would have thousands of enthusiastic members of the community.

I am not a demographer or a policy expert. So I may well have missed something; I am sure it is not that simple. But I am also not sure it is the big problem everyone in parliament makes it out to be.

The obvious contentiousness lies is the fact that it is possible or perhaps even likely that more people might come to Indonesia seeking to come to Australia. We cannot stop this. I accept that many people who leave their home country are seeking a better life for their families. That is a natural and perfectly understandable human instinct. Indeed, it is an instinct that is still acted upon, despite the cruel and punitive responses from our government. Looking for a better life is not something that people should be punished for, just because they do not fit the rigid historical definitions of refugee. But even if we double or triple the number above, we get an estimate of 171,000 people coming here for that purpose. That’s still less than our current migration intake.

It is worth remembering that most people, most of the time, want to stay where they are, rather than move. One female refugee I spoke to, who now has a protection visa, would quite like to see her mother who is dying of cancer. She cannot return for she has a well-founded fear of persecution. I am sure she is thrilled her son is getting a better life than he would have had if they stayed in their home country. But there are reasons people stay in their home countries. Most people most of the time do not want to leave their family and friends.

A paradigm shift in policy will create lots of winners. The only loser will be Tony Abbott.

Lizzie O'Shea

Lizzie O’Shea is a lawyer. Her book Future Histories (Verso 2019) is about the politics and history of technology.

More by Lizzie O'Shea ›

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  1. Thank you Lizzie, yours is a voice of reason on an awful day of news from Manus. I’m not a policymaker either, but it has occurred to me that rather than a series of “solutions” – a term that is proving justly ominous – the public health model of harm minimisation could work for approaching problems this complex and lethal. What we are doing now is idiotically exacerbating that harm.

    You’re right – something has got to give.

  2. Lizzie thank you for this article and for putting into words the despicable acts that we are living amongst, that our country is perpetrating. I’m so, so ashamed.

    Thank you too for highlighting that so many of these asylum seekers do not want to leave their home countries – it is that they are forced to, for their lives. When those lives end up in the detention of an Australian government, that government is taking full responsibility. This must be treated as any other death is custody.

    Your call for action – to shift our way of thinking, and to help others to shift theirs – is so important. I hope as many people hear it as possible.

  3. Thank you for this article. I totally agree. I wrote a piece on resettling refugees in regional areas during the Fed campaign (I ran for PUP) No one would print it.

    Finally AIM has printed it: http://theaimn.com/2014/01/08/the-refugee-solution/

    I actually can’t see any reason why my ideas could not be implemented. There are 87 Refugee Welcome Centres in Australia to help with ‘fitting in’.

  4. Are we allowed to choose where our new 57,000 refugees come from? And even if we can doesn’t it seem unfair when there are have nots further away who don’t have the means or resources to get to Indonesia and who may have been waiting much longer?

    1. Mark, we don’t get to choose refugees, that is a lie made up by Ruddock to justify Woomera and other hell holes, push backs and other crimes.

      WE have an obligation to anyone who gets here, no obligation at all to those not here.

  5. Sorry Mark, no we don’t. We have to welcome everyone, because if we start to pick and choose, then the crazy contortions of deterrence policy begin. I’m happy to take more refugees from other locations, if that’s what you’re advocating, but I presume it isn’t.

    My view is that if you reject this basic proposition, you are setting us up for exactly what happened at Manus last night.

    1. My point was that if we can’t choose where they come from then increasing the intake to 57,000–a number reached by adding those in dention in Indonesia and Australia–won’t make any difference seeing as only a small portion will come from either location.

      1. What do you mean? I’m not proposing that we just increase our intake under the resettlement program. I’m saying let’s accept everyone who has come here and anyone who might be contemplating coming here by boat (ie from Indonesia). If you are proposing taking more under the resettlement program, I’m happy to also do that, but that wasn’t really the point of the article.

        1. You are saying: “let’s accept everyone who has come here and anyone who might be contemplating coming here by boat (ie from Indonesia)”

          I am saying: If we are taking 57,000 refugees they will have to be the next 57,000 waiting in line and registered with the UNHCR in which case they won’t all be from Indonesia or Australia and there will still be a large number of refugees in detention centres in Australia and Indonesia.

          More specifically I am saying: your suggestion is heavily flawed, makes little sense, and won’t work. That said it is a nice idea and I applaud any effort to increase our humanitarian intake.

          1. I don’t follow. If we wanted to do something like issue permanent visas to all asylum seekers in Australia and Indonesia, who would stop us? It’s clearly within the power of our Government.

  6. Great article, thank you.

    It seems clear to me that upping our refugee intake is the best path forward, but equally clearly there is no political or public will for such a move. How do we get out of this conundrum? How do we chart a path forward?

    One of the major parties needs to change their tune on this issue and lead, instead of following. It’s a depressing thought, since what we’re witnessing now is the result of a consensus on dehumanising refugees.

    1. Good question. Indeed, that IS the question. My guess at an answer is probably as good as yours. Articulating the paradigm is probably the first step. To me, it’s weird that there are no public intellectuals, think tanks or policy wonks who discuss this issue outside of the accepted prejudices and preconceptions. No one approaches the problem in reverse, ie: people are on the move, there is little we can do about that (save not engage in the senseless wars like Afghanistan and Iraq), we need to respond in a humane manner. If you know of anyone, please point me in their direction.

      1. Unfortunately I don’t know anyone who is thinking differently either.

        One of the problems is that the existing paradigm of thought is so overwhelming. Dissenting voices are too busy protesting the entrenched status quo that there seems little oxygen for actually articulating an alternative approach. And the discursive work that such an approach would need to do to gain traction is considerable. As you say, we need public intellectuals – but we also need mainstream political voices. It’s a shame that thinking outside the box is so anathema to contemporary Labor.

  7. Manus Island currently more resembles a concentration camp than a detention centre for refugees / asylum seekers. I don’t know how much worse it will get, but the status quo is pretty bad.

  8. Hi Lizzie, this is a thoughtful response to a complex issue. Australia has a history of acting generously. Over 400,000 refugees since 1975. Our up to 30,000 refugees a year shines well in the context of the total figure of over 100,000 placed globally in countries with humanitarian programs. That’s why current arrangements are wrong – doesn’t fit who we are, our past, who we want to be. Moral questions aside. The thread that ties responses to refugees is the global work crisis . People are fearful, not of refugees so much, but of loss of opportunity, stratification of society . Political interests cultivate the fears. I spoke to a group of Vietnamese boat refugees who vehemently support current policy!!! Makes no sense . So we need some big ideas here, courage and imagination. Also, why is there so little discussion of how Australia can help front line countries? Look at the impact of Syria on Jordan . We should stand with them, running camps like Zamarra. We should be leading here . Leadership is missing in action.

  9. Lizzie, I don’t know what THE answer is either, but surely any answer has to begin with compassion. The current policy is morally bankrupt, so it can never provide an authentic, humane and ethical solution. Thanks for your article.

  10. And so it continues, Australia’s ill-treatment of the vulnerable. What a vicious circle: we already carry the shame of past mistakes with the Stolen Generation, the Forgotten Australians, and the Forced Adoption Scandal, not to mention political and police corruption and urban brutality.
    An important point that is often missed or glossed over is the fact that big institutions, be they prisons, detention centres, schools, hospitals – are depositories for vulnerable people under the misnomer of ‘care’, because any large hub of human activity offers the perfect crucible for sadists and bullies to have full reign. I’m not talking about the detainees in this instance I am talking about the guards and officers and doctors and nurses and social workers. As a former Parramatta Girls’ Home detainee I know this to be true. Behind closed doors people can literally get away with rape, murder and emotional and physical abuse. This is an insidious aspect of government ‘systems’ that is impossible to control because bullies are typically also good at hiding the nasty side of their character. When interviewed for a position the interviewer is not going to ask the applicant, “Are you a closet sadist looking to wreak havoc on innocent people?’
    Australia is not the lucky country we like to think it is. For so many it is more than unlucky, it is hell on earth.

  11. Liz, just a few comments , offered just to prompt further discussion . Asylum for refugees is not that hard to find. There are many camps worldwide . Syrian refugees could cross the border into Turkey or Jordan. Borders here are slightly artificial. Cultural, ethnic , religious , language ties don’t fit borders. The next step, that 1 million a year aim for , is resettlement. This number is rising every year. With about just over 100,000 places. 55,000 USA; 20 to 30,000 Australia – Abbott says he will drop this to 13,000. (Europe – high on asylum; low on resttlement . Australia has double the places of 28 European Union countries combined .) So if you are facing many years in a camp, and you hear that a short trip to Indonesia will result in a resettlement visa – healthcare, education , safety etc. – what would you do ? No country has offered this before. Malcolm Fraser suggested this in the age today . “We can control the numbers .” He said. This is hubris, in a way matching current rhetoric and policy. Of course the current policy is a shambles . Control in this issue is not possible , under the way we are thinking. A regional solution ? It’s possible, but I am dismayed by a global lack of leadership on this issue. We focus on our own narrow perspectives and experiences. The social and political reaction to people movement is unfortunately similar in many countries.

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