A couple of months ago I had an interesting Twitter exchange with an outspoken opponent of Australia’s policy of warehousing asylum seekers in third countries such as Nauru, Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island and, if media reports are correct, soon Cambodia.
The person – whose work, I should add, I greatly admire – tweeted a couple of negative figures about economic development and child labour in Cambodia and said, this is the kind of place we will be sending refugees to.
It was a throwaway line of the type that appears all the time on Twitter. It was also true in its own way. But it got me thinking. After a few moments, I responded: ‘Don’t agree with sending refugees to Cambodia/offshore processing, also think we need not make place out to be hell hole.’
This is not another comment piece about how terrible our treatment of asylum seekers is. I take that as a given. The current policy evades our international obligations, wastes a huge amount of resources and shows appalling cruelty to a group of incredibly vulnerable individuals.
The policy is also distorting our already-fraught relations with our nearest neighbours. Not only are we dumping unwanted asylum seekers offshore, we are demonising entire cultures and countries, often depicting them as little better than one-dimensional primitive hellholes. Most alarming is that some of these vitriolic comments and attitudes are coming from the Left.
So desperate have we become to convince middle Australia of the folly of the government’s asylum seeker policy that we are going to greater lengths to attack poor, struggling countries, whose elites, usually with no popular support, have agreed to cooperate with Canberra. Think about dominant conceptions of the countries concerned. Nauru is viewed as a sterile, barren, kleptocracy; Papua New Guinea is depicted as a primitive place of almost unbelievable savagery, where the very guards paid to ‘protect’ asylum seekers pose the greatest threat to them.
None of this is meant to downplay the very real problems in these countries or the obvious dangers facing asylum seekers stranded in them. But it’s not the whole story.
Indeed, I’d argue this line of attack unintentionally contributes, not counters, Australia’s narrowing worldview. It erodes any sense of internationalism and stokes the ever-present prejudice held by some in the community about what life is like beyond our borders, ‘over there’. It conceptualises our regional neighbours only in terms of the threats their pose, as people whose apparent lawlessness and corruption makes them unworthy of any drain on our precious economic resources in terms of aid or other assistance.
Musician David Bridie made a similar point in the Age on 2 March this year.
Much has been written about Australia’s moral compass over the past few weeks. Some social commentators opine that sending asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea is cruel, not only because of their indefinite detention, but because they have been sent to a supposed hellhole – to a dangerous, “deeply unliveable” country racked by “raskol” lawlessness.
Deeply unliveable? Not to the more than 7 million people who live there, just a coconut’s throw from our northern islands. Not in the dozens of times I’ve been there since 1986 with local musicians.
Yes, there are serious problems inevitably associated with a fast-developing nation, where many have only come into contact with the outside world since 1950. However, PNG is not the basket case the media and the mining contractors in their compounds would have you believe. Most Papua New Guineans are compassionate, grassroots, family oriented people… Stigmatising PNG as primitive, dysfunctional and backward is neither helpful nor correct, especially coming from a country that should have a modicum of empathy and understanding with our closest neighbour.
Bridie went on to give a potted history of Manus and the tensions that have resulted from our government’s decision to use it as a dumping ground for asylum seekers. I remember at the time thinking this was the first piece I’d seen in the mainstream media that actually told me something about Manus’ history.
I know very little about Nauru, and not much more about Manus and Papua New Guinea. I do, however, know a great deal about what appears to be the next country in line to take our asylum seekers, Cambodia.
I first travelled to Cambodia in 1992 while living in neighbouring Laos. It was a desperately poor and traumatised country. The Khmer Rouge, responsible for the deaths by starvation and torture of approximately 1.7 million people during their brief rule in the seventies (and whose representatives Australia supported in the United Nations until the early eighties) were still fighting from heavily fortified jungle bases. The alternative was an unstable coalition of two parties who’d been at each other’s throats for the better part of a decade and whose main interests were settling historical scores and making money.
Phnom Penh, the crumbling capital of the former French colony, was crawling with foreigners; peacekeepers sent by the West and its allies to enforce peace between the various factions, and their entourage of drop outs, hustlers, pimps, spies, do-gooders and journalists. The possible return of the Khmer Rouge cast a shadow over everything. Ironically, one of the stories I worked on as a journalist during my first visit was the UN’s effort to repatriation hundreds of thousands of Cambodian refugees who’d been living in camps in Thailand.
I worked on and off as a journalist in Cambodia for a couple of years in the mid-nineties. In early 2008, my partner and I quit our jobs and moved to Cambodia for a year with our then two-year-old. I freelanced as a journalist, did fixing work for foreign TV crews and wrote my first novel, a crime story set in Cambodia.
A lot had changed. The Khmer Rouge insurgency was over and the economy was growing. The streets of Phnom Penh were full of luxury cars. Tourists could get a shiatsu massage in their ozone neutral hotel, then head out for tapas and cocktails. On another level, a lot hadn’t. The same people still ran things and the methods they used hadn’t altered.
A brief flurry of media reporting accompanied the first reports earlier this year that Cambodia might be the next destination to take asylum seekers trying to get to Australia. One of these was a SBS Dateline story in early May, by journalist David O’Shea (another person whose work I admire). It opened with footage of a demonstration by poorly paid garment workers for greater wages, which resulted in four people being killed and many more injured when police fired into the crowd. It talked about the country’s violence, corruption and dismal human rights record. O’Shea found a Cambodian official who said taking refugees from Australia could cause resentment among local people.
O’Shea also focused on Cambodia’s treatment of the asylum seekers from other nations and made the very real and extremely important point (also made by some in the Twitter discussion I mentioned) that refugees have been deported into harm from there. The most serious case involved 22 ethnic Uyghur asylum seekers, who the authorities plucked from a UN safe house, put on a plane and flew back to China.
The story touched on another displaced group, young Khmer Americans born in Cambodia or in refugee camps on the Thai-Cambodian border, who after spending most of their lives in America were deported to Cambodia for criminal offences. O’Shea emphasised what a hugely alienating experience this has been for the individuals concerned, made all the more difficult by the absence of any American or Cambodian government support.
I met some of these Khmer Americans in 2008. Many had tried to make the best of their situation, including working for an organisation that undertakes cutting edge work with deportees and other at risk and marginalised Cambodian youth. Others found it harder and succumbed to depression, drug use and, in some cases, suicide. My family was quite close to the only female deportee (to my knowledge) at the time. She looked after our daughter sometimes to supplement the wage she received from her day job at a security company. She had a boyfriend, another deportee, in a Cambodian jail for drug offences. We are still in contact and last we heard she had a marketing job and was doing all right.
Cambodia is not a hellhole or a basket case.
Cambodia has gone from international pariah status and complete isolation to multi-party politics and economic globalisation in just over two decades. The process has bought benefits but also major problems and abuses, much as it did in similar countries such as Thailand in the late sixties and early seventies. The overwhelmingly young population is scathing of the corruption and privilege of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and very nearly threw them out of office in the 2013 national election.
The majority of the population is Buddhist, imbued with a deep sense of social service and incredible resilience. Cambodia has a strong civil society, including an active trade union and human rights movement, which continues to resist the ruling party’s attempts to shut them down. The entire country is still dealing with the appalling culture of impunity and violence caused the Khmer Rouge and the superpower-sponsored civil war in the eighties.
There are many reasons why it’s a bad idea to offload asylum seekers to Cambodia (or any other country for that matter). We need to take every opportunity to point these out. But we need to watch our language. There’s already enough disinformation being spread around by our government without building on the stereotypes and prejudices that already exist in Australia about our region.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
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