We, a nation of torturers

The word ‘torture’, for those who haven’t experienced it firsthand, nowadays conjures documentary-esque flashes of waterboarding, Guantanamo Bay, and television shows like 24. But the definition of torture, according to the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims, includes psychological or physical punishment for purposes of revenge, or ‘to create terror and fear within a population’.

This definition leaves little doubt that the Pacific Solution is a form of torture, one that punishes people for daring to leave war zones (areas in which Australia has frequently been instrumental in creating instability), and aims to create further terror among the global asylum-seeking community.

Human Rights Watch has already accused Australia of torture for its detention policies. But earlier this week, listening to Virginia Trioli interviewing Eva Orner, director of Chasing Asylum, on ABC News 24’s Breakfast, I was struck that some Australians believe this too – and are comfortable with the knowledge. Like others inured to torture, their response is, we know it’s awful, but what else can we do? These people have forced us into it.

That’s largely the argument Jonathan Holmes made in his Age column Wednesday. Holmes suggests that without the Pacific Solution, we’d have a million Syrians sitting in Indonesia, waiting to get to Australia. I call bullshit. There’s a lot of distance and a lot of borders between Syria and Indonesia; a lot of countries are as equally protective of their borders, and the journey is treacherous. Many people lose their lives along the way. Holmes’ argument is disingenuous in other ways, too. He claims, for instance, that we should trust politicians to decide who comes to this country, because they know what’s best for Australia – but if good policy was what the government cared about, we would have seen a very different budget this week, one that started with the premise that corporations and the wealthy should pay their taxes.

Australians, like Americans, often believe we are the centre of the universe. How else to explain why we think that given the choice, every brown person would uproot their lives, leave behind families and occupations and routines to come here, this allegedly idyllic island paradise?

But Australia has a long history of ugly racism – against Indigenous Australians, against Chinese, Afghans, Greeks, Italians, Vietnamese, Sudanese – it’s something the political class has fed and bred for many decades. Richard Marles may claim that ‘offshore processing has been the single most important policy that any Australian government has made’, but Labor was very proud of the White Australia policy as well.


Declaring Australia a racist country is not to say all its people are racist – there are, for instance, polls that indicate that many Australians want an end to offshore processing – but even if some people are fearful of refugees, can they be blamed when the majority of media reportage suggests refugees are a threat to the ‘Australian way of life’, or that refugee advocates (and before that Save the Children, and before that lawyers) are creating misery and self-harm among asylum seekers? Can it really be a surprise that after decades of creating xenophobic frenzy, backed by much of the media, that some people start to accept it? There is something rotten in a country when we have a humanitarian crisis such as this and one of the top 20 desired jobs is with the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.

A lot of people fucked up here. At the top of the list is, yes, Labor. But the Greens are also blameworthy. They should make ending the torture of refugees a central focus of their campaigning, not a sidenote.


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They should be educating people on the cost of offshore processing – $1.2 billion for fewer than 1500 people; that’s $3.28 million per day. The Greens may have committed to refugees morally, but they seem afraid to make a political argument on this subject, such as that the privatised industry of detention is making a lot of corporations wealthier, and allowing Australia to recolonise the far poorer nations that surround it.

The kind of racism that’s institutionalised – migration policy, asylum policy, foreign policy, the Intervention – can always be traced back to the same source: politicians. There are a number of theories as to why the Labor and Liberal parties are so attached to racism as key to Australian national identity – some have suggested that Australia’s economic security lies in shipping and thus the coastal borders – but it could be just as easily a diversion, a means of creating an existential threat that distracts from matters closer to home.

Because we have established a system where those seeking asylum are less than human, where we are comfortable with torture, we are feeding racism every day we allow detention to continue. We are creating a tiered humanity. Already, there are frequent reports, particularly on social media, of racist attacks in this country, and a re-emergence of the far-right – what else will these policies lead to for Australia’s very diverse citizenship?

Labor’s shadow immigration minister has now urged the LNP to find a third nation to settles these refugees – but why are we forcing much poorer nations to solve the refugee crisis? Why not spend a billion dollars a year on building UNHCR camps close to where people are fleeing, where there currently exist none? Why not spend this money on getting people out of these camps – where quality of life is dreadful – more quickly?

Australia could be spending a billion dollars a year on setting up functioning refugee programs and encouraging other countries to do the same. Refugees should be a responsibility for the richest countries in the world, not the poorest. (And if Australians don’t feel rich, and that’s why they resent refugees, that is the fault of the government, who consistently place financial burdens on the poorest members of society.)

When people ask what’s our solution, let’s give them one better than torture. I can accept that not everyone believes in open borders – but why do we live in a world where money determines the manner in which you cross a border? We have open borders for commerce, for goods and for the wealthy – which border is closed to Rupert Murdoch? The only times the borders seem to be closed are when the poor want to cross (see, for example, the LNP’s ‘premium’ border clearance option).

The most conservative solution – the one Fraser proposed and the LNP and Labor used to support – is for Australia to up our refugee intake and set up regional processing camps in Indonesia and Malaysia and then fly refugees here, to Australia, safely. To not be a country that tortures. To not keep people indefinitely detained in a country where self-harm is illegal.

There are things that we who are opposed to torture and cruelty can do. We can vote on this issue by not voting for the two parties championing these monstrous policies. We can counter the media narratives by discussing ‘alternative solutions’ to this global crisis. We can phone our unions and let them know this issue matters, that with that kind of collective support, we can make a difference to governmental policy. Unions are meant to show how we can organise toward a better world. Imagine if there were a general strike on this issue (imagine the increase in union numbers that would result). We can also join or support one of the organisations already involved in fighting detention: Divest from Detention, RISE, the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, Refugee Action Coalition, the upcoming March for Civil Disobedience and Refugees.

Let’s use our imaginations to make this matter urgent, as if it were life and death. Because for refugees, it is.



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Jacinda Woodhead

Jacinda Woodhead is a former editor of Overland and current law student.

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