On Wednesday August 10, The Guardian Australia released one of the largest leaks in Australian history. It contained more than 2000 incident reports from the offshore detention centre on Nauru. A little over 51% of them involve children, even though children make up only 18% of the population in the centre. The reports make for an extraordinarily harrowing read. They detail everything from sexual assault to simple cruelty. They contain incidents in which guards are alleged to be the aggressor, but also situations in which other asylum seekers have been the aggressors.
I’ll provide a few examples. A school teacher observes an asylum seeker child colouring in a notebook. She writes, “I want death” and “I need death”. In exchange for a four minute shower as opposed to the standard two minutes, one guard allegedly attempted to extort sexual favours from the female asylum seeker making the request. A young girl had sewn her lips shut (a not uncommon form of protest in the camp), and rather than being cared for, was simply laughed at by a guard.
Of the incidents that I’ve read, one stands out. The father of an asylum seeker was reported for smothering his young son with a pillow during the night. Just enough to keep him quiet. Why? After so long in the processing centre, the father couldn’t handle listening to his son cry any longer. It is not enough for our detention centre to break the spirit of the child, we must also strip away the father’s ability to cope and support his crying son, make him so desperate as to be willing to smother him.
I say ‘our’ detention centre for a very deliberate reason. This might seem like a distant issue, a piece of misery sitting on an island in the Pacific, thousands of kilometres away. It might be easy to rationalise, to blame our politicians for the atrocities that The Guardian has now shined a floodlight onto. But we shouldn’t do that, because the truth is, deep inside, we knew exactly what was happening on that godforsaken rock. We have known at least since Gillian Triggs produced crayon drawings done by children in detention, depicting themselves as desperate and behind bars.
Nauru was once a rich country, with one the highest GDP per capita ratios in the world. It had enormous phosphate deposits, which made them a killing in the 1950s and 60s. Years of corruption, a souring market, and excessive mining left the country as the poverty stricken mess it currently is. The strip mining left large portions of the small island not farmable, and so the country has very little indigenous industry. Enter Australia, the rich neighbour. Nauru is dependent on foreign aid for survival, and Australia is one of its biggest providers. In return, when Australia makes a request to open a detention centre on the island, like any other textbook client state, Nauru can hardly refuse.
Australian taxpayers paid more than $1.2 billion in 2014-15 to maintain our centres on Nauru and Manus Island. To put that into perspective, the United Nations’ human rights agency spent US$157 million on refugees in entirety of South East Asia. We spend more than five times as much as the UN, in order to hold open just two camps.
It costs $400,000 per head to hold an asylum seeker on one of these offshore camps. It costs $239,000 to keep them in an onshore detention centre. It costs just $12,000 to allow them into the community. To put those numbers into perspective, the annual aged pension’s maximum payment is just over $22,000, and the annual Newstart allowance for a single with one dependent is just under $15,000.
No matter which way you frame the numbers, it’s clear that we are spending a very great deal in order to create the more than 2000 incident reports The Guardian has leaked. That money could be spent caring for these refugees better, caring for more refugees, or fixing any of the other myriad of government under-investment problems we have.
If the economic argument isn’t enough, perhaps the international condemnation will do. In the United Kingdom, the leader of the Liberal Democratic party has called on foreign minister Boris Johnson to summon Australia’s high commissioner. The foreign affairs spokesperson for the Labour party in New Zealand has confirmed that he has written to Australia’s high commissioner already. The UNHCR has condemned the camp, saying it is “gravely concerned” and that the situation has been deteriorating for years.
Just prior to this leak, Four Corners aired reports of the disturbing treatment of individuals in the Don Dale juvenile detention centre. Literally within twelve hours, the Prime Minister had declared nothing short of a Royal Commission into the centre. In contrast, it took federal immigration minister Peter Dutton two days to respond. When he finally did respond, his words were dismissive, and he alleged that some asylum seekers are threatening self-harm not because of the harsh psychological stress they are under (which some prominent medical professional have likened to torture), but because they are trying to get to Australia. The Labor opposition apparently regard this as unsatisfactory, because they are now arguing for an inquiry.
So that’s that. The Guardian shines a light on Nauru and discovers the immorality, the depravity of that place, and one major party responds with offensive dismissal and the other wants an inquiry.
The economic costs of these centres are ridiculous, and the international condemnation their continued operation is drawing paints our country with a marred brush. However, these two truths shouldn’t even factor into how we ought to think about these places.
Our thinking should be guided a very simple, moral statement. It is wrong to indefinitely detain an individual. It is wrong to leave an individual in cruel squalor. It is wrong to preside over the psychological destruction of otherwise reasonable and healthy individuals and do nothing. It is wrong to allow guards to ignore serious problems, and thereby display an inhumane callousness.
Peter Dutton doesn’t believe that Guantanamo Bay is an appropriate analogy for this camp. Perhaps he considers it offensive. I’m not sure that this description goes far enough. Australia has presided over a camp which institutionally psychologically tortures the innocent, a camp which dehumanises people. We have done this, ostensibly because we care about deaths at sea. That’s a thin justification, poorly made. Even if it were the problem, this definitely isn’t the solution. History has shown us many countries that have created camps like these, not just the United States and Guantanamo Bay. They have always been wrong, and so is Nauru.
And that’s the only thing we should think about when we form our opinions about these places. What we are doing in Nauru is just wrong, and its continued existence makes me, as an Australian citizen, ashamed to call this country mine.
The late Christopher Hitchens had views on many things. He, unlike his brother, was a left-leaning thinker and, unlike many other left-leaning thinkers (including myself), was strongly in favour of the Iraq War. During the course of the war, the American military uncovered Abu Ghraib, a prison and execution facility used by the Saddam regime. On the topic of the Iraq War, I agree with Hitchens on only one thing. He firmly believed that, rather than convert Abu Ghraib into the torture and detainment facility the exposure of which would make WikiLeaks famous, the American military should’ve burnt the building to the ground and salted the earth.
In that same vein, we should burn the Nauru Regional Processing Centre to the ground, and salt the earth. Unfortunately, I don’t think even that will wash away the horrors we have unleashed there.