Children, women, men: The ALP’s conscious cruelty

This blog post first appeared at Overland Journal.


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.

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