Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Refugee detention centres are inhumane, but profitable

Reading Time: 5 minutes

The hypocrisy of our government

The harrowing images of 3-year-old refugee Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach have shaken the world.

Alongside his father and brother, Aylan fled the northern Syrian city of Kobane attempting to find refuge in Europe. Aylan, his brother and his father are just three of the estimated 4 million people who have fled Syria since 2011.

The indisputable tragedy of Aylan’s death has forced the world’s attention onto the refugee crisis. European leaders continue to bicker over what to do with the hundreds of thousands of desperate displaced people on Europe’s doorstep. Pressure has been placed on world leaders to increase their intake of refugees from Syria.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has responded in the most despicable way possible by pretending to react yet committing to absolutely nothing. The announcement that Australia will take more refugees from Syria is a total farce considering the refugee quota will not increase at all. Pitting refugee against refugee is no solution.

There is absolutely no material, economic, legal or logistical barrier to Australia immediately taking in 20,000 or more Syrian refugees. The barriers that exist are purely political. They are the product of over two decades of using refugees as pawns in populist politicking. In this crime both sides of politics are to blame.

The images of little Aylan brutally contrast with the familiar narrative of asylum seekers as ‘queue jumping criminals’ who need to be locked up. Until we examine what has led to the unspeakable brutalisation of refugees who make it to Australian shores, we cannot hope to find a genuine solution to the global refugee crisis. When our government spends billions of dollars to indefinitely imprison just 1,500 asylum seekers in offshore detention centres, is it any wonder it’s response to the humanitarian crisis in Syria is woefully lacking?

As the effects of the gloabl crisis of capitalism and dramatically increasing wealth inequality continue to provoke political instability around the globe, we are presented with two options. We can shut our eyes to this immense human suffering, or we can attempt to uncover and address the root causes of war, poverty and the humanitarian crises we are confronted with.

The place to start is on our own doorstep.

Refugee detention is inhumane but profitable

In August a Senate inquiry into offshore detention found that conditions are “not adequate, appropriate or safe” on Manus Island and Nauru. Serious allegations of sexual assault and child abuse have also come to light. Accusations of private security guards using torture techniques against asylum seekers have also surfaced.

The Senate inquiry recommended all children be removed from detention, a policy the Government has repeatedly refused to implement. Even newborn babies are subject to the dangerous and unhygienic conditions in offshore detention. Over the past year at least 300 children in detention have committed or threatened to commit self-harm, while over 200 were assaulted in custody.

The response of the Abbott Government to these serious breaches and allegations has been to continue with business as usual. Scandalously, the private contractors accused of these human rights breaches are in charge of investigating, ruling and reporting on their own conduct.

The only significant change in approach from the Abbott Government has been to limit access to detentions centres and threaten those who speak out about the deplorable conditions. The recently passed Border Force Act makes it an offence for health professionals working in offshore detention centres to publicly disclose the conditions and incidents of mistreatment they witness. This comes after numerous whistleblowers have come forward about serious human rights breaches occurring in these offshore hell holes.

Last year the Nauru government increased the visa fee for visiting journalists from a few hundred dollars to AU$8,000! Last month it was revealed that Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young was spied on by private security contractor Wilson Security during her visit to Nauru.

The Government also seems to want to limit its own knowledge of what occurs in offshore detention, as the Senate inquiry also found that the private operators were not “properly accountable to the commonwealth despite the significant investment in their services”. In response to Government assertions that it has limited jurisdiction over the offshore detention centres, the Senate inquiry labelled such claims “a cynical and unjustifiable attempt to avoid accountability”.

The extent to which the Abbott Government is happily ignoring the criminally inhumane conditions in offshore detention is demonstrated by the recent decision to renew the contracts with the current private operators. Despite the Senate inquiry finding the current operations, run by Transfield Services and Wilson Security, are “insupportable” the Government has awarded these same companies renewed five year contracts at a cost of billions of dollars. In less than two years Transfield has been handed $1.2 billion in Government contracts to run refugee detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island. This amounts to approximately $37 million per month, or $24,000 per refugee per month. These refugees are crammed into tents without basic amenities.

The amount of money the Australian Government spends on indefinitely detaining approximately 1,500 asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island is unprecedented. It is also completely unnecessary. This money would be much better spend providing support and services to asylum seekers living in the community while their claims are processed. Community processing costs far less than detention. Studies have demonstrated that asylum seekers are less likely to commit crimes than the rest of the population. Most importantly, it is much better for the health and wellbeing of those seeking asylum, many who are already dealing with serious trauma.

There is no basis for continuing the brutal practice of offshore detention except for the political benefit to the Government. Refugees provide a convenient scapegoat for governments intent on implementing policies of cuts and austerity. Instead of focusing on the big business beneficiaries of such policies, blame for diminishing access to social services is directed towards those least culpable and most denied – refugees, single mothers, people with disabilities etc.

For this political goldmine – a scapegoat for all of the ills caused by pro-business, neoliberal policies – the government is willing to pay handsomely – with our money! The refugee detention industry itself has become a self-perpetuating private industry with influence over government and millions in profits to be made from human suffering.

When the real motivations behind offshore detention are revealed, it is clear that a system based on inequality of wealth and the private pursuit of profit are the driving factors. This is why socialists make the case for linking the refugee rights movement with building a strong workers movement that can fight for the interests of all working people against the big business domination of our lives.

Playing politics with people’s lives

The level of public support for a ‘tough stance’ on refugees is the result of over 20 years of political manipulation and misinformation. A lot of effort has gone into creating a culture of fear, mistrust and hostility towards refugees from the time the Labor Party first introduced mandatory detention in 1992, to John Howard’s ‘Children Overboard’ lie, to Tony Abbott’s ‘Stop the boats’ mantra.

A 2011 survey found that more than three-quarters of Australians have enormously overinflated ideas about the numbers of ‘boat people’ seeking asylum in Australia and the cost of resettling them.

However, it is not as simple as educating people on the facts. Politicians will continue to whip up anti-refugee hysteria to divert attention away from the real problems we face. The major political parties have all pushed the idea that ‘overcrowding’ is to blame for diminishing access to jobs, housing and services like healthcare and education. This is what lies at the heart of many people’s current reluctance to actively support refugee rights.

Winning mass support for refugee rights will require addressing the basis of these concerns. Our campaign needs to include the demand for jobs, homes, healthcare and education for all. While politicians try to outdo each other with their ‘though stance’ on desperate people fleeing war and persecution, big business routinely flout laws, line their pockets with public money and avoid paying taxes. There is no ‘tough stance’ when it comes to corporate tax evasion.

There is more than enough wealth and resources in society to resettle all of the world’s refugees. The problem is that this wealth is concentrated in the hands of a tiny minority, while the rest of us are left to fight over crumbs.

It is urgent that we work to build a movement that can challenge the Government’s cruel refugee policies and this system which pits people against each other in a race to the bottom.

Such a movement could offer an alternative to mandatory detention and offshore processing, as well as challenging the very system that creates war, poverty and the environmental devastation that forces people to seek asylum in the first place.


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