Australia’s Fearsome War on Refugees
If war can be waged against inanimate substances and abstractions (drugs and terror), declaring that Australia is at war with refugees is not a completely outlandish claim; at the very least, it is as apt a description for what is happening as those other wars. Australia is overtly engaged in war against refugees and their often forgotten brethren, the Unlawful Non-Citizens (who dwell amongst us without note in the cities, suburbs and farmlands of Australia). The institutions, the processes and the language involved in this war are the ways in which the Australian government obfuscates as to what it is actually happening. It’s not an overly armed conflict and the parties involved are far from the usual protagonists in war: it is a war waged almost entirely by Australian Public Servants against people who are not in any way criminals and who are in need of help and who, with any kind of compassion in mind, should not be subject to harm.
Australia, as a country, has created its right to determine who may enter its land and in which fashion it allows people to enter its borders through legislation drafted and legitimised by its peoples’ representatives. Australia has a self-articulated legislative right to engage in war against refugees and UNCs, but does it have the moral right to do so?
The war against refugees is primarily waged by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) and a one of its prominent ‘service providers’, Serco. Government[i] officials will tell you (with the veracity that only a kind of cult follower can so belligerently tell you) that government departments need to outsource work to save money.[ii] But outsourcing is also used by governments to wash its hands of inhumane, nasty, ballot-box poison kind of business. Hence, Serco operates the detention centres in the Immigration Detention Network. They are called detention centres, but they can easily be called other things that would perhaps be more descriptive of what they actually are: buildings of incarceration; places for the confinement of persons in lawful detention (also known as ‘gaol’); houses of correction (‘don’t be a refugee again!’); enclosures run by mercenaries; and, for some people, they may be best defined as indefinite holding pens. Whatever they may be called, they are places in which those who reside in them don’t want to be in them, but they cannot leave them on terms acceptable to them; DIAC and Serco see to it that their liberty is deprived.
There are other government departments involved (the Department of Finance and Deregulation[iii] have their grubby little hands all over the relationship between DIAC and Serco, for example, and countless more contracts in which government has been financially stiffed by smarter market participants than them) and other complicit organisations are happy to suckle on the government teat, but DIAC and Serco are the main warriors in the war.
People smugglers are almost universally condemned as the scum of the earth, even though some people smugglers (or as they may also be known as ‘people in-traffickers,’ as they traffic people into Australia) have undoubtedly helped people and have saved lives. On the other hand, some people in-traffickers have virtually trafficked people to their deaths in shoddy transportation[iv]; in stories told of them, people in-traffickers are either good or bad and are judged as such by who is telling the story.
DIAC and Serco are also in the business of trafficking people; they are people out-traffickers. They traffic people out of Australia. They, for the most part, traffic people in an orderly fashion and usually don’t kill them. But sometimes they do kill people in the process of trafficking them, through negligence and appalling care. There have been numerous incidents at detention centres in which, if DIAC and Serco were serious about their duty of care, people in detention centres would not have died. But they have died. Comcare, the government agency responsible for safety in federal workplaces, has considered safety inside the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre run by DIAC and Serco so bad, they have called the VIDC a safety ‘basket case.’ The NSW Coroner Mary Jerram said of the processes at VIDC that they were ‘a failure of systems which in [her] view require remedy.’
People inside VIDC are there because they do not hold a valid visa to remain in Australia. They may have been relocated from Christmas Island or they may have been UNCs living and working in the community – without ever having committed any kind of crime – who were hunted down by DIAC offices in their homes or workplaces.
All this makes for an interesting comparison. People smugglers, the in-traffickers, the sometimes-called scum of the earth, offer a service to people who use it willingly; although people who employ the services of people in-traffickers are desperate and would most likely prefer not to use such a service, they voluntarily, willingly move from one place to another in search of safety and/or a better life and allow the people in-traffickers to help them (at considerable financial cost to them and sometimes they even willingly sign up for indentured servitude for the use of the in-trafficker’s services.) In comparison, DIAC actively hunts down in a variety of locations people who have in most cases committed no crime, deprive them of their liberty, then traffics them first to a detention centre of ill-repute, then traffics them to another country, escorted by DIAC and Federal Police officers – all completely against the will of the people being trafficked. Who has the moral higher ground, DIAC or people smugglers? And it’s easy to see how a people in-trafficker may benefit from his actions, but what is the benefit to DIAC itself? It’s hard to fathom how a bureaucratic department benefits in treating people so poorly outside its infinitesimal contribution to ‘national security’ (and even that’s a stretch.) If a nation must – and I stress must – engage in war with refugees, it should be undertaken by the military and the reasons for the war should face a higher standard of need than an interpretation of the Migration Act.
Practically every process DIAC and Serco conjure up in relation to – and it can be described, in the parlance of our times as – the ‘refugee problem’ is poorly designed with much oversight in regards to health and safety, let alone does it take into account any kind of morality. When two organisations such as DIAC and Serco – who’s main principles are not aligned – have separate ‘risk matrices’ and no one person is responsible for any unforeseen problem[v], problems are bound to arise and can easily be never fully redressed.
Such institutional and process problems would be all fun and games if people weren’t dying and being harmed physically and mentally because of them and if a nation wasn’t being defined by them. It seems the Australian government is happy to believe its own propaganda and attacks anyone who doesn’t believe in it. For example, if you were to read DIAC’s official Twitter account (@SandiHLogan) you would most likely learn that Australian Public Servants do whatever their government asks them to do, no questions asked, and government policy can never be wrong. It appears Australian Public Servants have been brainwashed into believing they cannot ever deny the requests of the politicians in power at the time[vi]. If you ask any senior DIAC employee at what stage would they not do what their government asked them to, you won’t get a straight up answer, I can assure you[vii]. But not only do they not question what is asked of them, senior DIAC employees will vehemently propagate the opinion that they are merely executing government policy (and never mentioning the poor execution by the administration) and that they can’t really be held responsible for such nasty processes. DIAC officials can’t lose, thanks to the belief in their own propaganda. Thanks to language, all actual responsibility is absolved. So it makes me wonder, is our ‘refugee problem’ just a kind of Wittgenstein-like language game that is merely played out in public whilst what is actually happening is hidden and hidden on purpose to perpetuate the game, as part of the game? Actual images of DIAC’s actions could be helpful, but they have been suppressed in the game, with the language of ‘privacy concerns’ always invoked.
Foreigners in Australia who have arrived by boat without a visa to enter Australia or who do not currently hold a valid visa are respectively called Irregular Maritime Arrivals (IMAs) and Unlawful Non-Citizens (UNCs). They are never ‘Guests of Australia Awaiting Refugee Assessment (GAARA)’ or ‘Fellow Human Beings Living With Us Who Don’t Currently Have The Right Piece of Paper (FHBLWUWDCHTRPP)’. Maybe those acronyms are too long, too complicated, too caring, too likely to be seen as weak, too human? Above all, it seems, public servants and the rest of government must appear ‘tough.’ The non-stop platitudes emanating from DIAC and its masters, the outright propaganda that spews forth from the official DIAC Twitter account, the people who have died in the care of the government – all for what? So Australia can appear tough? And tough in Australia means capturing, transporting and incarcerating people who are in need of help? And such actions are carried out by Public Servants, who are, what, heroes? Is Australia the final destination of history’s end and the land of some post-post(?) modernism dream/nightmare/reality? Is the war against refugees happening? Or isn’t it? And which is the simulacra?
CRITICISM? WHAT CRITICISM?
Under the current game rules, it’s interesting to note that DIAC never takes the time to criticise Serco. In fact, it vehemently defends Serco with the language of a servant defending its King. Of course, this isn’t by accident and possibly can’t be avoided. I can imagine the sway Serco holds over the minds of senior DIAC and Department of Finance and Deregulation officials, if not overtly then otherwise. If DIAC criticises Serco, what happens when the next contract for the detention immigration network comes around (because it MUST be outsourced)? DIAC will have to pay through the nose to get a company to take on their dirty work. It would perhaps be so expensive as to consider it may even be financially viable (under the current accounting tricks) for DIAC to be responsible for what it should be held accountable for. Therefore, DIAC language must always paint (with a thousand or more words) a good picture of its service providers. Who is responsible for such a ridiculous game?
GOOD PEOPLE DOING BAD THINGS?
Are the perpetrators of the war on refugees really such bad people? Could they actually stand at Flying Fish Cove on Christmas Island with artillery aimed at people in need and tell them to back off from Australia, we don’t want you here, we don’t want to help you? Could they idly watch a person suffer mental trauma at the hands of a multinational corporation that has no charter for caring about humans other than putting money into shareholder’s pockets? Could these Canberra public servants really be so cold-hearted? That’s the most frustrating part in all this: I don’t think they could if the language of this war was different, closer to reality, more direct, and if they took the time to examine their lives and their actions. These public servants who have been afforded jobs for life – if they do whatever the government asks of them – have made a kind of deal with the devil: they are waging a war – a one sided war – against people who only want the chance to be as comfortable as them, as safe in a home as them. Are these public servants – who I have no doubt are caring toward their own family – really good people when the results of their actions are so atrocious? This deal that has been made with lack of empathy can only be broken with courage; something sadly missing in all of government.
[i] Government is a word that has different meanings for different people and is actually horribly confusing. I say government here to mean those people that have been voted by the people of Australia in a democratic vote, who may or may not have been directly voted for by the majority of people in their electorate, who are aligned with the political party or parties that hold the most number of seats in the lower house of the Australian Parliament and those that are directly employed by those people and Australian Public Service bureaucrats.
[ii] Don’t get me started on ‘money’ and related ‘value.’ Suffice it to say, when the government gives billions of dollars of the Australian people’s money to multinational companies in outsource contracts, I don’t think it’s in the best interest of anyone other than the corporation’s various ‘chief benefitting officers’, directors etc. and its shareholders. I beg to differ if you believe it also helps employees in Australia: they are generally paid lower than if they were to be directly employed by the Australian government. By the bye, I have a high regard for what corporations have done to advance the world and corporations can take some credit for lifting millions, maybe billions of people, out of poverty, but in this instance, corporations don’t float my boat.
[iii] What a great name and purpose for a government department! It is in the business of eliminating itself (if its employees think of themselves as government employees. Which possibly they don’t or they live an unexamined life like every other government employee in Canberra, away from the front-line of services.) Am I the only person who thinks that a government department’s aim in reducing or eradicating government involvement in matters that pertain to government is somewhat perverse?
[iv] Of what is it a failure when people die when using people in-traffickers? In a world where multi-national corporations have virtually unfettered ability to use capital in any country and there are many free-trade agreements, shouldn’t there be free-labour agreements, worldwide? There are three main reasons why people come to Australia: for safety, to be with family, and, to make money (and there are as many reason a person wants to make money as there are people). People wishing to come to Australia for those reasons should not be forced to do so in unsafe transportation. It’s that simple in my mind.
[v] Is this designed on purpose? Has anyone been held personally responsible for the deaths in detention? Well, no, because the deaths have been attributed to system deficiencies. Contrast this lack of personal accountability for when things gone horribly wrong with the fact that the current substantive Secretary of DIAC is using money received as a prize to study abroad (personally) after he was named the Chartered Accountants Federal Government Leader of the Year for 2010 for his work as Secretary of DIAC. Can one take the good with the good and with the good only?
[vi] Brainwashed or financially compensated to do so. There has recently been a bit of a backlash against bonus payments to Australian Public Servants, but it still happens (it has been rolled-into salaries (as shown at page 376 of DIAC’s 2009-10 Annual Report), hidden now from view) and a lot of people currently in the APS with a modicum of power have financially gained simply from implementing government policy, no matter if it was done well or not.
[vii] For most senior DIAC figures, innocent people dying due to lack of care from a stressed, under-resourced department seems not to be the trigger to question whether a DIAC employee should not do as their government asks. Or is it simply a matter of the old Yes Minister administration/policy conundrum? Is it a language trick or a humanity problem? If an Australian public servant needs legislative authority to deny requests to gaol people and transport them against their will, they need only look to the Public Service Act 1999. Section 13(3) of that act says ‘An APS employee, when acting in the course of APS employment, must treat everyone with respect and courtesy, and without harassment.’ How does locking up men, women and children NOT contravene this section of the act?