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Issue #1718      February 10, 2016

Children ordered back to Nauru hell

Refugee outrage

If there were ever any doubt that Turnbull is backing the full reactionary agenda inherited from Abbott, it has now evaporated. Australians have been confronted by the determination of the Coalition government to send 260 asylum seekers back to its notorious refugee detention camp on Nauru. Among the 260 are 72 children, including 37 babies born in Australia. A 24-year-old Iranian woman who was also allegedly raped on Nauru also faces being returned. Turnbull is unmoved and is sticking to the line about seeking to prevent deaths at sea and destroying people smugglers “business model”. “This pernicious, criminal trade of people smuggling cannot succeed,” the PM told parliament. “The line has to be drawn somewhere and it is drawn at our border.”

“Let them stay” rally on Monday at Town Hall Square, Sydney. (Photo: Anna Pha)

The public has been flooded with stories and claims about the “success” of Abbott’s “Stop the Boats” policy, which includes mandatory detention and offshore processing. Stripped bare, the policy means that refugees in detention will be punished and humiliated as a deterrent to others seeking a safe, secure environment for themselves and their families.

Despite the strenuous efforts of the federal government to keep a lid on the realities on Manus Island and Nauru, including a ban on the media, the horror stories just keep on coming. The latest reports of sexual assault and other abuse can be added to the pile but the impact on the health and mental well-being of detainees is worsening. Almost a quarter of the children involved who presented to a doctor between April and June 2015 were diagnosed with a mental health condition. The adult rate is 11.6 percent. The rate of distribution of anti-depressants, anti-anxiety and anti-psychotic medications has increased 150 percent over the previous year.

High Court bombshell

A High Court ruling on the legality of offshore detention has reinforced the federal government’s fortress Australia mentality. But it has shaken many others and prompted them to speak out. The United Nations has long noted the illegality of Australia’s detention regime and has come out against the prospects opened up by the High Court decision.

In a series of social media posts, the UN’s human rights division said “We urge Australia to not transfer 267 people ... to Nauru,” using the #LetThemStay hashtag, which has been used by refugee advocates fighting to keep refugees from being taken to Nauru.

“We are concerned that ... Australia’s policy on the treatment of migrants and asylum seekers arriving without prior authorisation, significantly contravenes the letter and spirit of international human rights law,” said a post on the United Nations Human Rights Facebook page.

Professor Gillian Triggs, president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, was moved by a report of from a commission team that visited many of those facing removal from the Wickham Point centre near Darwin back to Nauru. They reported that they had never encountered a more traumatised group of children. “But they are partly traumatised because of the constant threat they’ll be going back to Nauru,” Professor Triggs told Fairfax media.

Flood of protest

The callousness of the prospective return of the refugees has prompted a flood of protest and solidarity in the community. Protests are taking place in several centres across Australia as the Guardian goes to press. Events called at short notice last week were well attended and determination to fight the government over their anti-refugee stance was evident.

Normally conservative churches are echoing the calls of many. The Anglican Dean of Brisbane, Peter Catt, has offered sanctuary for the refugees in Brisbane’s 115 year old cathedral. “This fundamentally goes against our faith, so our church is compelled to act, despite the possibility of individual penalties against us,” Dr Catt said. At least ten churches across Australia have taken a similar stance.

Victorian Premier Damiel Andrews and SA Premier Jay Weatherill have called on the federal government to let the refugees stay in Australia. ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr has joined their pledge to take more asylum seekers. This type of solidarity is embarrassing federal opposition leader, Bill Shorten, who appears to be backing the Coalition’s xenophobic stance for fear of an electoral backlash.

“I believe that regional processing provides the best long-term sustainable solution,” Mr Shorten said. “But Malcolm Turnbull, if he doesn’t want to resettle people here, he needs to do something about what’s happening in Manus and Nauru.”

Radical change needed

Manus Island and Nauru won’t be “fixed”. The whole punitive concept behind “offshore processing” cannot be concealed, made legal or even liveable. The Australian government needs to execute a U-turn on refugee policy and live up to its responsibilities before international conventions.

Beyond that, it needs to be a force for positive change in the region and beyond; not a dutiful servant of the US as it pursues the geopolitical interests of its capitalist class. Of course, the Malcolm Turnbulls, Peter Duttons and Julie Bishops of this world are not likely to have such a genuine change of heart. Change will have to be forced on them by a further, dramatic, increase in the levels of protest of the sort currently taking place in the streets and in community organisations.

Next article – Editorial – System’s underbelly left untouched

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