Julian Burnside – The Guardian – 19 July 2018
It is important that we all know the truth of what our government is doing to innocent people
In the middle of 2016 Guardian Australia published the Nauru files: more than 2,000 incident reports recording things that had happened in Australia’s refugee gulag on Nauru. The incident reports – made by people directly or indirectly employed by the Australian government – contained reports of assaults, sexual abuse, self-harm and child abuse. They gave an insight into the living conditions endured by asylum seekers held by the Australian government. Unsurprisingly, they painted a picture of routine dysfunction and cruelty.
A few key facts: Nauru is an island republic in the South Pacific. It is about 4,000 kilometres from Sydney. It is almost exactly on the equator, so it is fairly hot. It is very small: about 2 square kilometres smaller than Tullamarine airport in Melbourne. It has a population of about 9,500 people: less than most Australian suburbs.
Nauru was first used by Australia as a place of detention from late 2001, after the Tampa episode, until about 2007. Its use was revived in 2012. It is used primarily as a place where families and unaccompanied women and children are sent. Manus Island (part of PNG) is used as a place for unaccompanied men.
Almost all the people held on Nauru now have been there for five years. It costs Australian taxpayers about $570,000 per refugee, per year to keep them in Nauru. And that’s just the financial cost: think what it is doing to the soul of our country. Australia is increasingly seen as a country which is intentionally cruel to innocent people.
Although most of the refugees on Nauru have been there for five years, some of the children are younger than five years old. They were born there to refugee women. They are classified in Australia’s Migration Act as “transitory children”. They are treated as boat people, even though they have lived their entire lives in detention on Nauru.
Children are a very important part of offshore detention. More than half of the Nauru files concern mistreatment of children. They range from a guard grabbing a boy and threatening to kill him once he is living in the community to guards slapping children in the face. In September 2014 a teacher reported that a young classroom helper had asked for a four-minute shower instead of a two-minute shower.
Her request has been accepted on condition of sexual favours. It is a male security person. She did not state if this has or hasn’t occurred. The security officer wants to view a boy or girl having a shower.”
The Nauru files are the first chance most Australians had to get a glimpse inside the detention centre on Nauru. It is extremely difficult for ordinary Australians to get to Nauru: a media visa application costs $8,000, which is not refunded if the visa is refused. Journalists find it virtually impossible to get a visa to go to Nauru. So how else do we find out what our government is doing to the people who have come to Australia asking to be protected from persecution?
It is interesting to think about the secrecy which surrounds offshore processing. Prime ministers, including Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull, and government ministers like Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton refer to asylum seekers as “illegals” and describe offshore processing as “border protection”. In saying these things, they are lying to you. Refugees arriving by boat do not commit any offence by coming to Australia asking for protection. And we do not need to be protected from them.
The end result is that many Australians think offshore processing involves protecting us from criminals, which might make sense if it was true. But it is false.
We are imprisoning innocent human beings – men, women and children – without charge, without trial. And we put them in hellish conditions until young children try to kill themselves or engage in self-harm, and are denied decent medical care because Nauru does not have a sophisticated medical system. When an application is brought in the federal court of Australia to have those children brought to Australia for proper mental health treatment, Dutton pays lawyers to oppose the application.
And all this is hidden from us, because we can’t go there to see what is happening, and in any event Australia makes sure that visas are only available to people it likes. In 2014 the federal parliament passed the Australian Border Force Act. Part 6 of the Act is headed “Secrecy and disclosure provisions”. It includes section 42, which makes it a criminal offence, punishable by up to two years prison, if a person who works in the immigration system discloses any fact they learned while working in the immigration system. Whoever leaked the Nauru files took a risk by disclosing facts which should shock the conscience of every Australian.
Reading the Nauru files, you learn that in September 2014, a girl had sewn her lips together. A guard saw her and began laughing at her. In July 2014 a child under the age of 10 undressed and invited a group of adults to insert their fingers into her vagina.
The government’s response to the publication of the Nauru files was little short of astonishing:
The documents published today are evidence of the rigorous reporting procedures that are in place in the regional processing centre – procedures under which any alleged incident must be recorded, reported and where necessary investigated …”
It was also evasive:
Many of the incident reports reflect unconfirmed allegations or uncorroborated statements and claims – they are not statements of proven fact …”
All We Can’t See is an opportunity for artists to respond to the hidden facts on Nauru. It is painful to see a sculpture of a child who has cut herself and has sewn her lips closed. But it is important that we all know the truth of what our government is doing to innocent people. Because our government, while spending billions of taxpayers’ money harming refugees, is anxious that we should not know the truth.
It is the reason we need All We Can’t See.
• Julian Burnside is an Australian barrister and refugee advocate
- The All We Can’t See exhibition will Be opening at Fortyfivedownstairs 31 July- 11 August as an official event of Melbourne Art Week