Imagine you’re being chased. Someone’s trying to kill you. They’re trying to kill your family too – what’s left of it. You’re not just running from one person. It’s an entire extremist group that controls the region. Or military regime that runs the country. You hear from a friend of a friend there’s a way out. You steal away in the dead of night. You hop through a few countries, unsure exactly how far you’ll get. You just want to be safe. You’re on a boat, crammed in tight with other anxious, undernourished people. You’ve barely slept. Now you’re in prison. They call it detention, but there’s barbed wire and you’re not allowed to leave. You’re in prison and there was no trial. No trial because you haven’t done anything wrong. No sentence because all you did was run away from the baddies. You’re in prison and no one told you when, or if, you’re getting out. Hope and sanity retreat in unison.


If you listen, you can hear it. Public opinion is shifting as apathy subsides. Our resistance to the rhetoric is growing. Australia’s immigration system is broken and people are starting to notice.

What began as a polite throat clearing from somewhere out to the left has become an increasingly mainstream chorus of opposition to Australia’s ludicrous system of ‘sovereignty’.

Our immigration system is broken because it was designed that way. Australia wants to send out the message that it’s difficult to get in, thus discouraging others. This club is exclusive. “Sorry mate, not in those shoes. Oh, you don’t even have shoes? Christ, can’t you make an effort when you’re hurriedly fleeing persecution?”

Thankfully, more and more is being written on detention issues by people of influence. By no means am I one of them, but there can never be too many voices on the humanitarian side of this issue if we’re going to affect change.

Mainstream politics has been frustratingly bipartisan in prioritising convenience over compassion. And it was easy enough for the public to go along with it. Apparently, we only like our multiculturalism fixed and a generation or two in the past if possible. Not current and ‘creeping’.

The focus in recent weeks has been on offshore processing, with facilities in Nauru and Manus Island coming under (ultimately weak) scrutiny in the High Court. But that’s not to assume that the local facilities are nailing it either.

Even if we’re to assume that detention centres are ‘well-run’ (and they’re certainly not without incident), people are still being held for years without adequate communication of their situation. They’re trapped in a hellish limbo. Unable to be deported if they’ve been deemed genuine asylum seekers or refugees (that would be callous, lolz), yet not freed into Australian society because that would just encourage the rest of those frightened displaced desperate manipulative brown people in need of a new home.

Detainees are not allowed to work, study, or acquire skills with the exception of some cursory English and computer classes. But the compromised mental health of detainees means participation is mostly perfunctory. The other problem is that with new arrivals being so regular, the teachers have to keep going back to the beginning, rendering the classes futile. At the same time, requests to study meaningful courses online are denied.

It’s an exercise in demoralisation, you see. Australia has set up a Kafkaesque wasteland – an extensive network of bureaucratic neverendingness within which people are shifted around silently and suddenly. Without warning or explanation, detainees are whisked off in the middle of the night to other facilities. Sometimes to make room for incoming refugees. Mostly to disorient. It’s a sadistic game of musical chairs.

When detainees are poised to have their case heard in court – especially big test cases that have implications for countless others – the detainee is (again, without warning) released. After years of waiting, suddenly they’re shoved out suspiciously close to the court date. Why? Because if they’re released before the case goes to court, the case is rendered invalid, not just for the individual, but for others still in detention for whom it was a test case. Evil Smart, right? It also has the effect of discouraging well-meaning lawyers from taking on this kind of pro-bono work when months of effort gets thrown out literally overnight.

Here’s another dirty secret: asylum seekers and refugees can be arbitrarily blacklisted, classed ‘ASIO negative’, to justify holding them for longer. What reason do they have to blacklist this person? Sorry, that’s classified. Often, it’s the more mild-mannered detainees copping it because they won’t kick up a fuss in detention so readily.

Sometimes, refugees are singled out on the grounds that they agitated against the government/military in their own countries – such as that in Sri Lanka or Myanmar at present. It doesn’t matter if it’s a brutal regime that physically beats you. It doesn’t matter if it’s a brutal regime that Australia itself does not condone. If you had the gall to stand up to your country’s shitty regime, you’ve got troublemaker written all over you and that means you’re not getting in.

These tales of failure and discouragement are meant to filter back to other refugees plotting their own escape from violence. Australia is a no-go. Tell your friends. It’s all very calculated.

If you’re under any illusions, here are the UNHCR bullet points:

  • Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) states that everyone has the right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution.
  • The 1951 Refugee Convention prohibits states from imposing penalties on those entering ‘illegally’ who come directly from a territory where their life or freedom is threatened.
  • The 1967 Convention removed geographical and temporal restrictions – basically extending these rights to all present and future refugees.

And yet, “Australia is still the only country in the world to impose mandatory and possibly indefinite detention as the first resort for asylum seekers, including children.”

No one is saying immigration is a straightforward issue, especially in today’s fraught global climate. But the government’s hard-line stance and distortion of facts is making the answer clearer to see for the rest of us.

Do people honestly think doctors, humanitarian organisations, writers and the like have a more insidious agenda than the major political parties in this country? Don’t patronise us. Also, the UN called again just to say we’re a jerk.

Dismissing the self-harm and protests of detainees as manipulative and melodramatic is to recklessly ignore the trauma they’re under. These are not temper tantrums. These are people driven beyond the brink of sanity.

Basically, the Australian government wants to kill enough time so that eventually whatever danger these people were running from simmers down enough to send them back guilt-free(ish). If that doesn’t happen (and it often doesn’t) and these refugees/asylum seekers are finally released into the community, they are withdrawn, guarded, jaded – undeniably damaged. They’re undereducated and underskilled because all they’ve been allowed to do is sit in a cage for 5-10 years. The strongest among us would have reason to grow bitter and twisted.

Australia and Australians like to think of themselves in a certain light. Laid back, welcoming and all that where the bloody hell are you BS. Meanwhile everyone who comes here on a holiday visa is shocked to learn how uptight and regulated we are.

That said, it can be a great place to live. The basic ingredients are there. And it’s only by some confluence of luck and timing further up our respective family trees that we found ourselves here. Great luck comes with great responsibility, however. And by ignoring that fact, we’re losing friends and racking up bad karma with alarming efficiency. It’s time we started making our own luck, and the best way to go about that is by treating people with respect, kindness, and inclusion.

Oh, you stopped the boats? Have the slowest of slow claps, you guys. Why are the only options on the table: humans drowning at sea or humans rotting in detention? Is there no more nuanced middle ground? Glad to see we’ve got our best brains on it…

No one’s going to fling the doors wide open. Germany tried and got burnt. There’s no telling how much damage that has done to good intentions around the globe. But as it stands, Australia is ruining lives and creating enemies where there weren’t any before.

Absolutely we must review people’s claims. Investigate backgrounds. Observe demeanours. Note intentions and follow the progress of new arrivals. But penning people in, behind barbed wire, for years and years without hope or perceptible progress – that’s a sure-fire way of giving everyone an axe to grind.

I’m not deluded enough to expect the government to listen to me. But they also appear deaf to the high-profile, reasonable, and respected voices on the issue. Why not listen to the people’s champion, Waleed Aly, or the countless medical professionals telling you what’s what? Or, I dunno, the UN maybe?

On a political level, Labor is missing its chance. Indeed, they helped pass the legislation that meant the High Court was obliged to hand down the ‘legal’ verdict on offshore processing. It’s a mess they’ve helped create and perpetuate. But the time calls for strong opposition. State premiers are the ones picking up the slack. Whether or not it’s a futile PR stunt doesn’t really matter. It’s the right stance to take. Federal politicians should know we won’t think less of them for bowing to the will of the people. Isn’t that kind of the point of politics?

Bottom line, if you’re going to send refugees back, don’t waste years of their lives in state-sanctioned purgatory. If you’re going to eventually let them stay in Australia, allow them to undertake meaningful study or prepare for societal participation in some way. Don’t let them waste away, stagnate, and develop mental disorders all for the sake of discouraging those at the back of the queue in the hope they’ll turn around and go home. There is no home. And it’s abundantly clear by now that there’s no queue, orderly or otherwise.

There are no easy answers here, but if this is multiple choice, we’re failing to pick the one that’s most right.


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