When it comes to Australia, people in the United States seem to take an attitude that largely consists of indifference: most of us don’t understand the basics of Australian politics, government, and culture, we don’t know the geography of the nation at all, we aren’t familiar with its history. What we do know about Australia is primarily a blend of pop culture, misinformation, and fanciful ideas about what life is like in a nation with a very complex history, and we seem surprised when Australia periodically pops up in the media, reminding us that it does in fact exist and people live there.
While I’m not as informed about Australia as I should be, in the last few years I’ve taken much more of an interest in Australian politics, particularly those surrounding immigration. The world as a whole is in the grips of a collective crisis over immigration, refugees, and the best way to handle people seeking asylum, better lives, work, and second chances. As imperial nations like the US and Australia insist on keeping people out, the stakes when it comes to abusing refugees get higher and higher.
Like the EU, like the US, Australia has very aggressive anti-immigrant policies. Law enforcement agencies work to intercept as many refugees and other immigrants as possible as they approach Australian borders, sending them to detention camps and deporting them as quickly as it can; sometimes, people trying to get to Australia don’t even set foot on the nation’s soil, instead languishing in detention after being picked up from dangerously overladen boats attempting to sneak past Australian security measures.
Conservatives in the country of course insist that immigration must be kept at a minimum, especially when it comes to unsavoury immigrants like those pesky people of colour (let us not forget the ‘White Australia’ policy, which actively enforced the whitening of a colonised continent by treating immigrants preferentially if they came from white backgrounds). Their rhetoric mirrors that found in other nations: immigrants steal jobs, create violence and unsafe conditions, carry disease, contribute to overcrowding, become a drain on the system, simply don’t work hard enough, don’t share ‘Australian values.’ And that rhetoric has become a dominant part of policy and enforcement when it comes to immigration in Australia, a country where even children are housed in prison-like conditions for weeks or months.
People die in immigration detention in Australia. Regularly. Conditions are appalling, with inadequate access to food and water, poor shelter, limited medical care, and conditions that exacerbate or create serious mental health problems including depression and anxiety. It’s estimated that over 80% of those in detention arrive in Australia by boat, paying human traffickers large sums to sneak them across the border in the hopes they can apply for refugee status, connect with family members and friends if they’re in the nation, and build new lives.
Many of these people are coming from extremely dangerous home nations or situations that imperil them personally because of who they are, what they do, or their family history. In the face of this information, a compassionate government would surely work on a system for establishing asylum, and for welcoming immigrants to the country, but instead, Australia pens them up in detention, just as the European Union and United States do, and it sends them back to their home nations even if the outcome of that decision is almost certain to be fatal.
The nation has turned to privatisation, a common tactic, with detention facilities in places like Papua New Guinea for holding people until they can be sent ‘back,’ even if ‘back’ is unclear, or dangerous. Heartless and horrific abuse of immigrants in detention in Australia has been in the news off and on for over a decade, with Australian human rights activists fighting hard to address the issue, but many people outside the country seem surprised to learn about the conditions in detention, and the severity of anti-immigrant sentiment in the nation.
It’s part of a more complicated global web of hatred for immigrants and corresponding silence about the abuse they endure, on Christmas Island, on Lampedusa, in immigration detention camps in US states. The collective silence about the issue encourages authorities to continue doing terrible things to immigrants in the belief that only people on the margins, like the raging socialists, the fusspots, and the silly liberals, are the ones who will kick up a fuss. And it encourages conservative anti-immigration rhetoric, by not providing a stark counterpoint.
There are not enough voices speaking up about abuses in immigration detention, and not enough discussing the fact that it is a global problem that needs global solutions. Campaigners and immigrants in Australia need our help to show that the world is watching what happens there, that the world sees the abuses documented in camps with horrific conditions, that the world demands better for people seeking refuge and safe harbour in Australia. And we need to take that same awareness, that same support, that same organising power, within our own nations to support the people doing pro-immigrant work, to create a stronger web and a deeper network of people fighting anti-immigrant sentiments and working to build a more just world, a world where people are not treated like objects to be shuffled around warehouses.
Immigrants are human beings, no matter how they arrive in a country, and they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Detention is a profound violation of human rights, and it serves no larger purpose other than to enforce authoritarian brutality on an innocent population. Surely, we can do better than this.