Asylum seeker controversy
Calls for 'behavioural protocols' for asylum seekers on bridging visas from Shadow immigration minister Scott Morrison have prompted a political backlash.PT3M39S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-2f7y4 620 349 February 28, 2013
''They know they're the examples. They were pulled out of a hat to go to Nauru or Manus and they've been made examples.''
Employee of Serco, the operator of detention centres
This week Australians heard of the distressing news that asylum seekers were attempting to hang themselves and self-harming within one month of arrival at Nauru. We know this now because the Department of Immigration and Citizenship has belatedly released - under freedom-of-information laws - incident reports about the first three months of the processing centre.
Among the self-harm documented was that two men tried to commit suicide on October 13, less than a month after the centre began taking asylum seekers. On one day, November 3, authorities estimated 260 people were on hunger strike. There were then 377 asylum seekers on the island. This month the UN High Commissioner for Refugees warned that on Manus Island the accommodation for single men was ''deplorable''.
No one can say we haven't tried. Last year, confronted by the rising tide of boats, the government commissioned an expert panel to provide recommendations.
Yet six months later the government has not only failed to ''stop the boats'' - Tony Abbott's evergreen mantra - but we appear to have had no trouble re-creating the worst aspects of John Howard's loathed Pacific Solution with suicide attempts, hunger strikes and self-harm incidents stoking fears that indefinite detention on remote islands is becoming the factory of despair and mental illness it was before.
In such times, we look for leadership. Yet what did Prime Minister Julia Gillard say this week when asked about the rising tide of desperation on Nauru and Manus Island? ''The first point to make is it doesn't get you anywhere, doesn't get you a changed outcome. Unfortunately people do sometimes take that step, but I do want to be very clear. Having a hunger strike or anything like that does not change people's outcomes.''
Are these words, seemingly so callous, simply tough words for tough times? Or is something more at play?
The irony is that since the reopening of Nauru and Manus Island further asylum seekers arriving by boat have been housed in the Australian community on bridging visas. According to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, in the 2011-12 financial year about 90 per cent of people who arrived in Australia by boat were later found to be refugees.
Yet despite these statistics, it is also true that since the reopening of Nauru and Manus Island some of the heat has been taken out of the debate. As soon as the first planes of asylum seekers touched down in those remote islands, border protection receded from the frontline of the opposition's attack on Labor. And with a few exceptions, the intensity of letters to the editor and talkback calls on this issue seems to have receded.
What is going on here? The boats haven't stopped and the drownings at sea are still occurring.
It is here that the chilling truth of the Serco employee's words comes home. The asylum seekers' desperation stems not just from the conditions and the indefinite timelines they face, but from the knowledge that, as the Serco employee states, they have been essentially ''pulled out of a hat'' and ''made examples'' of.
Yet the paradox is that we know that, too, and something in us is satisfied about it. We were confronted with a situation we couldn't control, one that defied both sensitivities - nationalist (''stop the boats'') and humanitarian (''stop the drownings''). We felt paralysed, confused, buffeted on the waves of politicking and prejudice.
And so we chose to at least be tough on someone. We selected an essentially random group of desperate people to ''send a tough message'' - despite the Prime Minister's rhetoric to that effect. It is because things were out of control, and we needed to make an example of someone.
During the 1970s and '80s, Rene Girard, an anthropological philosopher, wrote about what he termed the ''scapegoat mechanism'' in societies. When rivalry between groups gets out of hand, and we fear the collapse of our safe systems, something in us searches for a scapegoat, a ''necessary victim''.
When Gillard's response to news about asylum seekers attempting to hang themselves is that it will not get them ''anywhere'', there are deeper currents at play than just a beleaguered leader trying to reinforce her alleged ''tough as nails'' credentials. Any prime minister knows that their role is to channel the deep aspirations of the community they represent. It is just that in this case there is a darker current to those aspirations.
Theologian Walter Wink, describing Girard's work, states, ''Traditionally, the victim was taken to the edge of a cliff. The entire community formed a half-circle and began to hurl stones. Thus everyone - and no one - was guilty of the victim's death. Having removed this threat, and having celebrated the reconciliation that the scapegoat made possible, the community was restored to peace.''
It is a shame that with the Pacific Solution Mark II, this particular scapegoating has not worked. On some level we, and the Prime Minister, were hoping that stoning the necessary victim would make the whole thing just go away.
Eden Parris is Advocacy Co-ordinator at Communication Rights Australia, a disability advocacy and information service.