Julian Burnside: Now is the time to stand up for justice
We need to face the fact that we are being cruel, selfish and dishonest, and the rest of the world sees it.
Our treatment of asylum seekers is unjust. Like many people, I am profoundly concerned about Justice. Campaigning for the just treatment of boat people has had strange consequences, including death threats and hate mail. I am liked by some people, and loathed by others because I stand up for decent treatment of refugees. It is an uncomfortable thing to be publicly vilified.
At a glamorous social function, the wife of a very senior and respected colleague sidled up to me and asked:
“Do you think it appropriate that a member of the bar speaks publicly about these matters?”
I answered, with more wit than preparation:
“Do you think it appropriate to know about these matters and remain silent?”
There the conversation ended.
Australians don’t usually get noticed by overseas media, unless it concerns sport.
But a recent exception to that was a favourable piece by Katie Hopkins, in an article published in the London Sun. Her admiration of Australia’s refugee policies looked less flattering when she described boat people as “vermin” and “cockroaches”. Presumably someone forgot to remind her that they are human beings.
The British Medical Journal recently published an article titled “Refugees: time for moral leadership from the Western democracies”. Its subheading was “Australia sets a disgraceful example in its treatment of refugees”.
It is a striking thing for Australia’s refugee policy to attract such sharp commentary in an international journal of such high standing.
Doctors see more readily than most of us what Australia’s treatment of refugees does. They have reported regularly that indefinite detention, especially in the hostile environment of Nauru or Manus Island, causes serious mental and physical harm. The Australian government apparently ignores those reports.
A doctor who spent a year working with asylum seekers on Manus Island told me that his first impression of the camp was “this is what Auschwitz must have been like”. He did not mean a literal comparison: after all, the Manus Island camp is not intended to be a death camp: so far, only two refugees have been killed there. One of them, Reza Berati, was killed by camp guards on 17 February 2014. No-one has yet faced trial over that murder.
Many doctors have told me of the appalling conditions on Nauru, Manus Island and Christmas Island. But we won’t get too many more reports: the Parliament has justpassed a law which makes it a criminal offence to disclose the mistreatment of refugees in detention. We can expect more brutality, more damage, more secrecy and probably more murders.
Initially, the Abbott government’s justification for a hard line on boat people was that it would save lives. There is no evidence to support that idea. Of course it is tragic when asylum seekers die in a desperate attempt to reach protection. It is also tragic when they stay behind and are slaughtered. The key difference is that, when they stay behind and become another statistic in the grim arithmetic of ethnic cleansing, we do not empathise with them; our conscience remains untouched. When we see them perish in an attempt to seek safety here, it seems different.
Our harsh policy has not stopped the boats setting out: we turn them back to Indonesia. We have even breached Indonesian territorial waters in the enterprise. We are not allowed to know how many people have died in their thwarted attempt to get here, because that is an “operational matter”.
Abbott’s concern for the welfare of boat people would be touching if it was genuine. But it is not genuine. How can Abbott’s concern for the lives of boat people be seen as genuine when he is punishing the ones who don’t drown? How can his concern for the lives of boat people be seen as genuine when he watches hundreds of Rohingyan refugees stranded at sea and says “Nope, nope, nope” to the suggestion that we should help them? How can his concern for the lives of boat people be seen as genuine when Indonesia (which has not signed the Refugees Convention) does more to help save the Rohingyans than Australia (which has signed it)?
I continue to speak about these matters because it is more than a discussion about how we treat refugees: it is now a question about what sort of people we are. Are we a nation that will knowingly mistreat people who have committed no offence, and have done nothing worse than try to escape persecution?
I wish every Australian would ask themselves those questions, because I still believe Australians are, at heart, decent and generous. Our wilful mistreatment of refugees is largely a result of political opportunism: we have been misled by politicians who tell us that boat people are “illegal”, and that our harsh laws are protecting us from criminals.
But it is a lie. And still I am dedicated to the task of leading us back to the truth. The task is bigger than I imagined, back in 2001. But I know that, with my last breath, I will not have to say “I wish I had done something”. I will be able to say “At least I tried”.
Now is the time for us all to stand up for Justice.
Julian Burnside AO QC is an Australian barrister and human rights and refugee advocate.
Follow Julian on Twitter @julianburnside
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