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The National Cruelty, by Russell Marks

How to understand our attitude to refugees and detention regimes

I have a good friend whose job involves trying to change the way ordinary people think and talk about refugees and asylum seekers. Her previous job—as a caseworker for people who had recently settled in Australia as refugees and who had applied for refugee visas—had led her to conclude that the best way to help her clients was to help change the policy of Australia’s major political parties. She has a tough job. For fifteen years, Australians’ main sources of news and opinion—senior politicians and commercial news media—have, with very few and brief exceptions, been engaged in a systematic project of what can only be described as demonisation.

That last sentence is difficult to write anywhere outside of a consciously left-wing publication like Arena Magazine, whose readers no doubt already share that sentiment. The same can be said of what happens too often in prisons and youth detention centres. That begs the question: how is one to write for a general audience about what is happening in detention centres operated by Australia and its states and territories? If one calls it what it is—torture, or at least ‘cruel and degrading treatment’, in the words of the UN Torture Convention—then one immediately alienates that great mass of the population of this country for whom Australia is a modern, fair, democratic nation. But if one dials down the language—if one writes about mere ‘abuses’ or ‘alleged human-rights violations’—then one is using euphemisms that hide the true nature of what is going on.

Over the course of a month between mid-July and mid-August, whistleblowers used the media to once again expose violations in Australia’s detention regime. The ABC’s Four Corners screened images of teenagers being gassed and ‘mechanically restrained’ in a Darwin youth detention centre. Then thousands of documents leaked to The Guardian detailed just how many allegations of sexual abuse—mostly of children—have been made in respect of people held in Australia’s immigration detention centre on Nauru.

Each matter was known, and had been reported, before. But an earlier investigation by the Northern Territory Children’s Commissioner was dismissed as overblown and distorted by the NT government when it was reported late last year. And anyone alleging the abuse of children on Nauru has been attacked by the federal government and threatened with criminal prosecution—most notably staff of the charitable organisation Save the Children.

In part, Australian governments’ responses to the earlier reports were predictable extensions of the fact that they had more or less authorised the reported violations. Most members of the Northern Territory’s governing Country Liberal Party—including then Chief Minister Adam Giles—voted in favour of legislation that authorised the use of the Abu Ghraibesque ‘mechanical restraint chairs’ in May this year. And the federal Department of Immigration (under various official monikers) has known for at least fifteen years about what happens to traumatised children and adults who are locked up, indefinitely and without charge, at the mercy of guards employed by private security companies.

I remember sitting in Amanda Vanstone’s office when she was briefly Immigration Minister and I was naively trying my hand at journalism for my university’s student newspaper. Dr Aamer Sultan from Iraq had documented his fellow captives’ descent into madness as they adjusted to the realities of indefinite detention—theirs, and his own. He and his colleague on the outside, Zachary Steel, now a professor of psychology at the University of New South Wales, identified what they termed ‘detention centre syndrome’: a particular kind of traumatic stress and depression that seemed to afflict nearly everybody after about three to six months in indefinite captivity. For at least fifteen years, Australia has known what damage such detention is doing to these people. But it continues to impose that detention regardless. When I asked her, Vanstone dismissed Sultan and Steel’s findings and signalled that her office would be saying something very shortly about researchers’ claims about the relationship between prolonged detention and mental illness. We are still waiting.

These developments mark a drastic shift in how Australian governments treat very vulnerable people. It used to be that the mere incarceration of innocent people without charge was a bridge too far. When the Keating government reintroduced mandatory detention for all irregular migrants and all those who overstay their visas, civil libertarians warned of a slippery slope. From compulsory internment in community houses, however, it is a very long slide to maximum-security imprisonment on remote Pacific islands in stifling equatorial heat. And it’s also a very long way from our traditional understanding of youth detention to the maximum-security institutions seen at Don Dale and elsewhere around the country.

It’s perhaps not surprising that substantial elements of the general Australian population think there’s very little wrong with the Don Dale images or the Nauru incident reports. Australians, after all, like to imagine themselves as a very fair-minded people. And as much as we like to think of ourselves as anti-authoritarian, we’re actually very compliant with authority: this stems from a very high level of what sociologists have called ‘domain legitimacy’, by which they mean that most Australians have (historically and comparatively) a lot of faith in the institutions that select their leaders and settle their disputes. Unlike in some other countries, like Turkey or El Salvador or North Korea, if a person is locked up here Australians tend to assume there must be very good reason for it. There is criticism of police and courts, but most of it expresses the view that not enough people are behind bars. The Herald Sun, for instance, has run an extended front-page fear campaign about the so-called Apex ‘gang’ of teenage criminals that has apparently been terrorising Melbourne’s suburbs with home invasions and carjackings. As part of this campaign, the paper goes out of its way to find and quote victims of crime who say things like: ‘People say they are children, but they’re not. They are criminals, and authorities need to get serious and just lock them up’.

From these basic assumptions about the system and the people caught up within it, many Australians respond to stories of human-rights abuses in immigration and juvenile detention by applying a reverse logic: if these people are locked up, they must have done something pretty bad, and therefore they’re probably getting what they deserve. This is definitely true in relation to adult prisoners. Human rights–focused stories about the overuse of solitary confinement or the over-representation of Indigenous and brain-injured people in prisons don’t wash with most Australians, who uncritically accept the logic: do the crime, do the time. Locking criminals up is simply seen as keeping society safe.

With a bit of help, Australians can also believe the same of youth detention. For instance, Brisbane’s Courier-Mail during the Beattie/Bligh Labor government years ran a high-profile front-page campaign against the ‘pint-sized criminals’ who were apparently storming around that city with impunity. It deliberately misquoted official Children’s Court reports showing that existing interventions were working, and its campaign contributed to the Newman government’s resounding landslide electoral victory of 2012. The new government then stopped many of the more successful, non-punitive interventions in favour of a much more expensive punishment-focused regime that had already been shown to be ineffective. But the Newman government’s war on youth crime was popular. Both the government and the tabloid media had played to their constituency’s fear of youth, in much the same way the Herald Sun is currently demonising adolescent members of the so-called Apex gang in Melbourne.

These campaigns have been so successful that the few people who get any access at all to places of detention—lawyers, social workers, doctors—find it extraordinarily difficult to find people who will listen to their accounts of what they see. The use of ‘mechanical restraint’ chairs and tear gas at Don Dale was taken seriously by the Northern Territory’s Children’s Commissioner last year. But the commissioner’s report was then attacked as ‘unbalanced’ by a succession of NT ministers—including the Corrections Minister—and thereafter largely forgotten by the media. Whenever doctors and NGO workers speak about what they’ve witnessed on Nauru and Manus Island, the public story becomes one of bleeding-heart ‘advocates’ who are ‘coaching’ detainees to make allegations—or even to deliberately self-harm. There is also self-censorship. The new head of the Australian Medical Association indicated recently on Radio National that he will express less overt criticism of the Australian government’s treatment of asylum seekers than his predecessor.

Meanwhile, legislative changes last year made it a crime—punishable by two years’ imprisonment—for anyone who works in one of the Australian refugee prisons to publicly disclose anything they see while working there. That includes reporting the sexual abuse of children. Reporting on any element of the ‘border-protection’ edifice that the government wants kept secret is also a crime punishable by imprisonment. From time to time, some workers do speak out. But they are so few in number, and what they say is so unwelcome, that they are received by many Australians with the scepticism with which most whistle-blowers are received in this country: what personal axe is this person grinding? Why is this person so disgruntled? Is this person a loose cannon? In part due to the high degree of domain legitimacy in Australia, whistle-blowers are instinctively seen by most of us as troubled, not brave. There is of course a truth to this in some cases—by the time a person has made the (career-ending and possibly criminal) decision to speak publicly, the months or years of official obstruction they’ve encountered has probably worked to drive them a bit nuts.

There are now extensive industries that support both the terrible Australian refugee prison camps on Manus Island and Nauru, and the maximum-security prisons for (mainly) Aboriginal children in Australian states and territories. Multinational security corporations bid for lucrative contracts to manage the prisons, and other companies (including superannuation trustees) buy their well-performing shares. Media corporations run a staple of falsehoods and fear mongering that boosts their sales. Civil-society organisations take contracts to ‘help’ imprisoned asylum seekers. Thousands and thousands of public servants now spend their days devoted to ensuring the secrecy of the worst aspects of Australia’s ‘border protection’ regime. All of these people have choices. No public servant is so hard up for work that they need to take a gig in the people-smuggling or immigration-detention sections of either the Department of Immigration or the Department of Foreign Affairs. The survival of newspapers does not depend on publishing lies about children and refugees. Shareholders can divest themselves of prison stocks, as the experience of oil-company divestment in response to climate change has shown.

The problem is our willingness to incarcerate in the first place. In these budget-conscious times it’s a willingness that is economically indefensible. Australia is paying Nauru and Papua New Guinea billions of dollars every year to imprison a few hundred refugees. It costs up to $600,000 to keep a single child in a juvenile detention centre for a year. Neither of those figures incorporates the broader costs to society—costs borne by family members; by society at large when a prisoner fails to ‘reform’ and commits additional crimes upon his release; by the states when compensation claims and other lawsuits must be defended and then settled; by the health and education systems that must ultimately deal with traumatised people who have been brutalised by their incarceration.

We know that the people to whom we are doing this are those most in need of a trauma-informed response—to short-circuit their criminal behaviour, to help people recover from years of abuse and persecution. We know that locking kids up doesn’t rehabilitate them (in fact, it makes them slightly more likely to reoffend upon their release, all other things being equal). We know that locking up innocent people who have fled war and persecution only heaps trauma upon trauma. We tell ourselves that the incarceration is justified, but it’s not—economically, morally, ethically, criminologically, behaviourally or according to any principles of justice outside of pure, unadulterated retribution. The irony is that, as we traumatise people who have already suffered immense trauma (we know that the vast majority of children—and adults—who commit violent crimes have first been victims of horrific child abuse and/or neglect), we are unnecessarily opening the state to compensation claims. And we are increasing the likelihood that there will be more victims of trauma-informed criminal behaviour in the future.

Two hundred years ago, ‘mere’ incarceration was seen as the humane alternative to the prevailing criminal-justice regime, which tortured the bodies of offenders as a matter of course. Incarceration accepts the possibility of rehabilitation. Jeremy Bentham argued that punishment, which by itself is an evil, can be justified so long as it produces a greater good. The problem is that we’ve since learned that incarceration, at least as we perform it in prisons and youth detention centres, in the main doesn’t rehabilitate and doesn’t deter. In fact, the only way incarceration prevents crime is by making it difficult for people to offend for the time they’re actually in prison.

Sixty years ago, the Western world agreed that never again would it respond as it did to the Jews who were fleeing the Nazis. The Refugee Convention, which facilitated the migration of refugees fleeing persecution, was drafted and signed, first by the Western democracies, then by many others. But Australia has now deleted all references to that convention from the Migration Act, which is supposed to ratify the convention in this country. Australia now routinely flies people seeking asylum to unsafe third countries (like Nauru and Papua New Guinea), or, even more unthinkably, returns them home to face persecution. Far too many people have died after being returned home by Australia. Australian governments have in recent years adopted an interpretation of the Refugee Convention that was first popularised by the American Right: that the convention was designed to respond to a specific refugee crisis (that of Jewish people fleeing the Nazis) and is inappropriate when applied to the sheer masses of twenty-first-century escapees from despotic and dictatorial regimes across Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

A majority of Australians either tacitly or enthusiastically support what is going on in detention centres. What explains this? I would like to believe it is ignorance that informs both the racism of people like Pauline Hanson and Sonia Kruger and many of the authors of Facebook posts and letters to the editors of News Corp tabloids, and also the tendency for liberal humanists to keep the problems out of sight and out of mind. General ignorance is one of the intended outcomes of the way we separate and confine detainees from the general population, and from journalists. The state incarcerates and we remain ignorant of all but the fact of incarceration, which is supposed to deter the rest of us from doing the wrong thing.

But our ignorance isn’t simply a product of the state’s desire to hide incarcerated bodies from us. Perhaps we actually prefer our ignorance. Four Corners made it impossible for both civil society and the democratic state to ignore the abuse taking place behind the walls of Don Dale any longer. But had the images not been beamed into the lounge rooms of millions of ordinary citizens, both civil society and the state were, it seems, prepared to tolerate it.

Most of the time, we prefer ignorance. Earlier this year, Academy Award–winning Australian filmmaker Eva Orner’s film about Australia’s ‘offshore’ refugee prisons was released in selected cinemas across the country. Chasing Asylum gives a rare voice to people who have worked inside the detention centres and were, presumably, risking criminal charges by speaking on camera: a former guard, a social worker, a former public servant and a young girl who answered a Salvation Army Facebook advertisement to go and ‘help’. Incredibly, the film also features footage from inside the centres, again captured unlawfully. I saw the film soon after its (very limited) release in one of Nova’s biggest cinemas on Lygon Street, Carlton. Melbourne’s inner north is the heartland of the progressive middle class (it’s responsible not only for electing Australia’s first Greens MP to the House of Representatives but for making that seat safe for the Greens), and Nova was clearly expecting a crowd. But the cinema was practically empty. And the day after The Guardian published the hundreds of leaked incident reports about the sexual abuse of children on Nauru, ABC Radio’s flagship AM program mentioned the story not once.

The government justifies its Pacific prisons by claiming they deter people from getting on boats and then drowning. But the only way that could be true is if we made people’s experiences on Nauru and Manus Island worse than their experiences at home or in refugee camps. We’re coming close to doing so. Eleven people have now suicided on Nauru and Manus Island. Four of them have done so by setting themselves alight: Australia now ranks among the administrations of Diem in South Vietnam and the Chinese Communist Party, against whom self-immolation has been used as a protest tactic by people so systematically and successfully oppressed that suicide is their last remaining option. A further two people have died because they didn’t get adequate medical treatment, and one man—Reza Barati—was violently killed. This latest chapter builds on a brutal history. Shayan Badraie was aged between five and seven when he was so traumatised by what he witnessed in desert detention centres, including Woomera, that he stopped eating, drinking and talking. (He has since received $400,000 in compensation.) A twenty-three-year-old Iranian asylum seeker raped on Nauru was refused medical treatment and began self-harming. Abyan, a Somali asylum seeker, was whisked out of Australia before she could consent to an abortion after she was brought here following her rape on Nauru in 2015. Another African asylum seeker was raped on Nauru this year. All of this, of course, builds on an even longer history of brutality against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who met their deaths in prisons at such alarming rates that a Royal Commission was called in 1987. Since it reported four years later, the rate of Aboriginal deaths in custody fell before rising again, commensurate with the astounding rate at which Aboriginal people are locked up in Australia.

That Australia incarcerates, punishes and tortures defenceless and deeply traumatised people—young men and women who have endured horrific and sustained child abuse; children, women and men who have survived persecution in their own countries—indicates that we are interested in something other than Bentham’s reasonable and justifiable responses to behaviour of which we don’t approve. It could be that we take some kind of pleasure in punishing these people to the point of torture. It’s not Bentham but Nietzsche who might provide the explanation for what we’re doing. When ‘mere’ incarceration began as a Quaker experiment two centuries ago, we knew almost nothing about human behaviour. Now we know a substantial amount. But still, we go on making things worse by inflicting cruelty on bodies and minds that desperately need the cruelty to end.

Why does the democratic state punish children it has failed and refugees who seek protection? This is a phenomenon that must be explained in terms of its present arc, which began in the 1970s: until then, the democratic state increasingly accepted that punishment for its own sake was unlikely to produce the benefits it sought (the protection of property and life). But as the state has retreated from its role as a regulator of business and capital, it has intensified its surveillance of individuals and instituted a culture of compliance that encourages the drawing of lines and control of boundaries. It follows that we then employ brutal gatekeepers and encourage retributive punishment. A la Foucault, crime and ‘irregular migration’ are produced as objects of surveillance and used as markers of division and control: this must be true because, knowing what it knows, the state clearly doesn’t intend for these measures to eliminate crime. We know that the more trauma we inflict on an individual, the less likely it is that that individual will participate in the economy as a productive contributor, and the more likely that she or he (and her or his family) will cost the state—in welfare payments, health costs, compensation claims and opportunity costs. Rather, many of the state’s agents—citizens—increasingly take pleasure in the state’s use of mechanical restraint chairs, solitary confinement and harsh, remote, equatorial ‘detention’, all of which becomes a very useful distraction from the democratic state’s retreat from its core responsibilities to its citizens.

But this analysis can only exist in the pages of a consciously left-wing magazine. Neither Nietzsche nor Foucault is well known to a general readership, who, if they’re not being whipped into a frenzy by tabloid papers and stations, are being fed (on the ABC and in The Guardian and the Fairfax press) a decontextualised diet of isolated facts bound by heavily distorted notions of political ‘balance’ and cogency.

Nietzsche may have overreached when he said that madness in nations is the rule rather than the exception, but it’s true that whole cultures can go insane. Locking up traumatised kids and refugees may be part of a logic of control and surveillance, but it’s a logic that is damaging for all, and surely it is mad if judged by standards of ordinary human decency. If Nazi Germany was the maddest, it is only because of scale: the madness that infected the Ottomans in Armenia, or the Rwandan Hutus, or Islamic State was and is no less extreme. What is it but madness, surely, that causes a nation to defend its citizens’ right to own guns in the face of a gun homicide rate that is 160 times greater than that of comparable nations? Or that causes an entire species to rush ever faster towards its own climate-initiated demise, just so that it can maintain its present mode of consumption? Or that causes a nation of twenty-three million collectively wealthy people to be so threatened by a few hundred (or a few thousand) other people who are seeking refuge from war and persecution that they imprison them on the remotest of Pacific islands for eternity?

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