Indefinite Detention Doesn’t Deter Asylum Seekers

According to news reports, a vessel carrying 17 asylum seekers landed on a crocodile-infested beach near Cape Kimberly on Sunday, August 26. Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton labelled the mishap a surveillance failure, while noting that “it’s a reminder that the people smugglers have not gone out of business.” Which makes you question the ongoing argument that locking people up indefinitely actually deters people smugglers. The go-to argument by Peter Dutton is that indefinite detention is all about stopping asylum seekers drowning at sea. The theory goes that if all the remaining asylum seekers on Nauru were to be brought to Australia, the people smuggling industry will be up and running again. In truth, people smuggling is still happening and hasn’t completely stopped. In fact, another boat attempted to arrive on Australian shores in June 2018, just under three months ago, according to this press release by the Australian Border Force. All this regurgitates the ethical question of whether we should be imprisoning those who are seeking asylum to save them from a likely drowning at sea? In light of recent events, I really don’t think this kind of deterrence crosses the minds of those fleeing countries ravaged by war or dictatorial governments.

If we go back to the 17 asylum seekers who landed in far north Queensland, they are “believed to be” from Vietnam, according to this ABC article. This possibility is not shocking considering Vietnam’s one-party rule system of government, as well as their record on human rights violations. Human Rights Watch are calling on the Australian government to pressure the Vietnamese government into releasing political prisoners and detainees; ending repression of free speech, association, and assembly; and taking steps to end police brutality. Considering this, would a political activist fleeing persecution in Vietnam stop and think about the possibility of being imprisoned? I think they would just want to get the fuck out of their country.

Photo by Pawel Janiak on Unsplash

Personal considerations aside, the real life of asylum seekers on Nauru is anything but pleasant — which is ironic because that’s the former name of this island nation. On August 26, a whistleblower warned that refugee children on Nauru are Googling how to kill themselves. In June, a 14-year-old attempted to set herself alight after dousing her body in petrol. Another, in the same month, ingested “sharp objects” that were reported to be fencing wire. What else do you expect from people dislocated from their own country, forcibly held in a detention centre on a tiny Island 2,500 kilometres east of Papua New Guinea? It’s so tiny that it could fit into Sydney’s Botany Bay if you remove the nearby airport runways. You could fit ten Nauru islands into Port Phillip Bay and have plenty of water in between each island. There’s only so much for asylum seekers to explore before they reach another grand view of the Pacific Ocean. On top of the complete isolation from any fully-functioning democracy, as well their limited walking space, they have the locals to contend with. And they either seem helpful with the endeavors or are a little pissed off at their mere presence. It seems to change every week. And yet, despite all this solitude and shifting local rapport, the only choices they’re given is to either go back to their own country or stay on the island. It’s a cruel joke.

So, what do we do? Do we process them and settle all the good ones into Australia? If we do that, then we may have to up the ante on our border force, which means extra funding. Of course, the government could attempt to do it in secret, creating less media coverage and in turn less need for extra funding. We could set up processing centres in affected countries, which equally costs money but can disturb the draw-card for people smugglers. We could even send in diplomats to affected countries to help alter regimes and put the government back on the right track, giving little reason for people to seek asylum. Or we could keep them there in hopes that one day we could properly stop the boats and possibly all those deaths at sea. But, let’s be honest, deterring people smugglers is not a proper reason because it will never stop. We will always seek a better life when we’re face-to-face with the most difficult of circumstances, even if that means death.

Photo by pixpoetry on Unsplash

Displacement is a real issue to many people, who all migrate for various reasons. They’re like birds who will fly away at the sound of a gunshot or at the scent of something fresh. They will migrate to the warmer climates in the winter and to the cooler climates in the summer. Sometimes they will do it under the harshest of circumstances and sometimes they’ll do it as a selfless act for their children.

So what’s the point of locking them up on an island, then? Surely it’s not for their livelihood, where they see no real prospect of a proper education, fulfilling aspirations and traveling to exotic places. If it’s not that, then the only other reason is purely inhumane. And we the Australian people are paying for it.