Refugees need more compassion and less misguided resolve | Brad Chilcott | Opinion
Former Australian Border Force Commissioner Roman Quaedvlieg had quite a bit of time to ponder the “vexed issue of Border Protection” and the “inarguably … almost insoluble mess of the Pacific Solution”. Last week, responding to Labor MP Ged Kearney’s first speech in federal parliament, Quaedvlieg revealed his perspective on the seemingly intractable political equation facing the Labor party – how to communicate its commitment to stopping dangerous people smuggler boat journeys while at the same time demonstrating a progressive, just and moral response to global forced migration. The solution, he seems to be suggesting, is that Labor should follow the Liberal government’s example of “compassion and resolve.”
However, Quaedvlieg also reveals that he knows “compassion and resolve” is not the example the government has set at all.
Quaedvlieg reminds his readers of the suicide on Manus Island of Salim Kyawning, a Rohingya man found to be a refugee who suffered from epilepsy and severe psychological illness. He states that the conditions of Manus Offshore Processing Centre have an “exacerbating impact on pre-existing psychological trauma incurred in their countries of origin or during the privations they suffered while fleeing that persecution” and that, even with the hope of resettlement, “after enduring the conditions … for many years” Salim couldn’t endure any longer and took his own life.
Here we see the reality – the Commissioner of Australian Border Force knew the conditions of detention were destroying the mental health of Salim and others but, it must be assumed, considered this human cost proof of “resolve”. The six other men to die in detention on Manus Island add to the evidence of Australia’s great resolve.
Where do we find the “compassion” side of Quaedvlieg’s equation?
It wasn’t present when no one thought to notify Salim’s wife of his passing, resulting in her finding out her husband had died when a volunteer with the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre called to offer condolences.
It wasn’t compassion that led to the cancellation of torture and trauma counselling available to refugees on Manus Island.
It certainly wasn’t compassion that drove the government’s home affairs department to argue in federal court against moving a suicidal 10 year-old boy with a long-term health condition requiring surgery to Australia from Nauru to save his life. Only a federal court judge enabled this child to experience any kind of compassion while in Australia’s care.
What kind of “resolve” required a 70 year-old man with a heart condition to wait 20 days for a doctors appointment? Where was compassion when doctors were begging Australian Border Force to move a 63 year-old terminally ill man with lung cancer away from the “dangerously inadequate” conditions on Nauru?
When Manus Offshore Processing Centre was closed and 400 of its occupants were forced to move into a new camp designed for 280 people, was this compassion, resolve or the kind of mismanagement that precipitates from systematic dehumanisation?
100 people currently in Australia from Nauru and Manus Island for medical treatment – including families, pregnant women and elderly people – found out exactly what the compassion and resolve equation means for them. They have been informed by the Australian government that they will shortly lose their homes and all income support. The government seems to be resolved to forcing them into destitution.
Quaedvlieg suggests that the minister for home affairs, Peter Dutton, “has been desperate to find a solution for the blistering Pacific Solution” and that none in the government ever “envisaged any single asylum seeker being in a Pacific purgatory for this length of time”.
The evidence above, as well as that in UNHCR, Amnesty reports and Senate committee enquires, suggest however that blisters have intentionally and unnecessarily been added to the suffering of those living in an indefinite purgatory of Australian design.
While it is possible to understand both the realpolitik and humanitarian motivations behind the determination to prevent people smuggling boat journeys to Australia, the gratuitous cruelty and cold indifference to human suffering is incomprehensible. To use Quaedvlieg’s words, they are a “weeping sore on Australia’s collective psyche”.
In the lead up to a rescheduled national conference, Ged Kearney and others within the Labor party will rightly argue that there are alternatives to the brutality with which Australia’s current refugee policy is practiced. The experience at Victoria’s state Labor conference this weekend foreshadows some of the challenges they may face. In the meantime, minister Dutton could take his former Commissioner’s advice and commit to practicing a modicum of compassion. Perhaps no more lives will need to be lost for the sake of his misdirected resolve.
• Brad Chilcott is the founder of Welcome to Australia
• Comments on this article have been pre-moderated to ensure the discussion is on the topics that have been written about in the article.