It’s deja vu all over again. People in detention centres self-mutilating, on hunger strikes, threatening suicide – it’s just like during the Howard years. Unlike back then, though, this isn’t taking place out at Woomera, in the middle of nowhere. It’s happening at Villawood in Sydney.
On Monday, a Fijian national jumped to his death to avoid deportation after his claim for asylum was denied. Yesterday and throughout last night other detainees climbed onto the roof and threatened to do the same. They also gashed their stomachs and spelled out ‘SOS’ with what looked like either towels or bedsheets on the lawn. After being up there overnight, they were finally persuaded to come down, at which point some where taken to hospital to be treated for dehydration and lacerations.
Today, another group is on the roof, threatening suicide. This time the people are Chinese nationals, including a pregnant woman.
All these people have demanded that their rejected asylum claims be re-assessed (or, in the case of an Iraqi national yesterday, processed). The government made it clear that they would not meet demands delivered under such circumstances.
Within an hour of the original suicide, the Coalition started doing the rounds of the media, each successive event only fuelling their rhetoric. Shadow Immigration spokesperson Scott Morrison was the major critic, speaking in print, on radio and on TV. Clearly, this was a failure of Labor’s asylum seeker policy, he argued. The boats are coming ‘in floods’, our borders are not safe, Labor has ‘sent a signal’ to people smugglers that Australia is ‘open for business’.
To make matters worse, Morrison asserted that if there hadn’t been so many boat arrivals, our detention centres would not be so badly crowded. ‘Obviously’ there was unacceptable psychological pressure at work on these protesters.
Hold on. Back up a moment there. How about some facts?
1. Villawood is not overcrowded. Morrison is attempting to obscure the issue by conflating the situation at Christmas Island (where there is a crowding problem) with that at Villawood.
2. With a couple of exceptions, the current protesters are not boat arrivals. Most arrived by plane on tourist or student visas and overstayed.
3. Again, with a few exceptions, the majority of the current protesters had already been processed, and deemed not to be genuine refugees. Contrary to what the Coalition implies, this is not a simple yes/no situation. Every claim is thoroughly checked, and a full appeals process is automatic.
4. The presence of boat-borne asylum seekers in Villawood in no way forces visa overstayers to take such extreme actions. For Morrison to suggest otherwise is not merely irresponsible, but actually inflammatory. There’s a wink and a nod to the ‘queue-jumper’ argument at work here; the Coalition would have us believe that a boat arrival is immediately advanced to the front of the processing queue, displacing those whose claims are already underway. This is simply not true.
See what Morrison is doing there? It’s called scapegoating. The people involved in the current situation have nothing to do with boat-borne asylum seekers; they arrived legally and attempted to circumvent the visa system by remaining in the country. Only after they were caught did they ask for asylum. Now, it’s perfectly possible that someone genuinely in need of asylum might become involved in the refugee system this way – but these people were processed, and found not to have credible claims. Morrison would have us believe that these are people who were robbed of their rights; and the culprits are the very asylum seekers who risk their lives to flee terrible situations in their home countries.
Morrison is running a line here that encourages all Australians to vilify those who are not in a position to speak for themselves. As Mac pointed out in his blog, it’s a deliberate campaign of dehumanisation that appeals to the basest, most xenophobic qualities in the Australian people.
Frankly, it’s disgusting.
In a way, none of us should be surprised that it’s come to this. The Coalition’s anti-‘boat people’ rhetoric has only ever grown more shrill – even as their spokespeople mutter words like ‘compassion’ and ‘fairness’, they’ve carefully crafted a narrative of grasping, sneaky ‘foreigners’ who want to take advantage of our prosperity and our basic good nature. Of potential terrorists who throw away their identification papers, who come with plans to radicalise our Muslim youth (already scapegoated and stereotyped) and bring the War on Terror to our cities. Of rich people who simply can’t be bothered waiting patiently in the ‘queue’, who force ‘real’ refugees to wait with saint-like patience in camps while their places are stolen away.
What we’re getting from Morrison right now is just the logical extension of this narrative. Once you accept all the above, it’s not a big step to believe that boat-borne asylum seekers might be responsible for someone’s suicide, and the events that follow from that.
What’s going on at Villawood is an extremely serious situation. The Fijian man who committed suicide, it now appears, knew that he would be deported. Counsellors had mentioned that he seemed depressed; no one, however, considered him a suicide risk. The government announced there would be an enquiry into his death, and rightly so – but to claim he was pressured into jumping because of the presence of asylum seekers is reprehensible. It completely obscures the man himself, co-opting his pain for the purposes of making a political point.
In a way, Morrison is dehumanising that Fijian man just as thoroughly as he is asylum seekers. The difference is in the spin; the Fijian was a desperate man victimised by an incompetent government and ‘illegal’ ‘boat-people’, while asylum seekers are evil connivers who are so dangerous that they can cause someone to kill themselves.
This is the kind of talk that led to the Cronulla riots. Morrison here is approaching the actions of Alan Jones in that situation, who whipped up a frenzy against ‘Muslim youth’. Unlike Jones, Morrison is stopping short of actually advocating that ‘Aussies’ take to the streets – but then, does he really need to go that far anyway? We’ve all seen how that kind of xenophobic talk can be read as permission to act by those who are inclined to do so – against Muslims, family planning clinics, the list goes on.
Morrison’s been all over the media. He should get out there again – and this time, apologise for his lies and his xenophobic hate-mongering.
Then he should call up that Fijian man’s family, and apologise to them for turning his death into a political bludgeon.
After that, he should fade to the back bench until he learns how to be an ethical human being.