- Julian Burnside on Australia's asylum seeker response
I wanna go straight into the facts. When people seeking asylum approach Australia by boat, they typically arrive at Christmas Island. At Christmas Island, they are immediately examined by a member of the Department of Immigration. And they're not allowed to change or clean themselves up before their first interview.
They have typically been on a boat for five or six days. They have typically suffered during the voyage, because typically they come from landlocked countries and have never been on the ocean before. They are typically exhausted. And very often soiled with their own excrement because they've been unable to wash or change their clothes for the entire voyage.
In those humiliating circumstances they are then examined by a member of the Department of Immigration to see whether or not they will be allowed to seek a protection visa. If a person arrives on Christmas Island and they have a medical prosthesis of any sort – hearing aid, spectacles, false limbs, or anything of the sort – those things are taken from them and not returned. If they have any medications on them, those medications are taken and not returned. One person spends their day popping pills out of blister packs into a rubbish bin for later disposal. If they have any medical documentation on them, that documentation is taken from them and not returned. The consequence of this is fairly easy to see.
I'm informed very reliably of one case on Christmas Island where a man was showing all of the symptoms of some kind of psychosis. He was suffering terrible migraine headaches and behaving very erratically. It turned out on investigation that he was almost blind and that his spectacles had been taken from him and so he'd been staggering around on the island for weeks. Almost blind, almost incapable of seeing anything, and that was generating migraine headaches, which resulted in his strange behaviour.
Another, and I have this report directly from one of the doctors on Christmas Island, another was a woman who had been on Christmas Island for two or three weeks. She was exhibiting psychotic behaviour; no one could understand what was wrong because of course there was no medical documentation and she had no medication with her. It turned out that she was examined by a doctor or questioned by a doctor, but the doctor was having trouble understanding what the problem was. Part of the reason for that was that the doctor and the patient were on opposite sides of the desk; the interpreter was at the other end of a telephone sitting in an office in Sydney. Not an ideal way of taking a person’s history. She was only allowed ten minutes, but she prevailed on the Immigration Department to allow her to have more than ten minutes to examine the patient.
She eventually worked out that the problem was this: the woman was incontinent of urine. When her clothes had been taken from her, and she was issued with fresh clothes, they didn't give her any underwear. She couldn't leave her room because she would have urine running down her leg and it was driving her crazy. The doctor was able to persuade the Immigration Department to provide incontinence pads. At first they refused and then they allowed that they would provide four per day – not enough; she has to queue up and ask for more as she needs them – but the sense of humiliation was driving her crazy. It's not hard to understand why. It is hard to understand why we are prepared to treat anyone in such a humiliating way.
So that's Christmas Island. Those who are assessed as probably having reasonable refugee claims are then detained, and the detention…You've all heard of indefinite detention. It's worth understanding what indefinite detention actually means. It means detention for as long as it takes to assess the person's claim, and if you have any doubts about that, consider the case of Ahmed Al-Kateb. He was a boat person, who came to Australia. He was in Woomera, this was back in 2002 or 03; he was in Woomera. He was rejected, at first instance. And he knew that he could appeal the rejection, and would very likely have succeeded on appeal. But it would've meant spending another nine or 12 months in Woomera and he couldn't bear that. And so he said, look, just remove me. Remove me from Australia. I'll sign any documents that are necessary.
The Migration Act says that a non-citizen who does not have a visa must be detained and must remain in detention until they get a visa, or until they're removed from Australia. Well, he couldn't get a visa, they had refused it, and he couldn't be removed from Australia because he was stateless. So what do you do with an anomalous case like that? He hasn't committed any offence. He's not thought to be a harm, a risk to anyone, but he's a non-citizen without a visa, and he can't be removed.
The Howard Government argued all the way to the High Court that he could remain in detention for the rest of his life. That was the argument they made. And by a majority of four to three, in August of 2004, the High Court decided that that's what the Migration Act means and with that meaning it is constitutionally valid in Australia.
What horrifies me the most about that case is that any government that claims to be civilised would be prepared to argue that an innocent human being could be detained for life. It's worth remembering that right now we have about 50 people assessed as refugees who are still in detention. They're in detention because ASIO has assessed them adversely on security grounds.
The most prominent of these is a Sri Lankan woman called Ranjini. Ranjini is a Tamil, her now-dead first husband was a Tamil, was a driver for the Tamil Tigers, but he was shot by the Rajapaksa Government. That's primarily the reason that Ranjini was assessed by us as a refugee, because she would be at risk of persecution, if she was returned to Sri Lanka.
But then ASIO stepped in, and assessed her adversely. Now when ASIO assesses a person adversely, no one is allowed to know the reasons for the adverse assessment, so it's almost impossible to appeal it because, although in legal theory it's appealable, it's very hard to appeal against a decision when you don't know the foundation of the decision, and ASIO refuses to disclose the reasons.
But during the Margaret Stone Review process, we learned a little bit by reading between the lines about why it is that Ranjini was adversely assessed, and it turns out adverse assessment just means that you may be a risk to our national security interests.
Our national security interests includes our interest in the national security of other governments. And it turns out, as best we can figure it, that Ranjini is adversely assessed by ASIO because if she returned to Sri Lanka, she may represent a risk to the Rajapaksa Government. The very same facts which make her refugee also condemn her to the rest of her life in immigration detention in Australia. That's a hell of a way of providing protection to a person.
It is worth knowing that, as a fact, we have more than a thousand children in immigration detention in Australia right now. These facts are mostly suppressed – or not suppressed, they're hidden from us by the government. They're not prominent in the media as they ought to be.
We, a country who claim to value the ideals of a fair go. We, who claim to be a generous country. We, who are not exactly crowded for space. We are imprisoning over a thousand children because they were brought here by their parents in an attempt to escape persecution in countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
Of course, recently, the Pacific Solution was reinvigorated. On Nauru, conditions are even worse now than they were in Pacific Solution Mark One. In December 2013, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees delivered a report on the conditions in Nauru. Let me read to you just a few minor extracts from that report.
The transfer of asylum seekers to what are currently harsh and unsatisfactory temporary facilities in a closed detention setting, and in the absence of a fully functional legal framework does not currently meet the required protection standards. A great deal of proprietary work needs to be done before it can be concluded that a functional, fair and effective system for refugee status determination is in place.
The current uncertainty about responsibilities for different aspects of processing and ongoing delays in the commencement of such processing are likely to have a significant and detrimental impact on the mental and physical health of asylum seekers transferred from Australia to Nauru.
That's the UNHCR. Our government waved that aside.
Amnesty International reported at about the same time. They said, the headline was: Nauru camp – a human rights catastrophe with no end in sight. This is paid for by us. Not the report, the human rights catastrophe. Amnesty International has found a toxic mix of uncertainty, unlawful detention and inhumane conditions creating an increasingly volatile situation on Nauru, with the Australian Government spectacularly failing in its duty of care to asylum seekers.
That's what Amnesty and the UNHCR said about Nauru in December of last year. Now, of course, since then the rule of law in Nauru is completely broken down. There's only two judicial officers in Nauru. There's the magistrate and there's the chief justice. The magistrate made a decision in relation to some asylum-seekers that didn't please the Nauruan Government. And so the Nauruan Government moved to deport the magistrate, who's a national of Australia.
The chief justice of Nauru, who lives in Melbourne and is a retired Supreme Court judge from Victoria, the chief justice of Nauru heard about this and issued an injunction to restrain the Nauruan Government from deporting the magistrate. The government of Nauru deported the magistrate notwithstanding the injunction. And then, when the chief justice of Nauru tried to leave Melbourne and go to Nauru, in order to fix the situation, the government of Nauru cancelled his visa. So he was excluded from the country of which he is chief justice. He has subsequently resigned from his position, because he regards the political situation there as incompatible with the maintenance of the rule of law.
Australia has been curiously silent about the collapse of the rule of law in Nauru because of course it suits Australia for there to be no robust legal framework by which adverse refugee status determinations can be tested or by which any breaches of human rights can be corrected.
Things are worse, of course, on Manus Island, a part of Papua New Guinea. In December, UNHCR said, amongst other things, this: UNHCR was deeply troubled to observe that the current policies, operational approaches and the harsh physical conditions on Manus Island do not comply with international standards, and in particular constitute arbitrary and mandatory detention under international law. Do not provide a fair, efficient and expeditious system for assessing refugee claims. Do not provide safe and humane conditions of treatment in detention. And do not provide for adequate and timely solutions for refugees.
They then go on to make very critical observations about the fact that there are no real refugee status determination processes in place. And interestingly, the first people transferred from Australia to Manus Island went there in November of 2012, and so far, no refugee status determinations have been made. And you may put that together with the fact that when the Pacific Solution Mark Two was introduced by the Gillard Government, don't forget, the government announced that they would all be subject to the no advantage principle. The no advantage principle which is said to mean that you won't get through the process any quicker merely by having got on a boat and fled to Australia. And what that means is that people are being told, when they're put ashore on Nauru and Manus Island, they're told: you'll probably be here for at least five years. No wonder the refugee status determination process is being slowed down to such a glacial pace. Amnesty said, at the same time, of Manus Island: this system of harsh conditions and humiliating treatment is a deliberate effort to pressure people to return to the desperate situations they have fled from.
Australia is directly responsible for this deplorable and unlawful combination of arbitrary detention and inhumane conditions. What a pity that the mainstream media don't make something more of the fact that billions of dollars a year of your taxes are being spent brutalising people who've done nothing worse than seek safety in Australia. That is exactly what we're doing. We're deliberately treating them badly so that they'll return to whatever tyranny they have fled.
And I would ask all of you to reflect on this: do you want to be part of a country which tries to make itself look nastier than the Taliban or the Rajapaksa regime? That is the logic of the policy of deterrence. We want people to think: if drowning isn't enough to put them off, or the risk of drowning isn't enough to put them off, then the way they will be mistreated when they get here will tip the balance and persuade them not to try and seek safety in Australia.
I want to be very careful on the next thing I say, because we all know Godwin's Principle says that it only takes, what, three minutes or something before people who object to the government's treatment of refugees to start talking about Nazi Germany, and I do not draw any parallels between the Holocaust on the one hand and Australia's current policy in relation to refugees on the other. However, it is worth bearing in mind a couple of things. First of all, the notion of concentration camps does not come from Germany in the 1940s; it comes from the Boer war, Lord Kitchener introduced them. And concentration camps only became slave labour camps and death camps during the Nazi regime from about 1940 onwards.
Second, the things that led to concentration camps becoming death camps were a natural outworking of the Nuremberg Laws, which were passed progressively in Germany from 1933 onwards. And bear in mind that what we're doing at the moment is deliberately mistreating people who have committed no offence by coming here, have committed no offence by seeking asylum and who, as far as we are aware, do not represent any sort of threat to us. People, moreover, who in 90% of cases over the last decade or two, 90% or more have turned out, on assessment, to be refugees legally entitled to protection, so we're mistreating people who are very likely refugees fleeing persecution.
Compare that with the things that were done under the Nuremberg Laws in Germany. In April 1933, the Civil Servants Act provided that only Aryans could be employed as civil servants. In May 1933, there were public book burnings of non-Aryan literature. In July 1933, forced sterilisation became possible based on racial criteria. In 1935, Jews were prohibited from bathing in public together with Aryans.
In September 1935, Jews and Gypsies became second-rate citizens without full civil rights. In November 1938, Jews were prohibited from going to the movies, theatres and art exhibitions. Jewish children were excluded from German schools and then Kristallnacht, which was 9 November 1938, probably represents a point of distinct change. In December 1938, Jews were prohibited from having driving licences, and in January ’39, they were required to carry identification.
None of those steps, bad though they are, none of them is as bad as indefinite detention. Without trial, without offence, without prospect of release. And then deliberate mistreatment in another country to which you been forcibly transported. You know, if you want to look for moral parallels, the fact is that we're further down the track than Germany was in 1938. And anyone with an instinct for philosophy will tell you that punishing innocent human beings in order to shape the conduct of other human beings is morally reprehensible, and that's why we're doing it. We are doing it ostensibly to persuade other people not to try and come to Australia and seek our help. That's why we are mistreating innocent human beings.
How do we get away with it? How do we justify to ourselves this sort of wilful mistreatment of innocent people? It's based, I think, on two lies and an interesting little bit of psychology. The two great lies are, first, calling them illegal. It is false. It carries with it the necessary implication that they've committed some sort of offence. And then if you couple it with the rhetoric which we've experienced in the last few years, things like if they're to be put in the community, they shouldn't be placed near vulnerable people or children. The renaming of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. The fact that we've now got a military operation called Operation Sovereign Borders. All of this is calculated to make the public think: these are dangerous criminals and the government is protecting us from them.
Now, if it were true, I would support most of what the government is doing. But it's a lie. They aren't illegal in any relevant sense. They haven't broken any law. They are not criminals, they're not dangerous. We cannot conceivably justify mistreating innocent human beings. I wonder how anyone, in good conscience, would justify jailing more than a thousand children, for the purpose of persuading other people not to bother coming and asking for our help. How do you call a child illegal? How do you suggest that a child is a dangerous criminal? But that's the lie on which the policy is based, in my opinion.
The second lie, a much more subtle and devious one, is that we're really worried about people drowning in their attempt to escape to Australia. I do not believe that for a minute. The politicians cry crocodile tears. They do not care if people drown. They probably wish that all of them drowned. That would save us a lot of trouble. The reason you can tell that they don't care about people drowning comes from two things. First: when the Pacific Solution Mark Two was introduced after the expert panel delivered a report, one of the submissions which had been made, notably by Malcolm Fraser, was that if your…I'll go back a step. The terms of reference to the expert panel was to suggest policy settings which would avoid the risk of refugees drowning in an attempt to reach Australia. That's a very narrow terms of reference. Malcolm Fraser put a proposal that we should cooperate with Indonesia and create a processing centre in Indonesia, which would be followed by a promise of swift, safe resettlement to Australia or to other countries that participated in the arrangement.
Sure as anything, that would've stopped people from drowning. It would've involved us cooperating with Indonesia, which may be a challenge; we've shown no appetite for it so far. But it would've stopped people drowning. Now what do we do? Will we wait till they arrive in Australia safely, and after they've survived the perils of the sea, we mistreat them. As if to punish them for not drowning, or to send a warning to other people, not only do you run the risk of drowning, you run the risk of being punished by us when you come.
Second reason I think it's a lie. The current government have said that they intend to reintroduce temporary protection visas. Temporary protection visas have two striking features, both of which are unattractive. The first is that a person recognised as a refugee gets the benefit of protection for three years only. At the end of three years, they have to prove that they are still a refugee. That means they can't put down roots in their new community, and obviously, makes life tenuous for them.
But the second and more brutal condition is this: family reunion is forbidden to holders of temporary protection visas. Now if the man of the family steps out first, and that is the typical way it is done, the man of the family steps out first, arrives in Australia, he's assessed as a refugee and gets a temporary protection visa. Naturally, most people want to have their family with them. And, if he's a refugee, it's almost certain that his wife and children are refugees on the same basis. Almost certain, but they can't rejoin him. Even though they would be assessed as refugees if they arrived here. They can't rejoin him because he's on a temporary protection visa, he can't apply for family reunion. Therefore, there is only one way the family can be reunited, and that is for the wives and children to use a people smuggler. Now, some of you will remember that on 19 October 2001, a boat later called the Siev X sank on its way to Australia. Three hundred and fifty-three people drowned, most of them women and children, and most of them women and children whose menfolk were living in Australia on temporary protection visas. Temporary protection visas give the lie to the idea that the government is concerned about people drowning. It creates a positive incentive for people to use people smugglers.
Now, why does all this work? Why bother calling them illegals? Now I heard a very brilliant talk by a very brilliant young man who happens to be a Hazara from Afghanistan, and who was Young Australian of the Year last year, Akram Aziz. Now, he's got three degrees, I think he's extraordinarily clever, and he was speaking about empathy. We all understand empathy. You know? It's the sense that, you know, I know what it's like to be in that person's position. But it turns out that empathy has two characteristics, or two flavours if you like: epistemic empathy and normative empathy.
And he illustrated the distinction this way: he says imagine you come home one day and you walk in and you discover the front door is open, and you discover that there's a stranger in the kitchen, and the biscuit barrel is on the floor, broken to pieces, and the stranger has a cut hand. And you say, what the dickens are you doing in my kitchen? And at that point, the story takes two different paths.
First, he says: Well, I was walking down the street, I was feeling a bit hungry and I thought I'd come in and find some food, I broke into your biscuit barrel and I've cut my hand, have you got a Band-Aid? Now, everyone can understand what it's like to have a cut hand and need a Band-Aid, but no one's gonna feel strongly inclined to offer help beyond what the police can offer. The alternative workout, that's epistemic empathy. Okay?
The second workout is this: He says, look, I'm so sorry, I was walking along the street, I'm a diabetic, I could feel myself going into a diabetic coma, I didn't have my EpiPen. I saw the front door was open and I came in and called out, but I couldn't find anyone. So I looked through the kitchen because thought I'd find the sugar bowl. I couldn't see the sugar bowl, but I saw the biscuits. And I was already trembling, and I'm afraid I've broken the biscuit barrel. I managed to eat one biscuit. Look, I've also cut my hand, I wonder if you've got a Band-Aid. Is there anyone who wouldn't want to help that person? That's normative empathy, because his conduct fits within our norms of proper conduct.
By describing or conveying the impression that boat people are dangerous criminals, then their coming here looks like the sort of insult that no one would respond favourably to. If only most Australians could meet asylum seekers and recognise that they are real human beings, fleeing terrors that we can scarcely imagine, then we would get a different response. And it's no great surprise that the government for years has been at pains to make sure that members of the public have great difficulty seeing or identifying any of the people we are mistreating. Because once the public see these are real vulnerable human beings, then you shift from epistemic empathy to normative empathy and our response will be utterly different and our instinct would be to protest against the mistreatment of these people.
So that's my way of explaining it. I have been thinking about this for a long time. I could be wrong about it. But I think that this is as close to it as I'm likely to get.
Now, Jill, I know, did explain a little bit about the origins of my topic. And I wonder, it is written by James Thurber. Some of you, I'm sure, will remember James Thurber. James Thurber was an American humourist writer during the McCarthyist era. And amongst many other things, he wrote two books of fables modelled on the style of Aesop's Fables. So they’re stories about little furry animals and they all have an explicit moral.
Now it's really difficult for the censors to say, well you can't write a story about ducks or lemmings or whatever. And so he actually got away with some really very profound observations and some quite politically critical observations, notwithstanding McCarthy and his efforts, but the very last of them is called the Shore and the Sea. And it's very short, and I'm just gonna read three paragraphs of it.
A single excited lemming started the exodus crying fire and running toward the sea. He may have seen the sunrise through the trees or awaked from a fiery nightmare. Or struck his head against a stone producing stars. Whatever it was he ran and ran. And as he ran he was joined by others. A mother lemming and her young. A nightwatch lemming on his way home to bed, and assorted revellers and early risers. The world is coming to an end, they shouted. And as the hurrying hundreds turned into thousands, the reasons for their headlong flight increased by leaps and bounds and hops and skips and jumps.
The devil has come in a red chariot, cried an elderly male. The sun is his torch, the world is on fire. It's a pleasure jaunt, squeaked an elderly female. What? she was asked. A treasure hunt, cried a wild-eyed male who had been up all night. ‘Full many a gem of purest ray serene the dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear.’ It's a bear, shouted his daughter. Go it! And there were those among the fleeing thousands who shouted Goats! and Ghosts! Until there were almost as many different alarms as there were fugitives.
One male lemming who had lived alone for many years refused to be drawn into the stampede that swept past his cave like a flood. He saw no flames in the forest, and no devil, or bear, or goat, or ghost. And so he watched the other lemmings leap into the air, into the sea and disappear beneath the waves, some crying, We are saved, and some crying, We are lost. The scholarly lemming shook his head sorrowfully, tore up what he had written through the years about his species, and started his studies all over again.
And as Jill told you, the moral of the story is all men should strive to learn before they die what they're running from, and to, and why. So, why is it that we are behaving like this? I wonder how many people here have heard of a little story by Ursula Le Guin called the Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas? It's an extraordinary story. It's really worth getting. And it paints this thesis that there is a society which is wealthy, happy, secure, contented. But the great qualities of the society depend crucially on one thing. There is one child, locked in a basement, held in agony and misery. And for as long as that child remains suffering, so the society can maintain its happiness. And everyone in the community knows about it because they are introduced to the vision of the child when they are adolescent. Often, the young people go home in tears or in a tearless rage when they have seen the child and faced this terrible paradox. They may brood over it for weeks or years. But as time goes on, they begin to realise that even if the child could be released, it wouldn't get much good of its freedom. A little vague pleasure of warmth and food, no doubt, but little more. It's too degraded and imbecile to know any real joy. It's been afraid too long ever to be free of fear. Its habits are too uncouth for it to respond to humane treatment. Indeed, after so long, it will probably be wretched without walls about it to protect it, and darkness for its eyes, and its own excrement to sit in.
Their tears of bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality and to accept it. Yet it is their tears and anger, the trying of their generosity, and the acceptance of their hopelessness, which are, perhaps, the true source of the splendour of their lives. Theirs is no vapid, irresponsible happiness. They know that they, like the child, are not free. They know compassion. It's the existence of the child and their knowledge of the existence that makes possible the nobility of their architecture, the poignancy of their music, the profundity of their science. It's because of the child that they are so genuine and gentle with children. They know that if the wretched one were not there sniffling in the dark, the other one, the flute player, could make no joyful music as the young riders line up in their beauty for the race. Now do you believe in them? Are they not more credible?
But there is one more thing to tell, and this is quite incredible. At times, one of the adolescent girls or boys who goes to see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Some also, a man or a woman, much older, fall silent for a day or two, and then leaves home. These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone. They keep walking and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates. They keep walking across the farmlands of Omelas. Each one goes alone, youth or girl, man or woman.
Night falls. The traveller must pass down village streets between the houses with yellow lit windows and on out into the darkness of the fields. Each, alone, they go west or north toward the mountains, they go on. They leave Omelas. They walk ahead into the darkness and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible it doesn't exist, but they seem to know where they're going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.
That seems to me to capture quite neatly the alternative presented to us if we think about Thurber’s aphorism that we should learn before we die what we're running from and to, and why. It's the why that I think is the hardest to work out. I think probably the explanation is that there is a disease in our polity which is characterised by the fact that we now have an extreme right wing government, and we have a weak, drifting opposition.
I was a writer's festival on the same platform with Malcolm Fraser some years ago, I think 2004 or 5. And at the end of my remarks, I expressed the wish that the next Labor prime minister of Australia should be Malcolm Fraser, which got a predictable laugh. Malcolm then got up to talk, and he thanked me for the compliment and said, of course it'll never happen. I'm too far to the left for them. Which is exactly right. And it's not because he shifted his position, it's because the entire political stage in Australia at least has shifted so far to the right, that the Labor Party is probably now best seen as a centre right party, and the Liberal National Party as a far right party.
And that then raises a real question about what can be done to repair the polity before we continue down the moral path which we've gone so far along. I had a few ideas. Politics is not my field; some of you may have much better ideas, and I'd be very glad to hear them. But one possibility: join a political party yourself. Reinvigorate the existing political parties with the sort of passion that makes people walk away from Omelas. The sort of passion which is whatever we're doing is wrong, no matter our reasons, it is wrong to mistreat innocent human beings. It's wrong to keep children in jails in order to persuade other people not to try and save their children from persecution.
Write to politicians. Flush them out. It is surprising how many of them just go along with the party line without ever exactly looking at what they are doing and why they're doing it. Force them to face up to the reality of the policies that they support or advocate or implement.
For those of you who are interested, on my website there is a very brief set of instructions about how to write to politicians. I think it's a mistake to write to them making a big speech. It's probably wrong to write to them trying to persuade them to see the world your way. But if you write to them asking just a couple of very simple questions, like do you believe asylum seekers are illegal? If so, what offence have they committed? Full stop. Yours faithfully. Actually question mark, yours faithfully.
You will get back two and a half pages written by a staffer. It will not answer your questions. And the trick then is to write again, and say Dear so-and-so, I'm in your electorate, I wrote you a letter asking two simple questions. You have not answered them, here they are again. And keep going as often as you have to repeat it. If they refuse more than three or four times to answer the questions, that gives you an answer in itself. And if they do answer it, then they'll be forced to face up to what they are doing. Anyway, on the website I've suggested a few fairly simple questions you might like to ask them.
Another possibility of course is to write to refugees and a number of you will be familiar with the Letters to Refugees programs. One of the things that that does, is that it helps refugees maintain some semblance of hope. And that is a decent thing to do for them. Another thing it does is help remind each of us when we get a letter that these are human beings. That what we are doing, we are doing to human beings.
I remember the extraordinary impact of a letter that I received from a bloke who was being held in Curtain Detention Centre or Port Hedland back in 2002, and he wrote profusely thanking me, expressing his gratitude for the letter he'd received and explaining a bit about his life in Iran. And at the end of the letter he said, please don't forget us, we are human.
That's a chilling thing to read. And especially when you're holding the written paper in your hand, and you know that this has been written by another person and he's asking us to remember he's a human being because of the way our government is treating him. Why should anyone in this country, at a time of prosperity and peace, why should anyone in this country have to ask us politely to remember that they are human.
Finally, don't give up. When I got into this caper in 2001, I thought no problem, as soon as everyone understands what's going on, it will all be fixed. I gave it two months, well I miscalculated. I actually think it's probably going to be the next generation that fixes it, not us. And my one fervent wish is that the next generation will see something in the national parliament that is the equivalent of the apology to the stolen generation, which we heard on the 13th of February 2008. But it will be too late for all of those who've suffered. An apology to those who were so badly mistreated will be a mark that we are improving as a society, but it won't help the people that we've punished in the meantime.
A lot of people say, well, what else can we do? What else can we do? Well, first of all I suppose you could say we could simply tolerate their arrival. The drowning, the risk of drowning, at least, is a natural filter. But if that's no good, here are a couple practical possibilities.
First, is it beyond the wit of our government to cooperate with the Indonesian government to set up a processing arrangement in Indonesia, or perhaps in Indonesia and Malaysia, so the people can be assessed there, the refugee claims can be assessed fairly and properly. And if they are assessed as refugees, resettlement that is swift and safe will be promised. At the same time, you can say to him, look, okay, we accept you're a refugee. You're a Hazar from Afghanistan, that makes it a 99% certainty you're a refugee. We accept that. We will resettle you safely in two and a half months, or in four months, or whatever is a reasonable time frame. In the meantime, don't get on a boat. You'll stop the drownings instantaneously.
Alternatively, if we find that refugees keep on turning up on our doorstep because we can't bring ourselves to cooperate with Indonesia after all, then what about this? Detain them initially, but cap it for one month at the most. That one month for initial health and security checks. Let me make it clear, I do not and never have advocated open borders. So, initial detention for initial health, preliminary health and security checks, and after that one month, for the balance of their refugee status determination process, release them into the community on a visa with a number of conditions. First, they must remain in touch with the department so that they don't disappear. Second, they are allowed to work. Third, they have access to Medicare and Centrelink benefits. Fourth, crucially, until their refugee status is determined, they must live in a specified regional city or town.
Now, if you imagine, and it does take a jump of imagination, but if you imagine that the record number of arrivals in 2012 is maintained, and it's already fallen away, but let's pretend the numbers continue. And if you imagine that every single one of them remains on the dole for the whole time that they are held, that would cost Australia about $500 million a year in settling payments. Of course, all of that money would go into the failing economies of regional towns, which, no doubt, would be to the great benefit of those towns because they're losing population to the coastal cities. Of course, the payments that they received if they all stayed on Centrelink, the payments would be used for accommodation, food, clothing, and so on, and I imagine that there are plenty of regional towns that would be quite happy to have that additional source of income.
So, $500 million. Is that too much to pay? Well, we are spending $5 billion a year at the moment mistreating them. What would you rather? I speak to you as taxpayers, would you rather spend $500 million treating them properly and making sure they'll all become grateful contributing members of the community or spend 10 times that amount mistreating them and betraying our national character?
I would have thought it's pretty easy whether you look at it on a moral or a fiscal basis. Either of those solutions is easily available, we just have to want to do it. And that's why I urge you, and urge you to urge your friends, to walk away from Omelas. Let's try and make this country the great country it used to be. Let's behave the way we believe ourselves to be. Thank you.
'How do we get away with it? How do we justify to ourselves, this sort of wilful mistreatment of innocent people.'
- Julian Burnside
About this video
Leading barrister and international human-rights advocate Julian Burnside AO, QC interrogates Australia's response to asylum seekers.
Here, Julian Burnside argues that Australia’s response to the arrival of a small number of asylum seekers has been hostile. He believes that Australians have placed themelves on a war footing to repel frightened, defenceless people, and asks what are we running from, and to, and why?
This event took place as part of the Big ideas under the dome lecture series, celebrating the Library’s iconic domed La Trobe Reading Room and its role in inspiring creativity and ideas.
Julian Burnside AO QC is an Australian barrister, human rights and refugee advocate, and author.
Julian practises principally in commercial litigation, trade practices and administrative law.
He is known for his staunch opposition to the mandatory detention of asylum seekers, and has provided legal counsel in a wide variety of high-profile cases.
Julian was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2009, 'for service as a human rights advocate, particularly for refugees and asylum seekers, to the arts as a patron and fundraiser, and to the law'.