In one of its first acts in government, the newly elected Labor government turned back a boatload of Sri Lankan asylum seekers trying to enter Australia.
Labor has vowed to continue Operation Sovereign Borders, which includes boat withdrawal and offshore detention. It is worth considering. Not only do the turnbacks violate international law, but offshore detention has resulted in torture and cruel and inhumane treatment of refugees.
Even more worrying is the lack of support Labor has received for continuing offshore detentions and turnbacks. Aside from being condemned by human rights groups and smaller political parties, Labour’s refugee policies have gone without much comment from a large section of the Australian public.
As I find in my new research paper, the Australian government has used three forms of denial, creating physical and psychological distance between itself and refugees.
It allows the federal government to promote illegal and harmful policies while proclaiming to uphold human rights.
Human rights abuses in offshore custody are well documented.
On Manus Island (in Papua New Guinea) and Nauru, refugees have suffered torture, inhumane detention, overcrowding, violence from guards, sexual assault and rape and mental harm. Children under the age of nine suffered severe depression and attempted suicide.
According to the latest figures from the Refugee Council, there are 112 people living in Nauru and just over 100 on Manus Island. Although New Zealand will now resettle many of them in the coming years, the Nauru detention center will remain open indefinitely.
How can Australia continue to promote itself as upholding human rights while upholding such policies?
One answer is that offshore detention has led to indifference to the suffering of refugees. Australia’s policy framework has been called “moral disorganization” by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture. This includes a “self-misleading denial of reality” by denying the wrongness, responsibility, or occurrence of a human rights violation.
These “self-misleading” strategies reduce the ethical dilemmas that arise from violations of human rights norms.
My research found that Australian federal governments use three forms of denial to seek refugees out of sight and out of mind – denial of responsibility, denial of fact, and denial of wrongdoing.
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3 types of denial
denial of responsibility
The government has denied its jurisdiction, denying responsibility for refugees in offshore detention. The term “jurisdiction” is distinct from sovereign territory. A state can have jurisdiction outside its sovereign territory when it exercises effective control over others.
It is important to show that a country has jurisdiction over others. It can help to hold states accountable for human rights abuses and establish responsibility for those who care for it.
The Australian government has argued that PNG and Nauru – which are not part of Australia – have jurisdiction over detention facilities and refugees in them. It claims that all of Australia provides financial and material assistance.
Such arguments make it difficult to hold Australia accountable. But they are also wrong. A Senate inquiry, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and human rights groups, have argued that Australia exercises effective control and shared jurisdiction with Nauru and PNG.
Denial of jurisdiction creates physical and psychological distance between themselves and refugees, helping to create apathy. Denial of responsibility makes human rights abuses someone else’s problem.
deny the fact
A second major strategy is the denial of fact. The Australian government, along with the governments of Nauru and PNG, have denied human rights abuses and made it difficult to trace what happens in offshore detention.
Human rights watchers and journalists have been banned or restricted in offshore custody.
Employees have been threatened with prosecution under confidentiality agreements if they speak publicly about detention treatments.
Operation Sovereign Borders has also been kept a secret. For example, it was common for coalition ministers and border force officials to refuse to answer questions in the media “on water matters”.
As Peter Young, the former mental health director of IHMS, a medical provider in immigration detention, put it: “Privacy is essential because these places are designed to harm”.
These policies make it difficult to know what happens in offshore detention. They also raise doubts about whether such damage is being done.
Along with “stopping boats”, the government has argued that offshore detention is necessary to save lives at sea.
When former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez criticized Australia for violating the United Nations Convention against Torture in 2015, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said
The most humane, most civilized, kindest thing you can do is to stop these boats because hundreds, we really think about 1200, drowned in the sea during the flourishing of smugglers under the former government Had gone.
This is a major tactic of self-deception. By arguing that the policy is saving lives, it focuses on the humanitarian goal of “saving lives” by diverting attention from harm caused to refugees.
Moral dilemmas about torture or abuse are pushed aside, and so are feelings of wrongdoing.
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The key to ending this illegal and harmful policy is to challenge these self-misleading strategies that have generated moral disinformation.
Other countries, such as the UK, are following in Australia’s footsteps by introducing offshore detention for asylum seekers. That means challenging strategies that deny reality – and widen our circle of empathy – are needed more than ever.
It is this indifference that is helping to maintain offshore detention. And this apathy needs to be challenged to respect international law and uphold the rights and dignity of refugees.