Opinion: Australia’s dirty secret

A few weeks ago, as I was getting onto the tube I walked past the stand for the Evening Standard, the cover was unlike the usual shaming of politicians and celebrity gossip. It showed a shocking photograph of a father and daughter that drowned crossing the Mexican border, blasted with the headline “The picture that shames America”. As I looked around the tube passengers were shaking their heads, visibly upset at what was an ultimate betrayal of human rights.

While I was infuriated with the Trump administration’s inhumanity, I was further maddened by the uneven media coverage given to government’s responses to the ‘refugee crisis’. Just a day before, an asylum seeker on the Australian off-shore processing centre of Manus Island set himself alight after being denied asylum to Australia. The response? The Papua New Guinea (PNG) police charged him with arson and attempted suicide.

On the global stage Australia is morally righteous, condemning breaches of human rights worldwide, yet domestically they are guilty of breaching those very same rights themselves, creating a hypocritical situation. Living in the UK I am constantly bombarded with the “Oh you’re Australian! How cool!” and the “I love Australia!” but our reputation as a fun loving and welcoming country is increasingly unfounded. I am no longer proud to be an Australian and I feel uncomfortable fielding peoples enthusiastic responses. And I wish the world would see why.

That 30 year old man who attempted suicide in Australia’s care is just one case in a long list of manifestations concerning inhumane treatment towards people seeking safety and a new life in our country. The situation is so bad that our asylum seeker policy has been time and time again condemned by human rights groups, declared a human rights emergency by Amnesty International and labelled by the UN as breaching the UNDHR.   

Briefly, our history of unlawfully detaining asylum seekers began in the 1990s when Cambodians began arriving by boat, seeking a better life. The then Labor Government’s (mainstream centre left) response was to detain these people and it was deemed to be largely in line with our constitution. As the numbers of asylum seekers increased, the laws became stricter. Rights began to be limited and their access to Australian tribunals and courts was restricted.

The legacy of our asylum seeker policy truly began in 2001, when the then Prime Minister John Howard (mainstream centre right) ignited the Tampa Affair. A Norwegian Vessel MV Tampa arrived at our shores, having rescued 433 refugees. However, Australia turned them away after introducing a ‘Border protection bill’ that determined who will reside in Australia, as well as introducing the system of off-shore processing as an attempt to deter migration. Howard then wrongly claimed that refugees were throwing their children overboard, vilifying and dehumanising people who looked up to Australia as a place for a better life. This was a claim the government knew to be false, yet persisted in the fear mongering that won them the election. Ultimately, that set the tone for Australia’s treatment of refugees.

Since then, governments have rotated between offshore processing and various degrees of protection laws. Overall, the main narrative has resulted in refugees being turned away, not processed or waiting eternally for their claims to come through.

In short, current policy is to force boats back out of Australian waters, turn them around at the airport (if they arrive by plane) or to be sent to offshore processing in Nauru or PNG if they make it onto shore. Offshore processing involves the detention of asylum seekers in prison-like facilities for years on end with no hope of being resettled in Australia. With this policy, detainees have little hope of seeing their loved ones again and their lives are often threatened by poor healthcare, PNG laws against abortion and homosexuality among others. Whistleblower doctors have spoken out at shocking treatment that made them question it as a violation of medical ethics, such as ‘doping up’ younger children to subdue ‘protesting behaviour’. Children as young as six have self harmed, there has been countless suicides, hunger strikes, separated families and a general state of inhumanity inflicted upon those who put their fate with Australia. Last year, a 12 year old girl set herself alight and shortly after, a 10 year old boy who had repeatedly attempted suicide was only granted treatment in Australia after a court order.

Since the 13th of August 2012, 4177 people have been sent to off-shore processing camps, and as of March, there are currently around 1000 in these detention centres. The Guardian reported on the 31st of May there had been 26 cases of attempted suicide or self harm since the election was held on the 18th. That averages to about 2 a day.

Abdul Aziz Muhamat, a former asylum seeker who has now settled in Switzerland has recently spoken out about the six years he spent in off-shore detention. “Many hundreds are still being detained. And they are being completely destroyed, physically and mentally. Twelve people have died,” he told the Guardian “We don’t have time. Not a day, not a week, not a month. People are attempting suicide every hour.”

That same week in Italy, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini’s refusal to accept a German-Dutch vessel carrying rescued refugees and the persecution of the ship’s captain caused an international outcry. International bodies like the EU, along with France and Germany, have criticised the move with many labelling it as inhumane and unjust. Poignantly, this narrative has been similarly paralleled time and time again in Australia – without the international outcry.

Australia is a country built on immigrants. It is defined by the boatloads of people from all over the world that came here seeking a better life. Walking down the streets of my native Melbourne, I have the benefit of the multiplicity of life and how the most liveable city in the world has thriving multiculturalism to thank.

We are also built on racism. Our history is that of a white-supremacist British colony, one that recognised the indigenous peoples as ‘fauna and flora’ so the British could claim it as territory. One that imprisoned the indigenous population, took away their children to ‘civilise them’, only gave them the vote in 1962, and only gave a mere apology for this treatment as recently as 2008.

Infuriating above all is the hypocrisy of the politicians turning away refugees. These politicians or their families have arrived here by the same means, either them or their recent ancestors came here seeking a better life. Every single parliamentarian who votes to turn away asylum seekers has Australia’s previous acceptance of them to thank for their current post. Par of course, the mere four indigenous Australians that currently hold a seat in federal parliament.

What makes me ashamed is that this behaviour wins elections. The recent surprise victory of the right wing Liberal party proves that Australians genuinely want this to continue, or they don’t care enough to vote against it. This is especially poignant as I cannot blame the results on low voter turnout. In a country where voting is compulsory, the majority of Australians have declared they are genuinely happy with the country’s direction.

What makes me worried is that our asylum seeker policy is becoming a poster child for right-wing leaders around the world. UK PM Boris Johnson has looked up to our policy, hoping to implement an ‘Australian style’ system, while Donald Trump says “much can be learned” from us, among others.

So next time you hear Australia come up in conversation, I hope your mind does not jump to images of a welcoming, free and fair nation that we have unjustly got ourselves a name for. Next time you hear Australia, shame us in the way the Evening Standard shamed America, on the front page, in bold print and with graphic imagery.

Portia Kentish

Portia is a second year History, Politics and Economics student at University College London.

Writing for Sensus as a contributor, her interests lay in politics, global affairs and arts.

Contact email: portiakentish@gmail.com


Australia’s Asylum Policies. 2019. Refugee Council Of Australia. https://www.refugeecouncil.org.au/asylum-policies/4/.

Butler, Gavin. 2019. “Asylum Seeker Who Set Fire To Himself On Manus Island Will Be Charged With Attempted Suicide”. Vice. https://www.vice.com/en_au/article/neamqb/asylum-seeker-refugee-set-fire-himself-manus-island-offshore-detention-centre-charged-attempted-suicide-arson.

Davidson, Helen. 2019. “Former Manus Island Detainee Tells UN ‘Human Beings Are Being Destroyed'”. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/jun/27/former-manus-island-detainee-tells-un-human-beings-are-being-destroyed.

Doherty, Ben. 2019. “UN Body Condemns Australia For Illegal Detention Of Asylum Seekers And Refugees”. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jul/08/un-body-condemns-australia-for-illegal-detention-of-asylum-seekers-and-refugees.

Griffiths, James. 2019. “Trump Says ‘Much Can Be Learned’ From Australia’s Immigration Policy. Migrants Subjected To It Have Set Themselves On Fire”. CNN. https://edition.cnn.com/2019/06/26/politics/trump-australia-immigration-intl-hnk/index.html.

Martin, Nick. 2019. “As Doctors Working On Nauru, We Thought We Were Helping. Now I Know We Were Not | Nick Martin”. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/oct/12/as-doctors-working-on-nauru-we-thought-we-were-helping-now-i-know-we-were-not.

McGowan, Michael. 2019. “Where Does The Coalition’s Re-Election Leave Refugees On Manus And Nauru?”. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/may/31/where-does-the-coalitions-re-election-leave-refugees-on-manus-and-nauru.

Offshore Processing Statistics And Operation Sovereign Borders. 2019. Refugee Council Of Australia. https://www.refugeecouncil.org.au/operation-sovereign-borders-offshore-detention-statistics/.

O’Grady, Siobhan. 2019. “Children In Australia’S Offshore Migrant Center Are So Distraught, Some Have Attempted Suicide”. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2018/09/20/children-australias-off-shore-migrant-center-are-so-distraught-some-have-attempted-suicide/?utm_term=.1ec0fab8e35f.

Rayner, Gordon. 2019. “Boris Johnson Promises Australian-Style Points System For Immigration”. The Telegraph. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2019/06/26/boris-johnson-promises-australian-style-points-system-immigration/.

Rose, James. 2019. “From Tampa To Now: How Reporting On Asylum Seekers Has Been A Triumph Of Spin Over Substance”. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/from-tampa-to-now-how-reporting-on-asylum-seekers-has-been-a-triumph-of-spin-over-substance-66638.