Treatment of asylum seekers in Australia

If you had predicted 30 years ago that Australia would create the least asylum seeker-friendly institutional arrangements in the world, you would not have been believed.

In 1992 we introduced a system of indefinite mandatory detention for asylum seekers who arrive by boat. Since that time, we have accepted the idea that certain categories of refugees and asylum seekers can be imprisoned indefinitely; that those who are intercepted by our navy should be forcibly returned to the point of departure; that those who haven't been able to be forcibly returned should be imprisoned indefinitely on remote Pacific islands; and that those marooned on these island camps should never be allowed to settle in Australia even after several years.

There are two main ways of explaining this.

The first is what can be called analytical narrative: the creation of an historical account that shows the circumstances in which the decisions were made and how one thing led to another. I have tried my hand at one of these elsewhere in this book.

The second way is to look at more general lines of explanation. I want to suggest five possibilities. These general lines of explanation are not alternatives to each other but complementary.

1. Immigration Absolutism

It is very common to explain the creation of Australia's uniquely harsh anti-asylum seeker system of border control as a partially disguised return of the old racism of the White Australia policy. This now seems to me to be mistaken. Even though there have been occasional political hiccups - Geoffrey Blainey, 1984; John Howard, 1988; Pauline Hanson Mark I, 1996; Hanson Mark II, 2016 - one of the more remarkable achievements of Australian history is the seamless transformation of white Australia into a multiracial and multicultural society since the early 1970s.

There is, however, another aspect of the White Australia policy that is usually overlooked: its absolutism, the almost 100-year conviction that not a single person of non-European stock should ever be permitted to settle in Australia. In my view it has been the absolutism, embedded in the so-called Australian immigration culture of control, rather than the racism of the White Australia policy that helps explain our recent policy history, now animated by a new absolutist ambition: that we should strive for a situation where not even one asylum-seeker boat reaches our shores.

2. Party Politics: Howard's Curse

It is obvious that the Tampa "crisis" of August-September 2001 was the most important moment in the creation of Australia's contemporary asylum-seeker policies. For obvious reasons, the creation of the offshore processing centres and, even more importantly, the use of the Australian navy to turn back asylum-seeker boats to Indonesia was crucial for the future.

What, however, is less often discussed is the way in which the prime minister, John Howard, spurned the bipartisanship over asylum-seeker policy offered him by Kim Beazley. During Tampa, Beazley supported every radical measure taken by the government. The only bridge too far was a bill that denied that it would be a criminal offence for a border control official to take the life of an asylum seeker.

Howard seized on that caveat. For the purpose of the 2001 election and in the election campaigns of 2004, 2010, 2013 and 2016 (with 2007 being the exception), the Coalition has profitably been able to accuse Labor of being weak on border protection.

The consequence of this has been that over the past 15 years the chance of an even remotely humane reform of the system carries with it the chance of severe electoral punishment for the Labor Party. The only hope now for a return of some humanity to the policy is the willingness of a Coalition government to initiate such reform, or to offer Labor bipartisanship in trying to work together to find a less cruel and ruinous policy. I call the last 15 years of opportunistic partisan contention over asylum-seeker policy "Howard's curse".

3. Bureaucratic Inertia: Automaticity

The history of anti-asylum seeker border control policy is a history of deterrence measures. The first two that were tried - mandatory detention and temporary protection - failed, at least as measured by the absolutist standards of the immigration authorities. The second two measures introduced by the Howard government in the spring of 2001 - offshore processing and forcible turnback to point of departure - succeeded. Between 2002 and 2007, virtually no boats reached Australia.

What is interesting about this history is the force of bureaucratic inertia, the continued expansion of the system in a way that was unrelated to evidence or experience. It was clear by the second half of 2002 that the combination of offshore processing and turnback had successfully stopped the arrival of asylum-seeker boats. It was also clear by late 2013 that the combination of offshore processing, naval turnback and Kevin Rudd's July 2013 addition of no settlement in Australia ever - which I call "Rudd's curse" - had once again successfully stopped the boats.

Yet in both cases this fact had no influence in softening policy with regard to the earlier deterrent measures - mandatory detention and temporary protection - which had by now been rendered entirely redundant. The ends had been achieved by other means. The earlier means were nonetheless retained.

How is the purposelessness of this cruelty - which is presently rendering the lives of 30,000 refugees or asylum seekers in Australia miserable - to be explained? In his analysis of post-totalitarian Czechoslovakia, The Power of the Powerless, Vaclav Havel outlines in some detail a system that no longer serves any interest - where within the system both the relation of different measures to each other and the relation of means to ends had long been forgotten by everyone. He calls the engine that drives this system "automaticity".

Despite the fact that no asylum-seeker boats now reach Australia, in essence because of the success of the turnback policy, the mandatory detention system is maintained, refugees are granted temporary visas that offer no hope of citizenship or permanent settlement; some asylum seekers who cannot be deported are still locked away indefinitely; refugees and asylum seekers who have been sent to offshore processing centres are left to rot there. The reign of automaticity helps explain the purposeless cruelty of so much of the current asylum-seeker system.

4. Groupthink

There has been only one time in the history of the anti-asylum seeker border protection policy where deterrent measures were dismantled. Rudd abandoned both offshore processing and turnback, although his government retained a limited form of mandatory detention. At the time I thought this partial dismantling a risk. I now think it a mistake.

The consequence of the dismantling of the two most successful dimensions of the deterrent system was the arrival between 2009 and 2013 of some 50,000 asylum seekers by boat and more than 1000 drownings. Because of this experience, a curious mindset, already present in the Howard years, came to dominate during both the Abbott and Turnbull governments.

The mindset suggested that if even one brick in the asylum seeker-deterrent system was removed, the entire building would collapse.

Let one example of this strange mindset suffice. In late 2015, doctors and nurses at the Royal Children's Hospital announced that they would not return the handful of gravely damaged children under their care to a detention centre in Melbourne. The Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton, responded by saying that the result of their irresponsible behaviour would be naval officers pulling the bodies of dead children from the ocean. The minister apparently sincerely believed that freeing a few children from detention in Melbourne would send an international signal to the people smugglers that would see a return of the boats and the drownings.

This was telling evidence of how far by now officials in Canberra have lost touch with reality. Officials now believe that one act of human decency will lead to an armada of asylum-seeker boats setting out for Australia. One reason for the purposeless cruelty of the current asylum-seeker policy is, then, the severe case of groupthink - the willingness of intelligent people to still their critical capacities in the interest of conformity - that now afflicts Canberra.

5. The Banality of Evil

At present more than 2000 men, women and children are slowly being destroyed in body and spirit. Some are being destroyed because they have been marooned on Nauru and Manus Island for two years or more. A small number of refugees or asylum seekers have been imprisoned for several years in Australia because of the existence of an adverse ASIO file, or because Iran will not accept involuntary repatriation. Among the families of those who were brought from Nauru to Australia for medical treatment, 300 now live in daily, crippling fear of return.

I am certain that the immigration and defence officials who are responsible for administering the policy are not sadists. There is thus something further about our willingness to inflict such cruelty that needs to be explained.

The most important idea in Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem is the banality of evil. The idea is usually misunderstood. In essence what Arendt tried to explain was how evil acts might be perpetrated by conventional individuals because of their blindness, their loss of the capacity to see what it was that they were doing. Arendt's idea helped explain how the atmosphere created within Nazi Germany allowed the most extreme of all state-sponsored acts of political evil to appear to a conventional character like Eichmann to be normal.

The extreme context from which this idea emerged does not mean that the concept of the banality of evil cannot illuminate far smaller matters. A detailed moral history of Australia's asylum-seeker policy since the introduction of mandatory detention in 1992 has not yet been written. What it would reveal is the process whereby the arteries of the nation gradually hardened; how as a nation we gradually lost the capacity to see the horror of what it was that we were willing to do to innocent fellow human beings who had fled in fear and sought our help.

In May 2016, an inmate on Nauru set himself on fire and died. Dutton argued in response that people self-immolate so they can get to Australia. It took 30 years of brutal behaviour for a remark like this to be possible and for Australians not to notice how truly remarkable was the minister's brutality.


Shortly after this analysis was written in 2016, the Turnbull government announced that a deal had been struck with the Obama administration whereby up to 1250 refugees on Nauru and Manus Island would be settled in the United States. Within the logic of Canberra groupthink - remove one brick and the house will fall down - it was assumed that a signal had been sent that would very likely revive the people-smuggling trade. Accordingly, Malcolm Turnbull mobilised new naval forces in the Indian Ocean to intercept and repel the anticipated armada of asylum-seeker boats.

No asylum-seeker boats set sail. This ought to have caused a thorough re-evaluation of refugee policy. As it happened, no policy reconsideration occurred. The refugee groupthink was by now so deeply embedded in the minds of Canberra politicians and public servants that contradictory evidence from the real world was very effectively repelled.

Even after the announcement of the Obama-Turnbull deal, New Zealand's more modest offer of 150 refugee places continued to be refused. Irrationally, the government clung to their belief that the New Zealand offer would inevitably lead to the revival of the people-smuggling trade. The automaticity of policy prevailed.

It was also notable that the Labor Party failed to challenge the by now redundant government position. Once more, the reason is straightforward. It feared that if Shorten Labor announced its willingness to settle any of 2000 refugees and asylum seekers we had sent to Nauru and Manus Island in Australia, its supposed weakness on border security would be ruthlessly exploited by the Turnbull (or Dutton?) Coalition. Both "Howard's curse" - the full bipartisanship of cruelty - and "Rudd's curse" - not even one of the refugees who had been despatched to Nauru and Manus Island since 2012 must ever be allowed to settle in Australia - remain firmly (and tragically) in place.

As everyone knows, shortly after assuming office, the new US President, Donald Trump, spoke to Turnbull by phone. Not long after, the transcript of the Trump-Turnbull conversation was leaked to The Washington Post. Trump described the Obama offer as "dumb". Nonetheless, Trump grudgingly agreed to honour this "dumb" deal. When Turnbull explained the absolutism of Australia's policy to Trump - the total ban on settling even one asylum seeker who reached our shores by boat - the US President was both somewhat taken aback and mightily impressed. Here was a country whose refugee policy was even nastier than the one he supported.

Turnbull helpfully informed Trump that as long as US officials conducted interviews with at least some asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island, even if none were settled, the US would have fulfilled its side of the bargain. A full year after Turnbull announced the Obama deal, a mere 50 refugees of the supposed 1250 from Nauru and Manus Island have been accepted for settlement.

On Manus Island and Nauru, most of the refugees have by now been marooned for three or four years. As the American dream has gradually faded, they are now in an even more hopeless situation than before. Irrefutable evidence of their despair has emerged - for example, The Guardian's publication of the scarifying case notes of social workers on Nauru. The public did not give a damn.

Refugee acts of self-harm and even suicide are now routinely condemned as childish moral blackmail. Cold government indifference to the unspeakable pain that its policies have inflicted is now widely praised as politically wise and even courageous. Evildoing has come to seem truly banal.

It was left to the Port Moresby Supreme Court to try to teach Australia a legal and moral lesson. According to the court, the indefinite imprisonment of innocent people in Papua New Guinea is unlawful. As a result of this decision, the detention centre on Manus Island had to close. When it finally did, its 600 inmates were so fearful of what might become of them if they were forced to live on Manus Island unprotected that they refused to leave the detention centre. To force them out, food, power, medical supplies and water were cut off. The inmates dug wells so they could remain inside their  prison.

Those wells ought to remain forever in our nation's collective memory, as a symbol of the inhumanity to which our refugee policy has descended.

This is an edited extract of Robert Manne's essay "How We Came to Be So Cruel" from his new book On Borrowed Time, published this week by Black Inc, $34.99. Robert Manne will be in conversation with Arnold Zable at Cinema Nova, 380 Lygon Street, Carlton, on March 27 at 6.30pm.

This article originally appeared in The Sunday Age and The Canberra Times.