The mandatory detention of asylum seekers in Australia is just plain wrong. As Australians we will be judged globally, today – and into the future – for the gross human rights violations, which we have shamelessly inflicted upon men and families –including pregnant women and children who have suffered unimaginably before seeking our protection. Something they are, according to the UN Convention, entitled to do. We do this knowingly, and selfishly – with the overarching goal of “protecting our way of life.” Closing our boarders and completely shutting off the area of our brains that deals with compassion and logic – yes LOGIC… there are logical reasons (as well as legal and moral reasons) for us to change the way we deal with asylum seekers, refugees and humanitarian entrants – is currently and will in the future have a catastrophic affect on the way Australians look at ourselves, and how the rest of the world looks at us.

The systemic abuse of children within Australian institutions, over the last few decades, litters our news reports like ugly oil spills polluting an otherwise unspoiled ocean. We look at the reports and we are justifiable outraged. My generation – born after the fact – feel our stomachs turn, and we swear that we will never let such atrocities occur on our watch. At school we studied slavery in the United States of America (USA), and looked with scorn and disgust on our (their?/American) forefathers who not only permitted (nay, not permitted, legalized) generations of rape, murder, exploitation, and complete degradation of an entire race of people, but who also profited from it. We read with horror reports of families in the USA who still hold wealth disproportionate to their needs – the kind of wealth that can only be gained from the sweat of slaves in generations past.

When we look back over the history of Europe we condemn the Holocaust, for the persecution of Jews. In the Middle East we shake our heads gravely at the persecution of apostates and Faili Kurds in Iran. We place so much judgement and blame on past generations for the ills they committed willingly and also for the harm they caused knowingly. We also condemn those who stood by in silence, whilst their brothers and sisters fell down beside them. We shamelessly judge whole generations and whole races of people for failing to prevent harm that they legitimately did not know about – for example, how many times do media reports blame all Muslims for 9/11, or all Catholics for the abuse which occurred at the hands of some Catholics?

As a generation we judge the past – and we judge it harshly. Amidst all this judgement however we seem to be forgetting to look at the policies which we as Australians, whether we personally say we agree with them or not, have by the virtue of electing this government submitted to. With this in mind, how do we think future generations will judge us?

Although this is not a discussion about slavery, as slavery is too great an issue to be summed up in this article, it can be useful however to briefly touch on the mentality of governments and individuals in the USA during the times of slavery and look at how and why slavery was able to continue for as long as it did when looking at the way Australia responds to asylum seekers.

I am a big believer in the role that basic business plays in running a country and making policy decisions – I believe that everything is done or not done, said or not said, for a reason, and sadly, more often than not, that reason is money. Historically and today, governments in the USA and Australia have not and will not act on issues unless they believe they will lose money (or an election – which basically translates to money) over it. As such, when the US government – and/or many of it’s individual decision makers – owned slaves, and were directly profiting from the laws allowing their exploitation, they had no personal desire to make the changes required to eradicate the horrendous practice. It was not until there was a political incentive for the government to make reforms, that changes finally came about – primarily when international pressure coupled with pressure from individuals within the USA – the voters – made it known that they would not support a government built on the profits of slavery.

Today however, when we look back at the pictures of men and women being beaten, starved and exploited, and when we hear the stories of the pain suffered, we ask ourselves – how could we let this happen, and why did no one say anything sooner?

There is an argument that there was an element of ignorance – especially from people in areas where slavery was not prominent – in a time when the internet was not even a dream, and other media was incredibly limited, there could be something to that argument. In the areas where slavery was prominent, visible and common – people did know. Blind eyes were turned, excuses were made, and assent was by default granted. As such, at some point the question must be asked, “Why did we let this happen?”

I suspect that one of the (many) reasons why people ‘let this happen’, other than economics, and perhaps the fear of the persecution one might suffer should they have been the lone person who had spoken out, was the degree of ‘separation’ that ‘mainstream’ Americans were able to place between themselves and slaves. That is to say that those who were in positions of power and wealth – including those who had access to education – were predominantly white, Christians (generally Methodist or Baptist) who, generally speaking, ate, spoke and worshiped in ways that differed slightly from the black slaves – for example:

  • There were differences in the food consumed by the white ‘voters’ and the black slaves, which may have been due to culture or something as simple as economics (being that slaves did not earn an income);
  • The differences in language may have been due to differences educational opportunities whites and blacks had, their cultures, and whether or not one was permitted to speak their native tongue (a white immigrant from France was, a black slave from Ghana was not)
  • The differences in worship which may have been due to the musical tastes of an individual congregation, the culture of the worshipers or the religion itself.

Some of these slight differences – and I say slight differences, because in human terms, they are not big differences – were made into greater, insurmountable differences by those who wished to perpetuate the ‘us and them’ culture which was prominent in the US at the time.

When people believe that a person is different enough from them, and worth less than their families it is easier to ignore the human responsibility they have towards them. People tend to believe that:

“They look different to us, they talk different to us, they act different to us, they believe different things to us, they are different to us – therefore I do not have any responsibility, moral or otherwise to these people.”

In much the same way that Australians and Americans tend not to relate to people from other countries –we do not see ourselves as being in any way connected to them. As a consequence of the ‘belief in difference’, it was made easier for a white businessman, for example, who did not directly have any involvement slave trading, or interaction with slaves in general to separate himself, and his life from their plight. It is likely that a lot of people, struggling day-to-day to support their families, would be of the mind “It’s awful what happens to some folk, but I have my own kids to worry about – I can’t be campaigning to no government for changes, I got to be at work or my kids won’t get fed tomorrow.” This does not excuse their inaction – but you can understand how and why it might happen in a world where the internet does not constantly expose and educate us to the horrors that are occurring just beyond our line of sight.

In modern times the degree of separation Australian’s are allowed – and indeed encouraged to feel – towards asylum seekers, is a part of the same ‘us and them’ culture/mentality that permitted the ‘mainstream’ to ignore or ‘not notice’ the horrors of slavery in the United States.

I can see people reading this article and feeling that there is a big leap between being ‘conservative immigration views’ and the support of slavery, but hear me out.

The “look after our own first” arguments trumpeted by so many Australian’s when asked about asylum seekers perpetuate the “us and them” mentality that allows the mistreatment of one group of people by another to go on unchecked, whether this mistreatment transpires in the form of slavery, sexual exploitation or forced imprisonment is not relevant. The fact is, by separating ourselves from other humans, and abdicating any form of responsibility towards people who we perceive as being ‘different’ to us, we are in small and big ways repeating the mistakes of history against which we have spoken out so harshly.

In 2011 a 19 year old Afghan boy hung himself in an Immigration Detention Centre, he had been granted refugee status – but no one had told him. He had sat in limbo for months and months, having nightmares every night that he might be sent back into the hands of the Taliban. One night, he could not take it anymore, and he hung himself with a rope woven out of a bed sheet he had shredded. He should have been notified of his refugee status, which I have no doubt would give him the hope and strength he would have needed to carry on, and prevented his suicide. He was a refugee, who fled his homelands after been severely persecuted by his own government. He was recognized by the Australian immigration authorities as a refugee, he was not an ‘illegal immigrant’ – he was interviewed, and we believed him, but due to an administrative error his life was lost.

If he were a 19 year old Australian boy who committed suicide over relationship break down, there would have been utter outrage and sorrow expressed for his passing – we would swear to help people with depression and promise never to forget the deceased. But, for this young Afghan man, his passing was mentioned for five minutes in a team meeting in 2011, and in 2012 a two second news report stated that the coroner found ‘nothing suspicious’ about his death. The reports did not encourage the Australian community to think of this boy as anything more than a statistic – there was not question of who was responsible for his depression, illegal imprisonment (also known as mandatory detention), and there was no ‘human’ detail given. He was and will remain a statistic. I ask you, if he was “one of ours” would we have treated his death differently? And would we have cared more? Of course we would. But the young man, did not even have a name in the report.

Although, in 1860, there was no internet, and limited means of communication – people in Australia did not necessarily know what was happening in the USA, nor did people in New York necessarily know what was happening in Texas. In 1860, people knew what they saw and what they were told, and so ignorance could be preserved, and to a degree constructed and controlled by those in power. In contemporary Australia however, we have no excuse not to know what is occurring within immigration detention centres across Australia and in Papua New Guinea, we have no excuse to say “I did not know that was happening.” We did know, we have to know, we have all seen the news reports, we have all heard the stories. We know what is happening in Iraq and Congo, national boarders do not translate to knowledge blocks, as such, we cannot hide behind the excuse of ignorance.

Philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Santayana said this more than a century ago, yet we still seem to be tossing up the pros and cons of learning from mistakes – perhaps because to learn from a mistake, we must first own up to the mistake which is a challenge to us.

Australia’s Immigration policy may not look the same as the slave trade, but treating people poorly because we think we worth more than they are in our society? This is the kind of rationale that allowed slaves to be kept.

This is not the sort of mentality I want my son exposed to.

This picture was drawn for me by an Afghan asylum seeker on Nauru in 2002.

This picture was drawn for me by an Afghan asylum seeker on Nauru in 2002.