Australia: The problem with “Stop the boats”; and Hidden problems of refugee detention

18 July, 2013

I just watched Shadow Prime Minister Tony Abbott at a press conference reiterating at length his simple anti-refugee policy (in case you hadn’t heard, it’s “Stop the boats”. I’m not sure if there should be an exclamation point there). It’s interesting to note that whereas the Liberal Party’s policy used to be a straight appeal to xenophobia (the fear and hatred of foreigners), Abbott now wants to have it both ways: the policy still prevents Australia being invaded by foreigners (AKA potential new Australians), but it is also a humanitarian policy to prevent the “terrible, tragic” deaths of these evil invading foreigners. There’s little doubt that this new angle is simply a ploy to entice humanitarian-minded voters who don’t analyse things beyond their immediate emotions.

Without a doubt, the Labor Party’s revision of previous refugee policy led to increased problems in various areas. While they had good intentions, they didn’t take into account just how complicated the situation is, and how one policy change can have a domino effect of unintended consequences. Once they realised this, they did their best to revert to previous methods, but since this time their early policy has been used as a stick to beat them by both refugee advocates and the Liberal Party. But still it’s hard to believe that towing refugee boats back into international waters is a workable solution; certainly, it hardly lines up with the Liberals’ recent humanitarian pose, to refuse permission to dock to dangerously unstable, leaking boats loaded with women and children.

How much of a danger do unstopped boats represent? For a population of over 20 million, a few thousand extra immigrants does not realistically present a serious problem. Indeed, what is being treated in Australia as an exceptional problem is for countries with land borders (i.e. most countries) just part of the cost of doing business. They expect illegal immigration flow, and have internal services to trace and control such people. How do Australia’s operations in this area compare with other countries? Have we all this time been relying on the sea to do all the work for us?

The issue of conditions in refugee detention camps is similarly an area of confusion and hypocrisy. The same institutions are accused by the Liberal Party of mollycoddling lawbreakers, and by refugee advocates of abuses of human rights. The issue of young people in these places is controversial, but critics seem unwilling to understand the problem in detail.

First, there is the notion that keeping people in detention is inhumane, especially if they are young. This doesn’t bear examination: teenagers generally spend most of their time confined either in school or at home, and this is regarded as normal, nonabusive, non-trauma-inducing. There is no reason that a refugee teenager should be regarded as especially psychologically vulnerable in this situation – indeed, considering these people are supposedly escaping war and deadly persecution, you’d expect they’d just be glad of a bit of peace.

Second, there is the matter of self-harm. Given the above argument that detention should not in itself be considered a cause of gross psychological trauma, what credence should be given to regular reports of self harm? All else being equal, I think we must assume that a lot of people have been advised, either by fellow-refugees or by refugee advocates, that these dramatic gestures are a good way of “gaming” the system – getting special treatment and privileges, even release into the community.

But all else may NOT be equal. One matter that gets little attention is the consequence of keeping a lot of teenage boys and young men confined together (supposedly for the safety of women and young children – does this mean that when infant boys reach a certain age they are removed from their mothers and put into the men’s section?). Those who are aware of how things work in prisons, schools and deprived neighbourhoods, know that unless these situations are strongly regulated a culture of violence and bullying can dominate. And considering these people come from societies with much more old-fashioned entrenched notions of masculine dominance, this is an imminent problem.

In this case, what is needed to prevent psychological problems in vulnerable people is MORE regulation of their lives – closer monitoring and stricter discipline against bullying and gang activities. This might make the more violent inmates feel psychologically repressed and unhappy, but, you know, fuck ’em.
Anyway, I am surprised that this aspect of life in detention has not been reported on.

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