Land of the fair go takes refuge from the helpless

screening out refugees
screening out refugees

Sydney Morning Herald October 19, 2012
by Waleed Aly,  Illustration: Rocco Fazzari

So this is what ”no advantage” looks like. We’ve barely got going sending asylum seekers to Nauru, and already there has been an attempted suicide. By hanging, according to the psychiatrist who reported it. The end result was that three more asylum seekers opted to return home rather than face our immigration system. That brings the tally of voluntary returns to about 40.

Forty people who decided the situation was so grim, so hopeless that they were better off returning to the place they were fleeing. There’s something chilling about the government citing these as ”steps forward”, but that’s the logic of deterrence.

It means we have to take the misery that produces asylum seekers, then raise it. And since we can’t simply inflict direct violence on our detainees, we have to do it in more subtle ways, namely by destroying their sense of hope. That’s why people are attempting suicide so quickly. Because we’re telling them they’re going to Nauru to languish, not to be processed.

But it turns out that’s not all we’re telling them. We’re also telling them they should just give up. This week, ABC Radio’s PM revealed that immigration department officials are rejecting some asylum seekers on the basis of an informal verbal interview. No application. No lawyer. No hearing. No process, really. Just the uninformed, premature judgment of a bureaucrat trying to dispense with an irritant.

It’s the very definition of insidious. So insidious the Immigration Department has even given it a euphemistic, bureaucratic name. ”Screening out”. Like it’s a routine classification process. ”Any person who is screened out progresses towards removal from Australia,” says the department’s press release. Progresses. Like they’re getting somewhere. Sounds better than ”shunted back home without a hearing” or ”dumped in detention limbo” which is what it actually means.

The idea is just so brazen: to trade on the ignorance and powerlessness of asylum seekers. It’s not that asylum seekers lose their rights. They don’t. At least in theory they retain the right to apply for refugee status. They have the right to a lawyer. But if you’re ”screened out”, you’re not told this. If you happen to know it, and have the inordinate confidence to call an immigration official’s bluff, good for you. If not, your rights are pretty much rhetorical. ”If anyone in immigration detention requests access to a lawyer, we facilitate that request,” says the department. You just have to assert rights you don’t know you have.

Welcome to Kafka’s Australia, where rights are guaranteed, but preferably forgotten. So we maintain that we respect due process and human rights, even if it’s clear we don’t always like them very much. We’ve been doing this for ages. ”Screening out” has been around for the best part of a decade; long enough for the department to call it a ”long-standing policy over successive governments”. And if you believe the lawyers who work in this area, it’s part of a suite of bureaucratic practices designed to prevent asylum seekers from accessing the few rights they do have. You can’t ban asylum seekers from having access to lawyers, but you can insist they fill out a specific form if they want one, and then refuse to give them the form. You can limit the time lawyers have with their clients to make their work impossible. And if they manage to apply, you can delay the process by using translators who speak the wrong language, or who belong to rival ethnic groups. It’s like the dictation test during the White Australia era, which could be in Swahili if the immigration official wanted you to fail.

What explains this bureaucratic violence? Telling asylum seekers their claim is rejected without a hearing doesn’t ”send a message to people smugglers” or ”break the people smugglers’ business model”. Obstructing access to a lawyer doesn’t deter people from getting on boats. It just breaks them slowly. These are not policies that have been debated in Parliament and have clearly articulated purposes. They don’t need to be. They arise by osmosis.

Reflecting on the infamous Abu Ghraib prison scandal, the Stanford University psychologist Philip Zimbardo observed that such things become possible when the perpetrators feel anonymous, don’t have a sense of personal responsibility for their actions, and have tacit approval from authority figures. And the obvious differences between Nauru and Abu Ghraib aside, isn’t that what’s happening here?

This is a culture of belligerence, trickling down from the political leadership. Again, just like White Australia. It’s a culture that sees the sneaky denial of rights as a virtue. A culture that sheds tears for those who die at sea trying to get here, but barely blinks when people are killed after being sent home. A culture that watches a detainee attempt suicide, and dozens of people give up on the idea of asylum, and then chalks that up as a win.

Waleed Aly will write fortnightly on this page. He hosts Drive on ABC Radio National and is a lecturer in politics at Monash University.