When human lives no longer matter
Senator Andrew Bartlett, Australian Democrats
July 31st 2003
Walking into the Topside Camp, established by the Australian Government
on Nauru to detain those asylum seekers intercepted in Australian waters,
I was unsure what to expect.
I have visited every migration detention facility in Australia, including
the current temporary facility on Christmas Island. They are all unnatural
places, but this incongruous Australian funded imprisonment of hundreds
of Iraqis and Afghanis on a small island, sitting almost exactly on
the equator, has a special sense of the surreal.
Walking up to the gate, it seemed all of the camp's 300 plus residents
had gathered to welcome me. It is very difficult for Australians wanting
to visit the camp to get permission to enter Nauru, so they get very
few non-official visitors. A big sign, reading "welcome to our
detention centre", was stretched across the gate, but my attention
was immediately grabbed by the children.
So many children, young children, three, four, five years old, gathered
at the gate. All of them kept in camps since 2001. The inescapable question
arises again. How can this be that the Australian taxpayer funds the
deliberate imprisonment of children? I think of my own daughter, 21
months old, in the crucial stages of development. How would it be for
her growing up in this sort of place, perhaps separated from her father,
without her or her parents having any idea what her future is? Our Government
likes to call itself family friendly, yet it keeps families with children
locked up in these conditions.
The camp is a collection of demountables air-conditioned against the
year round heat. The facilities, such as sporting, recreational and
health are below that of centres in Australia. The showers and toilets
are also in demountables. These use brackish water that only runs for
about six hours, spread over various parts of the day. The water difficulties
are similar to what is experienced by all the local residents of the
I am told the facilities at the other Nauru-based camp, called State
House, are worse, but I am advised not to visit there for safety reasons.
I am allowed to meet with people who are in that Camp, who are brought
to see me at Topside.
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) is contracted by
the Australian Government to run the facilities and assist in the relocation
of people once the Government has determined their refugee status. They
have a difficult task, as they have no say over what happens to the
detainees, but must deal with the deep ocean of despair and depression
that exists on the island camps. As was said to me, you could put these
people into Club Med and their condition would still be almost the same,
because it is the lack of freedom and hope, the empty future for their
children, that is the source of their pain and suffering. Mental health
issues comprise the vast bulk of the work of the medical staff, but
there is nothing they can do to alleviate the cause.
Of course, the conditions on Nauru are not Club Med. They are very
basic and would be unpleasant to live in. Nauru is an impoverished island.
The local population of about 12 000 people, on an island one-fifth
the area of Christmas Island, are facing an economic crisis and the
presence of the Camps is currently the main economic input for the nation.
I spoke with some government members and officials, as well as some
youth workers at a local high school. Written on the blackboard was
a message urging teachers to please keep coming to work, despite not
having been paid for months. Virtually the only people on the island
being paid regularly are those working at the Camps.
The biggest disgrace of our 'pro-family' Government is the women and
children in the Camps who are deliberately being kept apart from husbands
and fathers in Australia. Our Prime Minister, who has recently lamented
about the lack of male role models for children growing up, is telling
these women they must return alone with their children to Iraq or Afghanistan,
to circumstances where their husbands were subject to severe persecutions.
Their husbands cannot leave Australia without losing their protection.
The Immigration Minister says their circumstances are considered separate
from their husband's because they arrived on different boats. This is
as logical as saying they are kept separate because their name starts
with the wrong letter, and these women know it.
But again, worst of all is the children. Four and five year old girls
who have no memory of their father and no understanding of why they
cannot go see to him, when they know where he is. And the fathers in
Australia, some of whom I have also met, being driven to the brink by
this enforced separation.
In the face of the Government generated harming of children, it seems
almost a minor fact that it is being done at the cost of hundreds of
millions of taxpayers' dollars - funds that could go to address major
needs in Australia, or indeed in Nauru and other Pacific neighbours.
Even those who manage to stagger out the other side of the hoops and
hurdles, such as the 40 people who are finally being allowed to apply
to enter Australia, nearly two years after they first sought our help,
are left traumatised, unsupported and uncertain of their future while
Australia provides temporary 'protection'. The Government deliberately
creates dysfunctional members of our community - at our expense.
The Government has created a twisting labyrinth of cruelty and faceless
bureaucratic dispassion that is so heartless and so lacking in any reason
that Franz Kafka would not dared to have conjured it up. Despite the
lives destroyed, the vast resources squandered and the children's futures
that have been stolen, our Government has the audacity to call their
'strategy' a success. Nothing more starkly shows the sordid depths to
which our body politic has sunk.