The Orwellian Removalists
The disconnection of the heart in Australian asylum policies
by Jack H Smit
The question as to who can claim ownership of planet earth is one that not very often gets asked, but as a little boy I found myself embroiled in a debate that probably was an attempt to shame me, while walking home with the other kids from my Christian primary school. The question of who owned my family's house - the largest one in the street - came up, and the challenger then posed the question, for me to answer, as to who owned the street, and then the town, then the province, then the country and finally - the world itself and the universe.
As children do, a fight nearly broke out of whether God or the Government owned the country, and whether the United Nations owned the world and the planet itself. My playmates reluctantly allowed me to state that the universe itself was owned by nobody but God.
These days, your safest option is to ask a Real Estate agent as to ownership of property; you'll very likely get a straight answer.
The issue of ownership of a country is not just child's play, and relevant as ever for Australians, if only because a couple of centuries ago most of us just arrived by the thousands, settled, and declared this country to be owned by the British Crown, and we prevented anyone from shaming us by not asking the original owners to answer the ownership question before we planted the flag. With it came the question attached to the darker side of Australia: whom we decide to exclude either socially, culturally or ethnically, geographically or religiously, and for what reasons.
John Howard raised this issue when he first phrased his most replayed media statement since the Tampa election, when he claimed that "we" will control who enters Australia and in what way they come. Nobody has since asked as loudly as Howard's announcement whether that statement conflicted with the universally stated sovereign privilege to enter a nation uninvited to seek asylum and express that, and that this sovereign privilege should go paired with positive and partisan treatment of those arriving, especially by UN Member nations. It seems that Australia is now owned by those calling the shots in government: even the courts are largely disabled in undoing the travesties of justice committed to 'uninvited' asylum seekers - for example to children in detention, as Spencer Zifcak showed in New Matilda's issue 20.
There's a multi-million dollar network of workers and administrators in place in their offices and at crucial locations around the country to support Mr Howard's statement - his 'core-promise' of the 2001 federal election, and one he has no intention of breaking. This army of worker bees includes a considerable number of journalists and reporters.
A few weeks ago we sent the Bakhtiari family on their way to Pakistan, a country whose language Ali's wife Roqia does not speak. In 2002 their 'refugee assessment', i.e. Phillip Ruddock's proudly voiced claim that Ali was a Quetta plumber and a liar, was assisted a great deal through what has become a trial by media, by The Australian, the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, who all weighed in to Ruddock's claim that the family was not from Afghanistan. Let me state here that with his claim Ruddock committed a grave and blatant breach of refugee case confidentiality, because it suited him. Before the family flew off, Amanda Vanstone restated the government's claim they were not refugees and that they had been given their 'fair go' during the five years they bothered Australians. Their 'fair go' included the experience of the children as described in detail by Spencer Zifcak while in detention, but nevertheless, Vanstone added that the family had cost the nation three million dollars and they would be billed for their detention - a maximum security incarceration forced upon them without their consent by her Department.
The way Vanstone portrayed this issue places her in a good position as the next contender for Ruddock's Orwellian Gold Medal after her predecessor in the portfolio. Conveniently the minister forgot to tell us that the lawyers acting for the family worked on a pro-bono basis while lawyers for the Commonwealth such as Mr Bennett QC would have been paid well in excess of $3 000 per day for a court appearance. And as we now know, the National Jet charter flight, leaving Port Augusta in the middle of the night with a handful of seats filled, flew through the emergency zones of the Boxing day tsunami - requiring immediate availability of aid flights - on a price tag of $150 000, but it returned without a blip registering with the government about any assistance for the disaster.
It could be argued that it is the Commonwealth, and not the family, that racked up this extraordinary bill by insisting that each and every claim made by the family be vigorously challenged and fought, so as to keep the integrity of the Migration Act intact - a battle that has affirmed that it's legally valid what we do to refugees, but at the national cost of saying nothing about whether what we're doing to refugees is morally right. I happen to think that this national cost is much higher than the Bakhtiari bill that can be expressed in dollars.
Back in December, Sonia Chirgwin, an environmental consultant working in Tonga and Laos, flew home to be in Mount Gambier for Christmas on a Thai Airways flight, and she became the accidental reporter of a "forced deportation", the action we take when we forcibly send someone "back to where they came from". Her story was forwarded to me for publication. From Ms Chirgwin's shocking account, when she reboarded the aircraft after a stop-over in Sydney:
A very officious looking man bustled in and cleared some space in the overhead luggage compartments, reassuring passengers that disturbance would be minimal. Not understanding what was happening I speculated to my neighbouring passenger that maybe they were bringing on someone in a wheelchair. But then there was an alarming sound - metal scraping on metal, banging and clattering. We exchanged a nervous glance, and then our fellow passenger was on the plane.
... the man was handcuffed, with a chain leading to a restraint at his waist, and to cuffs at his ankles. But perhaps the most shocking was the gag. The man had layers of black gaffer tape around his mouth, bound so tightly that it was cutting into his face. Above the tape, his eyes were wildly panicked. They locked on to mine briefly before he was manhandled into the seat, and a blindfold placed over his eyes.
Just this week we did the same thing to an Iranian, and to a Sudanese man - Australia's longest held detainee, in detention for more than seven years. In addition to the "restraints", both men were sedated on departure, while the Sudanese, a former policeman who ran away to Australia because he refused to comply with Sharia law and shoot someone, received a repeat injection in Khartoum. The Iranian was so fearful of the deportation that three times in the last two weeks he kicked up so much, that he was able to disrupt the plan to fly him out. Nevertheless, we were happy to compromise Australian medical ethics around administering sedatives - by simply "outsourcing" the "removals" of the two "removees" to an overseas company, that handles the work done in our name under the cover of "commercial in-confidence" arrangements, so that no parliamentarian or taxpayer or voter ever has to be told how we do it - because the company does not tell anyone anything about its methods, and it has an agreement in place for this with the Australian government.
It's funny the things that come out of your mouth when you are wildly searching for a way to understand what is happening. "Is this man alright?" I asked the guard closest to me, even though it was quite clear that he was not all right. The guard was sweating, short of breath, and somewhat adrenalin filled after physically dragging the man onto the plane. "Look I can't tell you anything OK," he answered with a barely repressed anger. I asked what the man had done to be treated in this way. He again snapped at me that he was unable to tell me a thing. "Welcome back to Australia" I said, shocked at this being my first experience after being away for a year.
The issue of disconnection is complete in "removals" on more than one level: the guard is just that, he's employed for "his body" only, and even while we may try, there is no connection between the nature of the "removee's" journey away from Australia, his obvious treatment, in clear violation of international law, and the fact that the guard is being a guard. His predicament is being saved when another person, likely to be his boss, smaller and clean-shaven, enters:
Seeing my obvious agitation, his voice was deliberately calm, seeking to avoid any sort of fuss. He was telling me they had no choice that some people are "bad" and simply will not co-operate. I asked why he was being treated in this manner on a public flight, and he said that the choice is either this or to charter a plane for a quarter or a half a million dollars of taxpayers money. He felt that as they had a responsibility to the taxpayer, the choices were limited.
Closer now, more connection, so a justification enters - but the pay-off is a deliberate and emotional disconnection from the forcefield of the questioner. Stay calm, be deliberate, choose your words. Blame the man with the gaffer tape. He's the one who caused all this. It's not just policy, because it would not make Mr Clean-shaven feel any better. Bad-man needs to be removed. We're saving your tax-payer's dollars, lady, rest assured.
Sitting in the silence my discomfort grew. The fact that I was seeing this wasn't the problem. Maybe all Australians should be exposed to the hard reality of what refugee deportation can look like. The public flight was not something I should have complained about. My distress was stemming from the man's treatment, and from his obvious fear and distress and my helplessness. Nothing I could say or do would get the flight stopped, get the tape removed from the man's mouth, get his bonds released or have his voice heard.
Stories get ignored. Press releases in the Windows Recycle Bin. Reporters are short of time and short in temper. Protect our borders. Someone else will do a story. Make it low priority. Australia's press freedom ranking has plummeted from 12th place four years ago, to 52th place last year.
One of democracy's main assets, 'your right to know', lays gasping as if for its last breath. To be replaced by it's bastard son, the 'not in the public interest' notion.
So I recommenced my dialogue with the more reasonable of the man's guards. I asked whether what I was witnessing was the inevitable outcome of Howard's refugee policy. The man spent a lot of time, again in this carefully composed and reasonable voice, assuring me that although he could not tell me any details of this particular case there were simply no options. I wondered whether his crimes were speaking out against his government, or if his crimes were real but the level of punishment unjust. Of course I do not have any answers, as the official was careful to reveal nothing...
The human story is not an option - not since the Tampa laws. This is an unlawful non-citizen, an unauthorised arrival, a non-protection deservee. In short, a removee. No bleeding hearts I'm afraid, lady.
In asking about the deportee's treatment, and voicing my concern about the lack of dignity leaving in this manner, the official, again in reassuring tones, told me the difficulties they faced. They had been negotiating with the man for eight hours and he would not stop screaming. He had the choice to be taken on the plane reasonably, but he would not comply. He stressed it was one of the worse cases he had faced as a negotiator, although they had tried everything to make him cooperate. He also told me they were not allowed to use chemical restraint but only physical means to force him to comply.
He also could not help but give me a spiel on Australia's rights to protect its borders, our rights to determine who comes into our country. I did not engage in this debate, seeing that it was obvious that we came from very different perspectives, and the 'we' that he was talking about somehow did not include Australians that thought or felt as I do. He seemed uncomfortable at my use of the term human rights, his voice taking on an even more calming and rational tone.
And there's the opening line, or what should constitute the opening line. But instead of the universality of the basic building blocks of life itself, the awareness of the gnawing issue has become an add-on, treated like the often considered settling of a family feud, discussed at the dinner table in the evening. You have a point, but sorry, I'm at work now, dear.
He asked me about my life, my work, and we conversed fairly pleasantly about what I did and where I lived. All the time my mind was racing for ways to find out more, the image of the deported man's panicked eyes burnt into my mind.
I left the plane in Melbourne wondering if they would remove the deportee's gag to allow him to eat or drink any time over the 12-hour flight back to Bangkok. I could not see how it would be possible, as they would not want him to scream again. Through the tape he could not utter a single sound, an image that so sums up the voiceless state of the people that 'we' determine to be unfit for our country.
The story of the border protection measures since Tampa has changed Australia in a deeply disturbing way. It has forced a disconnect in the Navy, a disconnect in the public service, in the agents contracted to implement the policies in detention centres, and amongst the subcontractors from other nations who are implementing the actions with a disconnect and with a refinement of a professional quality.
It's a policy that makes you sick. As sick as you become when you hear Phillip Ruddock state that the welfare of the detained Iraqis or Afghanis on Nauru is the responsibility of the Nauruan government. There is a difference with George Orwell's world though. The Australian policies have been deliberately constructed so that it is hoped that Australian politicians cannot be held responsible by law. But that remains to be seen, and only in many years to come the final Bill will be tabled, once we have learnt that the planet, after she rebalances herself through many earthquakes and tsunamis, as well as our pretty Australia, is not an exclusive place where we can permit the arrogance to expel some people who come here and ask us for a small space to live in peace, away from wars and persecution - or for that matter, from poverty or away from regions destroyed by climate upheavals or tsunamis.
Spencer Zifcak, No way out: the High Court and children in detention, in New Matilda Issue 20 (Wed 12 Jan 2005)
Radio 3CR, Two Broadcast transcripts - Forced into isolation, chemically sedated, physically restrained, and deported in secrecy.