No safe harbour

In September, celebrating the first anniversary of the military-led Operation Sovereign Borders, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison confirmed that 12 boatloads of asylum seekers had been turned back from Australian waters since the program began. This was, he said, “the critical blow”.

But the man who campaigned so hard on a platform of stopping the boats also had a confession: the boats would never be stopped. He could not, much as he would like to, declare the mission accomplished. “There will always be those who try to give it a go … We can never [declare it won] because this mission is always ongoing. You must be eternally vigilant.”

He used similar language in an interview with Ray Hadley in March, following the ABC’s revelations that asylum seekers were being forced onto orange lifeboats and abandoned on the lip of Indonesian territory. “People will still try it on but what they will find is
a government whose resolve is absolute.”

Trying it on, in this case, means making a desperate voyage by boat to Australia. It means fleeing violence and persecution in the hope a prosperous nation on the other side of the world might offer clemency and safe harbour.

Morrison’s admission in September was an important one, because it goes to the rank consequentialism of his position. He turns back vessels, dangerous as that might be, to arrest the greater danger of boat people drowning. He holds people in awful conditions on islands off the coast, hoping this might deter others from making a similar journey. But despite this, the boats come. They are intercepted, but they come. “People will still try it on.”

What Morrison knows now, which he might not have known in opposition, was that you cannot control circumstances. And so instead he seeks to control information.

His is perhaps the most secretive office in government. His department is among the most opaque. Questions are shuttled back between public servants and the private prison wardens who run our island detention camps. Answers are scant.

The letters we publish today are small windows on a hell we have created. In their innocent cursive are the lives we will destroy to pursue the lie that the boats can be stopped. This is the same lie that says the Abbott government’s solution is a humane one, that it is about more than easy votes in uneasy electorates.

“I hope you would be able to reach my voice to Australian people and the authorities, so that everyone be informed what is happening to us and there is no one to help us,” one woman wrote to us from Nauru.

“I fled Iran because of this sort of injustice, unequality [sic] and sexual harassments that I faced since childhood. I did it in hope of living in a country which cares about humanity and women’s rights. But I was wrong and I don’t have any motivation for life anymore. I tried to start a new life, but this was the second time that I was harassed sexually in Australia’s detention centres. The country I trusted and took refuge to. As a lone woman I suffered sexual harassment. What have I done wrong to deserve this humiliation? I am no longer fine mentaly [sic] and I sincerely ask for your help.”

She has asked. If we are a country of good conscience, we must do more than simply listen.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 15, 2014 as "No safe harbour".

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