Cruel and usual

Despite temporary refuge offered by Indonesia and Malaysia, there are still thousands of Rohingya trapped at sea, beaten back by ungenerous ports. That they will die from starvation or drowning is a certainty for at least some of them. That what they flee is tantamount to genocide is little disputed. Hundreds have been killed in organised massacres. Thousands more are trapped in detention camps.

But on the issue of their safety, Tony Abbott is equivocating. None will reach Australia.

“Australia will do absolutely nothing that gives any encouragement to anyone to think that they can get on a boat, that they can work with people smugglers to start a new life,” he said this week.

“I’m sorry. If you want to start a new life, you come through the front door, not through the back door. Don’t think that getting on a leaky boat at the behest of a people smuggler is going to do you or your family any good.”

Earlier, he had defended what the United Nations rightly called the “maritime ping-pong” played with these refugees. He went on to encourage “more vigorous” actions on the seas near Myanmar.

“I don’t apologise in any way for the action that Australia has taken to preserve safety at sea by turning boats around where necessary,” Abbott said.

“And if other countries choose to do that, frankly that is almost certainly absolutely necessary if the scourge of people smuggling is to be beaten.”

Indonesia’s approach was slightly different. A spokesman for the foreign ministry, Arrmanatha Nasir, implored Australia to act on its treaty obligations with the UN: “If you believe it when you sign it, you should act upon it.”

But as these wretched souls wait for resolution or death, the petulant resolve of our immigration system ground on in the senate. There is now no contention about whether children have been abused in the camps on Nauru, about whether cigarettes were traded for sex, whether the processing system established by consecutive governments has damaged and brutalised people who came here seeking asylum.

Transfield Services and Wilson Security, who together manage Australia’s offshore detention centres, performed poorly at the inquiry. Too often, their representatives obfuscated. Too much was taken on notice, too many basic questions batted back so that the response could be crafted away from the glare of questioning.

But what the inquiry proved was that then immigration minister Scott Morrison’s office and department were routinely made aware of incidents on Nauru. It is unsurprising but important.

As Paul Ronalds, the chief executive of the third organisation working in the centre, Save the Children, told the inquiry: “When serious incidents occur, as CEO of the organisation, I would be made aware … and in some cases it would be raised by me with the minister or the secretary.”

Morrison knew of the terrible conditions on Nauru long before the inquiry that led to this one, the limited but still devastating Moss review. His office made no credible attempts to rectify the situation. Indeed, the only credible response would be to close the detention centre and process asylum seekers onshore.

But that would not happen. Offshore processing is about two things: treating asylum seekers so terribly that the abuses they flee look more appealing than the system into which they might arrive, and doing so out of sight, away from the scrutiny that might bring with it compassion.

That the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse is now requesting documents related to offshore processing must be celebrated. All the historic traumas of which it has already heard must not be repeated in government camps at the edges of our borders. And we can have no faith in the government alone to make sure that is not the case.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 23, 2015 as "Cruel and usual".

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