Apology expected

The most damning part, the most appalling, were the six words Immigration Minister Peter Dutton spoke in his first interview following the leak of thousands of documents recording allegations of abuse on Nauru. The words were free of emotion and everything that is wrong with this situation. “Most of that’s,” Dutton said, “been reported before.”

This is the reality in Australia. Abuse does not trouble ministers. It does not worry voters. We know about it. But the political calculus says we do not care.

A child is beaten by a guard, their throat held, their face smashed against the ground, a chair thrown at them, and we do not care.

A parent made desperate by mistreatment plans to carry their children beneath the waves, to die with their family, and we do not care.

A girl under 10, a victim of sexual abuse, undresses and encourages a group of adults to violate her, and we do not care.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull says these people, people we sent to Nauru and for whose indefinite detention we are paying, are the responsibility of the Nauru government. He ignores the calls for a royal commission. He leaves it to a failed state, a state that expelled its judiciary and its coroner, to investigate the lives we ruin there.

Scott Morrison, who was immigration minister when much of this abuse was reported, simply says: “It’s important to stress that incident reports of themselves aren’t a reporting of fact; they are reporting that an allegation has been made of a particular action.”

The Nauru files, reported by The Guardian, are a logbook of desperation. Each word is another obscenity scratched out in the history of this country’s refugee policy. Everywhere but here, these reports draw condemnation.

The UNHCR called for the immediate removal of asylum seekers from Nauru. It saw these reports as “a progressive deterioration of the situation of refugees and asylum seekers”.

The Australian Medical Association called for the establishment of an independent investigative body, removed from government, to inquire into the situation.

The senior director for research at Amnesty International, Anna Neistat, said: “The Australian government has engaged in one of the most successful mass cover-ups I’ve witnessed in my career of documenting human rights violations. They’ve repeatedly said this kind of abuse has not been going on. They’ve been lying.”

The government knows about this abuse but it does not care. The public knows, too. Dutton is correct when he says much of this has already been reported. But he is wrong when he mistakes this for an excuse. If anything, it makes it worse.

Some suffering is ignored because it is difficult. Society turns away from Indigenous disadvantage because the issue is complex and the solutions unclear. The treatment of refugees is not like that. The solution is simple: bring these people to Australia.

But for decades Australia has been told not to care for these people. It has been told they are terrorists, queue jumpers, bludgers who will take your jobs. Politicians have won elections demonising them. The public has decided not to care. People die in these camps, victims of our callousness.

One day, a prime minister will apologise to the people we hurt in offshore detention. One day we will say sorry for the boys and girls whose childhoods we stole, for the parents we drove mad, for the young men and women who tried to kill themselves to halt the unending cruelty of their lives.

We will say sorry for the things we knew. We will say sorry and hope that we never again treat people the way we treated refugees. We will talk in hushed voices about the shame of the politics under which we currently live. Ministers like Dutton and Morrison will be named for their barbarism.

One day we will say sorry and face up to the racist indifference with which we police our borders. Hopefully that day is not so far away.


Lifeline 13 11 14

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 13, 2016 as "Apology expected".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on June 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.