Sobering fudges plague Aust’s treatment of asylum seekers

The latest fudge is to pretend it isn’t really detention at all. The gates are open, never mind the horrors beyond them. Never mind the rapes and the beatings. The reports from minors that they have been whipped and stomped beyond the camps. Never mind the inadequate housing, the threats from uneasy locals, the need for abortions for the women pregnant to their attackers.

It is part of the fudge – being tested in the High Court this week – that says the camp on Nauru is not really Australia’s responsibility. We might pay for it, but it is not ours. The abuses there, which would not happen had we not built the camp and filled it with desperate people, are not our problem.

This itself is part of a long list of fudges, the subject of 50 or so High Court challenges in the past decade.

There was the fudge, in 2002, that tried to remove the court’s jurisdiction from immigration review. This followed a number of fudges, which said refugees could be returned to their country of origin if they gave up that bit of their character that had made them refugees in the first instance: their religion, or their sexuality, or similar.

There was the fudge of “independent” contractors processing claims, rather than Commonwealth officials, in the hope of avoiding judicial review.

Then there was the fudge that said you could settle refugees in countries that couldn’t meet relevant human rights standards. Or the fudge that excised Australia from its own migration zone. 

All of this is cynical. But behind that cynicism is a dangerous reality. It is not safe inside the walls of the dentition centre on Nauru, and it is even less safe outside them.

Already we know of refugee women raped in the community, one of them immolated after the attack, her skin falling from her in chunks. She was brought to Australia for an abortion after that episode, only to be deported back to Nauru.

Another woman raped on the island, a 23-year-old Somali, is desperately seeking leave to Australia for an abortion denied to her on Nauru. At time of press, the prime minister remained unresponsive to her requests.

A spokesman for the prime minister said it was a matter for the immigration minister. A spokesman for the immigration minister said the care on Nauru was “professional and co-ordinated”, which is a curious description of a system that would force her to carry to term the child produced by her rape.

The spokesman continued: “The Department of Immigration and Border Protection is aware of an allegation of sexual assault. Various supports are provided to alleged victims through the government of Nauru Sexual Assault Unit and service providers. Alleged victims are also supported to provide a report to the Nauruan Police Force.”

It took less than a day for the Nauruan government to show, in a statement of its own, the awful hollowness of that claim: “The government of Nauru says refugees in the country are in no physical danger and stories of locals attacking them are largely fabricated to further political agendas and influence the Australian government.”

This is the grim truth of the country to which we have shifted our responsibilities – a country that disbelieves abused women, that shamelessly ignores harrowing mistreatment.

Irrespective of what the High Court finds, the effectiveness or otherwise of our government’s last fudge, these people are Australia’s responsibility. It is not just the young Somali woman brutalised by the system we built who should be brought immediately to Australia: it is everyone in the camp.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 10, 2015 as "Sobering fudges".

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