Border lines

The message came from a source in the department of immigration. “You’ve clearly hit a raw nerve,” it read. “This is quite extraordinary... It’s almost as many words as your yarn. The only difference: this is shit.”

The reference was to a long statement put out by the department this week, titled “Correcting the record – The Saturday Paper – departmental culture and Nauru”.

The department that rarely comments, that is known for its obfuscation and its operational secrecy, spent almost 1000 words condemning a report by this paper’s chief correspondent, Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Senior staff were not cleared out, it said. Redundancies were a “normal part of the public service”.

Suggestions there was “disdain for resettlement and nation building” – a suggestion made by a former executive of the department – were “untrue and, frankly, ridiculous”. Immigration still grants visas, the statement said. It still confers citizenship.

Border Force was not “another armed force established without discussion”; customs officers had been carrying guns since 2005.

The statement concludes: “It is disappointing The Saturday Paper, along with some other media outlets, continues to make claims that have been consistently refuted. Another such claim is the suggestion that the [Australian Border Force] Act prevents discussion of conditions in regional processing centres. This is incorrect. The ABF Act does not prevent individuals from speaking out about matters of public interest.

“The Act protects sensitive operational information from unauthorised disclosure; it does not restrict anyone’s ability to raise genuine concerns about conditions should they wish to do so through appropriate channels.”

The speciousness of this statement is matched only by its vanity. There is no part of Australia more secret than these camps. Reports of conditions there are fiercely investigated. The federal police are used to cow whistleblowers. Jail terms have been woven into legislation. 

“Personally I feel vulnerable,” one former worker said in the piece about which the department complained. “I fear there could be some insidious backlash. But those kids are suffering, and you can’t un-know that reality.”

The issue is larger than that, however. It is absurd that a government and its department continues to defend the untenable. Every report commissioned into Manus and Nauru has uncovered abuses. None have found conditions to be acceptable. 

The last holdouts in this are the people who administer these gulags, who seem numb to their inhumanity. One caseworker in McKenzie-Murray’s report detailed how Border Force employees would laugh at briefings about suicide attempts. “We would leave in tears at this disregard for human life.”

The department denies this, too. It holds that saying something is false makes it so. This logic is the only thing that can keep running this system of state-orchestrated mistreatment. To treat people like this, reality must be suspended. “The article fails to note,” the statement reads, “the support provided by the department to the government of Nauru to make available extensive mental health, medical and educational support to transferees and refugees in Nauru.”

A year has passed since pictures circulated of Alan Kurdi, a dead toddler washed ashore on a beach in Turkey. A year has passed since the world looked the refugee crisis in the face and saw looking back a dead child in little shoes and little shorts, his little shirt caught up over his stomach.

Kurdi’s death was a galvanising moment, a chance for an image to communicate the horrors at the heart of this issue. But in the year since, nothing has changed. Women are still being raped on islands we doomed them to. Men locked in an indefinite purgatory are still attempting to take their own lives. Children whose care we subcontract are still being abused, mistreated, condemned to broken lives as a warning to all others who might dream to come here.

The lie that keeps all this running, the lie spoken over and over in the department’s long statement, is that the system works. It doesn’t. It never has. It must be taken apart, piece by piece, if we are ever to regain our humanity.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 3, 2016 as "Border lines".

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