Stop the boats but don’t stop humanity

By Hannah Tischer | 02 May 19
refugees are people
Loves Makes Way

I still remember the callous advertising campaign from 2014. You couldn’t turn on the TV without seeing the commander of Operation Sovereign Borders in his military uniform, patriotic as can be, threatening anyone arriving by boat, “You will not make Australia home”. The then prime minister, Tony Abbott, made his stance against people smugglers painfully clear and it’s worth mentioning that since his strict border policy came into effect, the boats have been stopped. But at what cost?

People may no longer be drowning at sea but they are still dying under our care. And wasn’t the whole point of stopping the boats to save innocent lives? We’ve just swapped illegal boats for illegal detention. Same problem, different name.

The facilities we use for asylum seekers and refugees have long caused international contention, but none so much as the Manus Island detention centre. When the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea ruled it as illegal in 2016, all 800 men still had to go somewhere, and since Australia and New Zealand were very clearly off the cards, and the line for the US wasn’t moving at all, the long-awaited solution was to build another under-staffed, under-stocked, unsafe and medically unequipped prison but call it East Lorengau Transit Centre instead. Same problem, different name.

The Australian Medical Association (AMA) called our refugee situation an urgent humanitarian crisis. The once rare cases of self-harm, starvation, depression, and suicide in offshore processing facilities have become worryingly common and the Australian public needs to hear about it. For years, doctors who worked at both Nauru and Manus had been asking to end the silence but the government wanted to keep all medical treatments as far away from Australia as the refugees themselves.

Fortunately, last year we saw the power of the people in action with the #KidsoffNauru campaign. The success of this campaign brought the number of children in detention from 119 to zero, shed a much needed light on conditions in detention centres, and also became the catalyst for Kerryn Phelp’s medevac bill.

Phelps, the Independent MP and former president of the AMA, was a vital player in the #KidsoffNauru campaign and a fierce advocate for refugee rights. The logic behind her medevac bill is simple: doctors should be making the decisions about medical transfers for refugees in offshore processing, not politicians. With the support of Labor, the Greens, and Independents, her bill was recently passed, much to the Coalition’s dismay.

The government’s campaign is relying on scaring voters rather than educating them, but stay focused on the facts and the Australia you want the world to see. Because the world is watching.

Current Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, along with Home Affairs Minister, Peter Dutton, believe this small act of human kindness will spur people smugglers into action again and bring the boats back. As a result (and a reaction to a great political loss) they are upping all border security measures and assessing every transferee’s security threat to Australia with meticulous precision.

Furthermore, Morrison is reopening the Christmas Island detention centre in order to facilitate what he anticipates will be an overwhelming number of transfers. Dutton is adding fuel to the fire by saying these transfers will “displace” Australian citizens from their own medical treatment.

The concerns could be genuine, but the immediate fear is unnecessary. The process hasn’t even begun yet and we’re already being told how catastrophically it will end. If there’s one thing I hoped that Brexit and Trump would’ve taught us, it’s that fear doesn’t lead to better outcomes, but it’s a scare tactic the government continues to use to win votes.

No-one wants the boats back. No-one wants people dying at sea or children washing up on the shore. But we also don’t want to see them stuck in cages, suffering, losing hope, and still dying. It’s the same problem. It’s always been the same problem. And the government can continue to pat themselves on the back about how they stopped the boats but that doesn’t mean their hands are clean.

The government’s campaign is relying on scaring voters rather than educating them, but stay focused on the facts and the Australia you want the world to see. Because the world is watching.

It’s time we stop repeating history and approach our national issues with humanity and respect instead of fear and bigotry. Make your vote count.