‘The boats are coming’ is one of the greatest lies told to the Australian people | Behrouz Boochani | Opinion
In less than a month the political strategy of exiling and incarcerating refugees on Manus Island and Nauru will hit the six-year mark – we enter the seventh year of illegal imprisonment. If we pay attention to the discourse and propaganda techniques of consecutive governments over these years we notice that essentially the same language and rhetoric has been maintained without the slightest change. Every government has imposed the same logic on society: the policies have been designed and implemented to “stop the boats”. As a result of this simplistic reasoning they have justified an inhumane political program.
The most prominent slogan for groups opposing this policy over all these years has been “Bring Them Here”. This slogan has been the basis for many pro-refugee activist groups and featured in so many campaigns to free the refugees from offshore prisons. Unfortunately, this slogan and these campaigns have been unsuccessful in achieving their objectives.
The greatest error that many have committed is accepting the government’s reasoning which is based on the simple formula: “We have incarcerated these people on Manus and Nauru to ‘stop the boats’”. If one analyses the different dimensions of this particular exile policy it becomes obvious that the government is lying.
The policy of exiling refugees to offshore prisons is in no way a deterrent. Even if we just entertained the idea that the policy of exile really worked then it would have been relevant to roughly the first six months to a year of its implementation. There is no reasoning that justifies over six years of incarceration of innocent people – an imprisonment that continues to this day. This is a lie that the Australian Liberal party has ingrained in the minds of the public and the media for years. However, it is very likely that at some point they actually started to believe their own lie.
A simple question needs to be discussed in detail regarding the refugees in Indonesia, those people who the Australian government has always considered a danger to national security and Australian values: why haven’t refugees in Indonesia been coming to Australia by boat over recent years?
The Australian media have continuously validated and promoted the announcements of the home affairs minister, Peter Dutton. But have any mainstream media organisations investigated the situation and experiences in Indonesia? How many of them have considered the details and dynamics from the place where they fear the boats might embark? The truth is that refugees stuck in Indonesia will never risk losing their money to people smugglers, risk their lives battling the dangers of the ocean, and risk being pushed back to Indonesia in the end.
The reality is that no one is observing the situation in Manus and Nauru, no one considers our fate, no one is waiting to see when we are freed, no one is looking to see where we will be settled.
Many Australians liken the policy of exiling people to Manus and Nauru to a brick constituting a structure constructed by the government. According to this view, if one brick is removed from this building the whole edifice will suddenly collapse. I argue that this view is completely wrong. Over six years the Australian government has transferred about 1,000 people from these two islands to Australia. In contrast to the government logic, not one boat has come into Australian waters. In addition to this, since 2013 the government has transferred to Australia hundreds of refugees who had been incarcerated on Christmas Island. These refugees were always told they would never make it to Australia and would be eventually exiled to Manus and Nauru. Again, no boats made it into Australian waters. According to official statistics the government sent more than another 700 to the US. Again, no boats came in. The group of refugees in Manus has reduced from 900 individuals in 2016 to 450. In Nauru the numbers reduced from 1,200 to 250 in the same period.
One conclusion can be reasonably arrived at. Obviously, the government’s intention has never been to close these prisons. Dutton says he would like to free everyone overnight if he could but cannot because the boats would start coming again. This is an outright lie.
The question remains, however, if this policy has no relationship with boats arriving in Australia then why does the government insist on keeping people imprisoned on these islands over these years?
The exile and incarceration of refugees on Manus and Nauru is based on three fundamental pillars. 1) Political profit for both major parties; 2) Economic gain; 3) An ideological basis which is associated with the individual psychology of people such as Dutton.
Firstly, this policy guarantees the accumulation of political capital for the Liberal party. In the 2016 elections they made very good use of the issue of “border protection” for gaining votes, putting the Labor party on the defence. During the last elections two months ago the Liberal party again tried to make use of this approach as part of the campaign of fear they were planning – the most prominent example of this intention was manifested in Scott Morrison’s visit to Christmas Island as a campaign tool. However, the Christchurch terrorist attack in New Zealand influenced the government’s decision not to use the “refugee card” for the first time since the Howard era.
The existence of these two-island prisons has always been a justification for the political profit-making of the Liberal party. By making these sites the highlight of their campaign they were sending a message to voters that they were prioritising national security. They were creating the impression that they were strong and the Labor party weak.
For years the Labor party sought to resist the political attack by adamantly supporting the same political project, especially before the last election. For years the two parties have been in competition over who could better sustain the cruel and inhumane policy. Over the years the government has been open about the fact that they do not want to do away with this political tool; a policy that has been instrumental in keeping the Labor party on the defensive.
The second pillar of this political project is the economic gain involving these two island prisons. According to the architects of this very political strategy there has always been the need for secrecy around the contracts given to operate the prisons. There has been a lack of transparency on how the Manus and Nauru contracts are run.
Exact figures are difficult to establish but more than $9bn has been spent on this state-sanctioned hostage taking and boat turnbacks. At least 10 large companies have signed multimillion-dollar contracts with the government over these years.
The healthcare company IHMS has been working in these island prisons for six years – why hasn’t any other company been able to take their place? There is also the contract scandal involving security company Paladin, an agreement worth $423m. How is this money being spent? Where is the money going?
What is clear is this: There are strong lobbies that see it in their best commercial interests to maintain this political strategy. Through this whole process millions of dollars have exchanged hands. Financial profit is one of the main pillars of this political program.
But the third fundamental pillar pertains to individual gain and can be understood by a psychological examination of Dutton and the home affairs department secretary, Mike Pezzullo. The roots of this pillar are ideological.
Dutton has become the most influential minister in the country’s history by abusing the concept of national security. Over recent years he has increased his power step by step and at one time was vying for the post of prime minister. His political success has come from maintaining this political project at any cost.
Dutton uses every opportunity available to attack the character of refugees. In one recent example he targeted women who have been victims of rape and other kinds of sexual abuse and were transferred to Australia for treatment. He accused them of lying. On many occasions he has labelled refugees as criminals, rapists and murderers. Without a doubt, this political strategy has ideological foundations based on racism.
In the beginning the policy of exiling refugees to Manus and Nauru might have been a simple policy; it was supposed to be in place for less than one year. However, with the passing of time and the influence of historical, ideological and sadistic dimensions the policy mutated. Now after six years we must pose some fundamental questions. Why has the Liberal party failed to resolve this issue after all these years and after spending billions of dollars? Why are they still exploiting the public and lying to them using the fabricated notion of national security? Why are they still terrifying the public regarding boats? Why are they exploiting Manus and Nauru and justifying their actions using the rhetoric of stopping the boats?
A general look at this situation reveals that the Australian government never had the intention of resolving this issue.
If the government had intended to gradually remove one person from this island every three days then all the refugees would be freed by now. By accepting the New Zealand offer to take 150 people a year the government would have ended this situation. Right now they could use the medevac law to evacuate all the sick refugees from the island over a period of two to three months. Over these years the government could have easily emptied these prison camps, but the reality is that they earn political profit for their parties; there are people who benefit financially; and there are also the individual ideological gains. For these reasons they have never intended on solving this issue. “The boats are coming” is one of the greatest lies told to the Australian people in decades. History will reveal all.
• Behrouz Boochani is a writer, journalist, associate professor at UNSW, and refugee in Manus
• Translation: Omid Tofighian, American University in Cairo/University of Sydney