Their island prison


By Warwick McFadyen

I am standing on a station platform in Melbourne. It’s peak hour. A train pulls in. It’s so full I decide to let it pass and wait for another. In a few minutes another pulls in, but it’s the same story. Full. The third train is half empty, I board it and make my way home, accompanying the other travellers. I’ve read that each train service at full capacity can carry 800 people. So, in two-and-a-half trains 2000 people are making a journey home.

I am standing on a station platform. The full-capacity trains stop and take off, but I do not see commuters; I see the faces of the unknown, the asylum seekers of Manus and Nauru. This is a trick of the conscience upon the conscious. I only recognise a handful of faces, maybe fewer names. They are, in reality, going nowhere. But their faces tell a story of deprivation. It is one of inhumane treatment built on political expediency and despicable trading of life for opportunism. It is an inglorious chapter in our nation’s history where puffed-up nationalism turns refugees into criminals.

It can turn one refugee who thought of Australia as a haven to flee where he was offloaded. Iranian Loghman Sawari, 21, sought a good life, but he ended up on Manus, where he has been for three years; on the brink of bleak despair, he managed to get to Fiji, only to be deported back to Manus. Kafka has nothing on us.

The face on the trains do not comprise an army of invaders. It is merely two and a half trains. And yet we have no room for these refugees in Australia, nowhere in this vast land, in this continent of 7.5 million square kilometres. Sorry, we’re full up. Go somewhere else. There are more than 65 million displaced people in the world, so it just as well we’re so far from anywhere.

And the government policy, no matter who the government is, is this: If you arrive by boat, wretched and torn from your home, we give you only this: Nothing. We put you somewhere else, out of sight.

And now we’re trying to put you somewhere else that’s even farther away from us.

Understand, this is how my government thinks:

You know (you have been told enough times) that you will never set foot on Australian soil. It will be better for your state of mind that you understand why this is so. (After understanding comes acceptance, repeat this enough times in the tropical sun behind wire and you will find the anger will dissipate.)

If we were to say, please come, we have plenty of space, we have hope to give you, we can give you asylum, then what message does that send to the world? In our mind, it sends the wrong one. We did not establish Operation Sovereign Borders, redefine your humanness as illegal maritime arrivals, and strut the world stage saying, as former immigration minister and now Treasurer Scott Morrison said, that the world was now catching up to us! for nothing.

If we were to say welcome, it also says that we are soft in the heart and soft in the head. The avarice of people smugglers will rise and more of you will come. Our borders will bleed. Soon enough, waves upon waves of refugees will be washing through our cities, sullying our way of life, tainting our stream of daily normality with their wretchedness. It took 200 years for our bigotry to refine itself into the thread that runs through our actions. This you should know, is how some people think. Others, the do-gooders, think we can accommodate you. Remember this, they are not the government.

It takes a steely determination to acknowledge and yet still refuse asylum for the 75 per cent of you on those islands who have been deemed refugees through official channels. We even risked a falling-out with America over trying to offload 1250 of you. And you were almost gone (even further) from our sight except for the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. Trump only sees the deal, and the pity for you is that he says it is a dumb deal. You can understand his point. What would he see as his advantage from going through with the deal when he has just banned refugees entering the United States? Grumpy isn’t the word for it. “Extreme vetting” is your lot.

Speaking to business executives, Trump said countries were taking ‘’advantage of us … really terribly taking advantage of us. I have a lot of respect for Australia, I love Australia as a country. But we had a problem where for whatever reason President Obama said that they were going to take probably well over 1000 illegal immigrants who were in prisons and they were going to bring them and take them into this country, and I just said ‘why?’ Why are we doing this? What’s the purpose?”

He thought some of you perhaps could become the next Boston bombers.

Perhaps this is what you’re planning when you are not planning to self-harm or kill yourself. You cannot plan to come here anytime ever again in your life, even if decades later you have by some miracle survived hell, restarted your life in another country. The stain upon you in our eyes is forever, and in the law.

The Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull believes the deal with America may still happen. Manus and Nauru prisons, sorry we call them detention centres (as in detention equals you’re just being held for a little while after school and centres, really it’s like a neighbourhood community hall) will be shut and all this, and you, will be a distant memory.

You may believe in a miracle and that Turnbull will override politics and say, You know what, this is wrong. I should be doing the right thing and the right thing is to give you asylum.

This is a message to the world, too. It speaks of a purity of the heart. And you know, should you ever meet any of us, we will find us very warm and open-hearted. We pride ourselves on such qualities.

Warwick McFadyen is a freelance writer and editor

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