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Fixations of Propriety: The Manus Closure Scandal

When confronted with the spectacle of the malnourished, the impoverished, the famine stricken, and the desperate, the Australian political instinct is simple: Why did these poor fools get themselves into this mix? With each wave of refugees arriving in the country’s young history, the cold shoulder has mixed with the lukewarm welcome.

At no points have refugees been welcomed so much as grudgingly accepted. Australia, after all, has a humanitarian intake, and boasts about it like a vulnerable child who feels her grades the best in class.

Like a necessary pantomime, Australia’s distant, estranging middle-class tediousness treats human rights as the necessary costume at the international human rights party. To be such an international citizen, conventions are signed, and modestly implemented. Some are even abused with a degree of legalised gusto.

In a country with no bill of rights, it can hardly be any other way. The rights culture, it can be said, is one of smugness and suspicion. Supremacy resides with Parliament, and a misplaced belief that the executive will somehow be compliant.

The sentiment towards refugees and asylum seekers taking the sea route hardened after the 1990s, when the means of arrival became an issue in Australian politics. (You cannot be punished or discriminated against on the manner of travel under the Refugee Convention, but the lawyers were obviously napping at stages). Decent people, after all, took planes, and if they did arrive by boat, would surely do the appropriate thing and fly a decent class.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the issue of pressing concern was the arrival of Vietnamese boat people fleeing the Communist Republic. Then, as now, the issue of how these people were arriving bothered certain Australian figures, most notably John Howard. Aqueous borne arrivals, notably of the Asiatic sort, terrified him.

The currently broken, and easily refutable theme in the practiced inhumanity against those now defiantly assembled on the closed Manus processing facility at the Lombrum Naval Base, is that of the “market model”. Refugees and asylum seekers should never partake in a system of exchange. Money for passage is a smutty exchange best stamped out.

To that end, refugee and asylum seeker policy in Australia resembles that of a tax meeting or Reserve Bank board gathering. The agenda never changes: what markets are appropriate, and which ones are not?

The market that encourages the pursuit of the Refugee Convention, its articles, its spirit, is discouraged by the denizens of propriety. To flee persecution, harm and mortal risk, forms the quintessence of international refugee law, but best take a number and wait your turn.

The problem with this approach is simple: awaiting that vital turn in this artificially contrived queue can lead to interminable periods of processing, detention and waiting in camps of varying degrees of comfort. Often, these are located in impoverished states. Rarely are they found in wealthier ones.

Inevitably, this situation of crippling stagnation has produced, over the decades, individuals who facilitate the movement of peoples. Money, often life savings, exchange hands. Risky routes are traversed. Death can never be ruled out as a possible outcome.

Rather than providing solace and comfort to those who brave such routes, the propriety-driven market modellers in Australian Immigration and Border Protection prefer to discourage, and criminalise, the smuggler. But more to the point, the product – individuals availing themselves of the means to reach Australia – are also to be criminalised. Like drug producer like drugs; like pornographer, like porn. All, to be frowned upon, jailed, detained.

The reduction of the entire issue to a business model has similarities to another absurd and futile argument: the puritanical efforts to criminalise prostitution. Where there is demand, there will be supply.

As sex has been a commodity for sale since humans discovered the primeval delights, and desperate pitfalls, of copulation, supply has been forthcoming. The only way you abolish prostitution would be to abolish sex, and, perhaps, lobotimise the entire human race. (This is a proposition that would, no doubt, rest well with the Catherine McKinnon-Andrea Dworkin school of totalitarian, and essentially sexless human relations).

In refugee politics, a similar type of totalitarian thinking on human relations has taken hold. The refugee must be proper, decent, and very well disposed to begin with. Fleeing poverty and bombs, one must do so with a stoic determination without mental strain, concern of debility. But importantly, in fleeing, one should wait one’s turn. Shut up and put up – Australians are generous.

Those who have bucked this have ended up in such places of tragedy and travesty as Nauru and the Manus Island Centre. The Australian state, through its subsidised satraps, has effectively relocated and dehumanised individuals that could have been processed and resettled far more cheaply in Australia. But that would not be proper.

The language of propriety is neatly tied to the language of property, ownership, and liberal market values. It would be inappropriate to pay a smuggler to assist you in discharging obligations due under the Refugee Convention, but it would also be inappropriate to refuse to relocate to other processing centres where safety at the hands of the local population is questionable.

The 570 men who remain at the facility are therefore deemed, in the words of government minister Christopher Pyne, “squatters”. They supposedly have a choice, a distinctly bankrupt way of assessing the problem given that they never asked to be placed on Manus to begin with.

These obstinate souls are now told they have three centres to be relocated to in Lorengau, faux refugee Hiltons with running water, food and in some cases spending money, yet refuse to heed the direction of authorities. They are, essentially, asserting rights that Australian and PNG authorities regard as non-existent. Forcible removal is deemed imminent.

The term “squatter” has a curious historical salience: Australia was essentially settled (read conquered, plundered, appropriated) by squatters. Indeed, the entire Australian psyche was shaped by squattocratic values. Fascinating, then, when confronted with such a spectacle, it should offend.

As the Manus Island brutality show persists, human rights advocates issue pleas, politicians in Canberra issue cant-filled rebukes, and officials in the Immigration ministry insist on the nonsensical notion that detaining individuals on land is a humanitarian response to preventing deaths at sea. The mendacity of refugee politics knows no end, but obscene propriety, at whatever cost, shall prevail.


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  1. Terry2

    The Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea has found that the detention of these men, without charge, trial or conviction, is unconstitutional and the detention centre must be closed and the men released.

    So Dutton dismantles the detention centre, takes out all of his guards who return to Australia, removes the power generators and disables the water supply sewerage system. He then creates another centre on another part of the island where the men will be ‘housed’ and in the process he thumbs his nose at the PNG Supreme Court as the men are still on the island, they have no travel documents or passports, they cannot gain PNG citizenship so they cannot leave PNG – in fact it seems that they cannot leave the island.

    Effectively he has washed his hands of our responsibility for these men and left it to the PNG government to sort out a mess of his making.

    To add insult to injury, when New Zealand try to step in and offer some humanity by resettling 150 of these men he declines the offer.

  2. paul walter

    Gone beyond middle class abstractiosm to outright brown shirt cruelty. Dutton is petit bourgeois personified.

  3. Harquebus

    The number of refugees is going to increase. So many articles criticizing their treatment and yet, hardly a one addresses the root causes.

    “Climate change migration is reaching crisis proportions, wrote Robert Glasser, the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction”
    “In short: the causes of the growing massive displacement of human beings are well known. People are forced to leave their homes and families due to the flagrant lack of political wisdom and the capacity of decision-makers to address the roots instead of just complaining and alarming their societies. Do they really think that building walls and wire fences can stop climate change, food insecurity, poverty and conflicts?”

    The Roots of Exodus: Why Are People Compelled to Leave their Homes?

  4. Phil

    Dr Binoy Kampmark never fails to nail an issue down and tell it like it is as opposed, in this case as to how we might wish to see ourselves.

    I detest conservatism, and hold the Turnbull conservative government in contempt, but I have to accept that this rotten, stinking government is the product of our so called democratic system.

    I’m not at all sure that I will vote in any further elections as I feel our voting system has failed us – proof is Turnbull’s contemptible, deceitful administration.

  5. helvityni

    Binoy Kampmark has yet again written an excellent , compassionate article about asylum seekers, yet as usual it goes almost unnoticed….

    Is this now the Oz standard of what we find acceptable; and what right have we to tell NZ leaders not to take them either…

  6. Adrianne Haddow

    The myth of Australian generosity and the “fair go” must surely be dead, given the population’s acceptance of the Fortress Australia mentality.
    We still like to think of ourselves as the warm, all- encompassing country in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

    To hear and see the hypocrisy of Turnbull, and his references to our ‘successful multicultural society’, his passionate defence of Frydenburg’s family as the poor refugees fleeing the persecution of the Hungarian fascists, while at the same time defending our gulags for present day refugees in PNG and Nauru, is vomit inducing.

    Thank you Dr Kampmark. Your excellent articles always offer a fresh, critical way of viewing our Australian society and the lies we tell ourselves to help us sleep at night.

  7. Terry2

    Australian Border Force have taken delivery of five of the eight Cape Class patrol boats which in total have cost us $330 million and, once they find a way of launching interception tender boats, they together with the daily aerial surveillance will continue to ensure that no people smugglers boats enter Australian waters.

    To call the ongoing indefinite detention of people on Manus and Nauru islands a deterrent for people getting on boats is clearly misleading and deceptive as it is the fortress Australia policy now known as the Ring of Steel that has stemmed the flow of boats.

    We have also rejected the offers from New Zealand to start taking some of these people because Dutton says, quite irrationally, that after five years residence in New Zealand these people could apply for New Zealand citizenship and like any other Kiwi they could visit Australia. The original offer from previous NZ Prime Minister John Key was in 2014 and at a rate of 150 per year we would have cleared Manus by now.

    This crazy rationale is Dutton’s political strategy to keep this situation to the fore as a means of winning points and wedging Labor : it is total cynical and political opportunism.

  8. helvityni

    If these people would have been lucky enough, and would have rightfully landed in NZ, so how can our government still think that they would want to leave NZ and to come back to Oz, to the place of their torture. What a delusional way of thinking by our leaders….

    Also I’m heartened by the fact that John Key is a right-winger.What happened to Oz…?

  9. guest

    Yes, Terry 2, it is interestssing to look at the numbers. There has been great consternation about 50 000 refugees coming by boat over 5 years – which means that at that rate it would have taken 10 years to fill the MCG.

    The main justification for imprisoning people on the islands is that it saves them from drowning – but we never heard anything about the drownings of people fleeing from Communism in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos…perhaps as many as 5000.

    Nor was drowning mentioned as first with regard to those fleeing from Sri Lanka, Iran, Iraq, etc. Instead, if they came by boat, they were accused of being potential terrorists, disease carriers, job takers, welfare seekers, thieves of our women, queue jumpers and cheats without papers. Only later did a posture of sympathy and compassion for the drowned provide an appearance that what was being done was legal.

    But of course there was never any explanation about why people might have fled with no recourse to an ‘orderly and managed, official” means of coming to Oz.

    Now the demonisation continues. At a time when the UNHRC and Amnesty International condemn the present situation, and the Papua New Guinea High Court declares the indefinite detention illegal, and the Stop the Boats policy as illegal, there are those who continue to demonise the inmates as sex and drug addicts. And the Oz colonial power abandons any responsibility, leaving it all to PNG and Nauru.

    All of this has been discussed over and over. The explanation for the present situation is that it is what the people of Oz want – and so we have the rise of the One Nation party, for example, and support for Dutton and his desperate attempt to present his action as the only way to stop a flood of boat people. But they can come by plane – if they pay.

    Yet, you know, we see how we treat our own First Nations. Ask them what they want and when they tell us, without further consultation, that would not be acceptable to the rest of the nation.

    We see the same discrimination against LGBTIQ people. And against multicultualism. We are all meant to conform to the conservative mould.

    If this Government is the model, it has to be told it is out of date, redundant….Kaput!

  10. diannaart

    Mention of Catherine McKinnon-Andrea Dworkin and not mentioning the millennia of corruption of healthy sexual behaviour by religion is very interesting, Binoy.

    Otherwise an excellent article detailing what we already know – Australia’s treatment is refugees is now on a par with some of the worst crimes against humanity in history.

  11. denisethompsonfeminism

    “the Catherine McKinnon-Andrea Dworkin school of totalitarian, and essentially sexless human relations”. What on earth are you talking about, Binoy Kampmark? Catharine (note the ‘a’) McKinnon and Andrea Dworkin were not trying to abolish sex. (How could they? It makes no sense). They were trying to regulate pornography, in the interests of the women who had been used without their consent and who had no power to prevent the continuing use of their bodies and faces. Might I suggest you read the work of these women, and stop repeating ignorant rubbish. Are you saying that pornography is ‘human sexuality’, or that prostitution is? Really? Prostitution is male sexuality. The demand for prostitution is men’s. The woman’s sexuality may or may not be involved, but her overriding interest is the money, not the sex.

  12. Arthur Baker

    Guest writes “But they can come by plane – if they pay.”

    No, actually, they can’t. For a long time now, Australia has implemented measures in numerous Asian countries to prevent people considered “an asylum risk” (there’s a phrase to amaze, indeed) from obtaining a visa. So it’s catch 22. If you are of an ethnic group considered likely to request asylum on arrival, they won’t let you on an aircraft. But when you take the only other option, a boat, they lock you up on Manus or Nauru for years and say you’ll never settle in Australia.

    A neat stitch-up, which works politically for the Liberals and Nationals. And that’s the whole point. It’s nothing to do with honouring our international treaty commitments, all about political point-scoring.

  13. paul walter

    Yes. EXCELLENT article from Dr Kampmark.

    Trust the zealots to forget that the essay was about Manus Island.

  14. diannaart

    You are correct Paul Walter. The article is about Manus Island and not about Dr Kampmark’s opinion of a couple of women who have problems with pornography.

    If the good Doctor had wished to draw an analogy with the vilification of the Manus Island refugees – perhaps he could have used the dubious campaign by our government against South Australian ventures into mitigating against climate change, or the vicious campaign against Julia Gillard by the same political party when she was PM.

    I am not a zealot. You are doing what our dreadful federal government is doing and making false claims about me.

    (Off topic – No one is stopping porn – it remains a profitable industry for a few).

  15. win jeavons

    ” We’ve boundless plains to share” ; but only the bits the miners don’t want , and only if you are clones of us. I refuse to sing this lie anymore.

  16. paul walter

    Most of the plains are desert.

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