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Sickness and Paranoia: The Morrison Government’s Refugee Problem

The passage of amendments to the Migration Act 1958 (Cth) by the Australian House of Representatives and the Senate this week was less a case of celebration than necessitous deliverance. The mental well-being of asylum-seekers on Manus Island and Nauru, or lack thereof, has been documented extensively from Australian legal representatives to members of Médecins Sans Frontières.

The Medevac Bill is scripted in clunky fashion typical of Australian drafting, but it does what other items of legislation have not: privilege, to some extent at least, medical opinion on the desperate situation of those kept in indefinite detention. Australia’s own crude experiment of what might be termed “biopolitical” control has had predictably disastrous consequences on health and well-being.

The legislation supplies the lawful basis for refugees and asylum seekers to be transferred to Australia for “medical or psychiatric assessment or treatment”. “Aside from being a circuit breaker to current arrangements,” claim Nicholas Proctor and Mary Anne Kenny, “the bill is a new opportunity to establish agreed governance arrangements and a clinical pathway for recognising and responding to medical need without political interference.”

Previously, Australian governments have fought any transfer arrangements of refugees and asylum seekers from Canberra’s tropical gulag with rabid ferocity. Be it men, women or children, any show of compassion has been given the cold sneer.

The assessment of each patient is to be conducted by two doctors, either in person or remotely, keeping in mind psychiatric and treatment needs. Crucial here is the consideration about whether those supposedly five-star facilities in Nauru or Manus Island supply any adequate basis for treating psychiatric and medical disorders.

It would be foolish to presume that the new provisions somehow alleviate the prospects of political interference. The 72-hour window limit for the Minister for Home Affairs merely imposes a note of urgency; he otherwise retains power of approval or refusal over the recommendations regarding transferrals. A fire-stop of sorts restraining the minister has been put in place, one involving an Independent Health Advice Panel, but this is hardly the end of the matter. Traditional grounds for refusal are also available: a person having a “substantial criminal record” or facing an adverse security assessment might be refused leave to be treated in Australia.

The Coalition was hoping to catch out the opposition on grounds of constitutionality. (All about inappropriate expenditure, you see.) That was swiftly remedied by another amendment by the Labor party deeming all members sitting on the medical panel pro bono officials.

Stung and out manoeuvred in parliament, the Morrison government turned savage; facing electoral defeat (the latest poll figures show that a farm slaughter awaits), the signal to abandon reason was there. Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Minister for Finance Mathias Cormann, Attorney-General Christian Porter and a host of worthies from the government side have been drumming the same note of feral abandon: opposition politicians are weak on protecting Australia’s sacred borders; refugees should be tarred and feathered as criminals of various sorts.

Labor, tweeted Morrison, “have learned nothing from their past failures and cannot be trusted to keep our borders and Australia strong.” The Coalition’s border protection policy, he reiterated with confidence trickster’s gumption, “stopped the boats, stopped the deaths at sea, closed the detention centres, removed all children from detention and from Nauru.”

Former Prime Minister and backbencher Tony Abbott has been doing his bit as spear thrower, arguing that, “If you lose control of the border, you lose control of the country.” (Is this code for bowel and body?)

Porter’s reasoning is imaginatively skewed: the bill as passed permits individuals to be transferred to Australia who are either charged and not convicted; or convicted yet not sentenced. “At the very last moment, Labor put an amendment in that would give some discretion to the minister to stop people who are criminals, in effect, from coming to Australia.” Such a measure would fail, given that sentencing was “a very long tunnel”, and that ministerial discretion could not be exercised to keep the rotters out.

Fancifully, Porter’s nasty bout of demonisation ignores the effects the detention regime have had on the individuals in question. Prisons are schools for crime; detention centres are sites for mental ruination. In some cases, these have resulted in sexual predation and desperation, hardly a cause of justification, but perfectly understandable in Canberra’s desire to degrade a certain class of refugee. If you treat people like animals, expect certain results.

A broader principle is also ignored: those either charged or convicted are not entitled to decent medical care. They are, whatever their legal status, to suffer. Yet again, Australia’s inherent penal mentality manifests.

Rounding the list of terrors involved, government representatives have been focusing on that permanently rich gift that keeps giving: the morally depraved and corrupt people smuggler, a phantom menace who has done wonders to keep members of parliament elected and secure. Such a being, it would seem, is always there, awaiting to do the terrible thing and exploit an asylum seeker’s right to, well, seek asylum. People smugglers, claims Abbott, “will be saying to their potential customers ‘look what Labor has been able to do in opposition, think how better they’ll be for you when they’re in government.”

In an effort to shore up its failings on the vote, the Morrison government has sought to use Christmas Island as a replacement option. In Morrison’s resigned words, “We have approved putting in place the re-opening of the Christmas Island detention facilities, both to deal with the prospect of arrivals as well as dealing with the prospect of transfers.”

Local officials on Christmas Island were none too amused; if the facilities were not adequate on Manus or Nauru, they are hardly going to reach par on Christmas Island. But refugee politics in Australia, at least since the late 1990s, has not been about the sensible and the generous, but about the punitive and the preventative.

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  1. New England Cocky

    Perhaps it is time to consign Benito Duddo to Manus for a tropical holiday after he is ceremoniously removed from Parliament by Australian voters. Then he can do a tour of duty as Obelfuehrur at Nauru ….. he may even be forgotten while on these tropical jaunts …..

  2. Wat Tylak

    Necessitous yes, but quite possibly from the Government’s perspective, too. They are stupid, mendacious, amoral, but cornered rats are cunning. It’s tsken the banks off the pages, and given them the only issue that could save them at the election.
    Don’t underestimate how unpleasant the average Aussie can be when immigration is concerned. I was a 10 pound Pom, but I can well remember when people from Southern Europe were looked upon with contempt – Wogs, Wops, Dagoes, Mediterranean back – despite them doing most of the ‘heavy lifting’ in Aussie life.
    Manus and Nauru could easily condemn us to yet another term of the most incompetent government in memory, peopled by the most unpleasant human beings imaginable, aided by a wrinkled Yank and his dreadful, nasty serfs.

  3. Patricia

    The ALP, the Greens and the Cross Benchers need to get the banks RC agenda front and centre for every sitting day between now and the election.
    If snotty wants to milk the health and well being of asylum seekers being held prisoner on Manus and Nauru he needs to be sidetracked with a well organised program to get the banking behaviour, all condoned by the LNP, in front of the voters eyes and in their ears.

  4. My say

    This is the actions of a government who really are in fear of loosing an election, they have resorted to fear , reinvented Tampa 2, Thank god some have woken up to their scare tactics,They really are unfit to govern,

  5. pierre wilkinson

    at almost $500,000 per detainee per annum, woudn’t it be cheaper just to let them in, let them go on the dole and give all on unemployment benefits free Tafe classes to help them gain qualifications that could help the gain employment…
    the savings would allow the government to extend free Tafe to all the unemployed in Australia.. and raise the allowance…
    meanwhile let us not talk about the arrivals by air… maybe we can build a wall instead

  6. Kyran

    “Yet again, Australia’s inherent penal mentality manifests.”
    And, sadly, the governments ‘look over there’ moment is swallowed – hook, line and sinker. The government’s usual duplicity was actually picked up by many in MSM, even to the point that many journalists openly stated that our politicians were lying. Quelle surprise! What was glaring in its absence or omission was the demand, as in era’s past, for the immediate resignation of minister’s caught lying.
    Few, if any, articles appeared about the thousands of refugees currently on the mainland who have either been held in ‘onshore’ gulags or who are left with no support from the government, requiring charities and activist groups to provide food, clothing, shelter and legal advice (as many still face persecution through the courts for ridiculous conditions placed on their very existence).
    As other recent AIMN articles have demonstrated, our poli’s have different attitudes dependent on the circumstances of the refugee’s. In our very own version of a tale of two standards, the hallmark of this pack of fools;

    “Craig Foster used the power of sport to help get Hakeem al-Araibi released. We can do more.”

    “The achievements of Foster and his team in securing the safe return of al-Araibi to Australia cannot be overstated. But Foster has also achieved another mighty shift.
    This effort has relied on sport exercising its political muscle to achieve the outcome. It has done so with none of the usual criticism that sport should not be political. If you scroll through the #SaveHakeem hashtag, you see only messages of support for the cause.”

    “This week we celebrate that sport and specifically the code of football was able to save the life of one man. It is also possible that together, through the platform of sport we can save the life of one woman a week.”

    Which is a fair point, albeit off point for this article. Imagine if the Cronulla Sharks suspended Scummo’s membership until he actually did something about the scourge of violence against women in the household? Imagine, for that matter, if the Cronulla Sharks engaged more with the MeToo movement and became role models for fairer participation of women at all levels of the game.
    Being a shallow character, I would have been satisfied if Craig Foster and Hakeem al-Araibi had refused to have anything to do with Scummo. There was another refugee who obtained international prominence this week, being one of our incarcerated on the gulag we call Manus.

    “Abdul Aziz Muhamat, who has been on Manus Island for more than five years, was named the 2019 Martin Ennals Award Laureate at a ceremony in Geneva for his work informing international audiences about the conditions in offshore detention.”

    “Switzerland granted Mr Muhamat a temporary visa for the ceremony, but he will return to the detention centre on February 23 – a move that has been condemned by advocacy groups.
    “It is absurd in the extreme and cruel that he is collecting this award and going to be returned to imprisonment on Manus Island,” Lucy Honan of the Refugee Action Collective told SBS News.”

    It seems only fair to close with Dr Kampmark’s observation.
    “Yet again, Australia’s inherent penal mentality manifests.”
    Thankyou Dr Kampmark and commenters. Take care

  7. Lambert Simpleton

    Have a look at Cash as good as saying it didn’t matter if the attack on Shorten was accurate or not.

    Is this not the SAME pathology at play in a completely different situation?

  8. Perkin Warbuckle

    Did she pay for the right to impersonate the Golden Fleece emblem?

  9. helvityni

    ” Yet again, Australia’s inherent penal mentality manifests.”

    Dr Kampmark is TOO right, yet again…

    Saving Hakeem had nothing to with Scomo, let’s hope Craig and Hakeem will work towards helping others….

    Oz gets soft when the matter at hand has something to do SPORT…

  10. Lambert Simpleton

    Perkin, i get it. If I dare comment on the hairstyles we will be Krushed under a landslide of resentful feminist comments, so take care.

    Helvityini, the new scandal is the Paladin scandal involving Dutton. The fact that much of press and meeja won’t cover it reveals just how dirty it is beginning to become.

  11. Josephus

    The demonisation of vulnerable, usually educated and sensitive people who have fled cruel and violent regimes is a tactic that worked in the 1930s. Shame on the disgusting opportunists in power, who have taken a leaf out of Goebbel’s book.
    Everywhere evidence of the corruption and waste of public money while punishing the marginalised… Will Labor put these politicians on trial? No – Labor has too often supped with the same long spoon.

    Thank you to the refugees who have spoken out , and thank you to the decent people overseas and nationally who have supported them. Medivac will allow some of them treatment, then return them to a hell hole somewhere else, run once more by ruthless racketeers chosen by corrupt and cruel officials and Ministers. Back to convict days.

    Oh, while we are at it let’s deport an indigenous man with four children here, who has paid for his crime but who was born in NZ to his holidaying parents.

  12. Perkin Scuttlebutt

    Lambert. Dutton’s silence on the ‘get out of gaol for $80,000 if you know the right people’ is puzzling, because the article – anonymous but now known to be by a known criminal – is heavy with implications.

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