Children, women, men: The ALP’s conscious cruelty

by · December 8, 2012

This blog post first appeared at Overland Journal.

Govt confirms they have sent women and children refugees overnight to the detention camps in Manus Island indefinitely. Shameful. – Senator Sarah-Hanson Young on Twitter, 21 November 2012

In 2001 Four Corners aired a watershed episode on the mandatory detention of children in Australian refugee detention centers. The pain and suffering of six-year-old Shayan Badraie, a focus of the episode, moved many people to action. The campaign that followed over many years contributed to the release of all children from ‘secure detention facilities’ following a report from the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. As ChilOut asked, ‘Who are these children?’:

They are aged zero to eighteen, they have fled war zones, watched family members killed or persecuted, or who have been subject to persecution and harm themselves. Many are alone, they are frightened, they are traumatised. They are incarcerated by Australia.

In 2008 the Rudd government’s Key Immigration Detention Values Statement was released, and with it the ALP determined that ‘children, including juvenile foreign fishers and, where possible, their families, will not be detained in an immigration detention centre’ and that ‘detention in immigration detention centres is only to be used as a last resort and for the shortest practicable time’.

We know now how little effect this statement would be allowed to have, and not just because mandatory detention was maintained as ‘an essential component of strong border control’. From 2009 the ALP successive regressive ‘solutions’ in response to the manufactured panic over ‘boat arrivals’ – ending with the defeat of its proposed ‘Malaysia solution’ and the reinstatement of offshore processing at other regional locations.

While it is clear that children are vulnerable to the psychological impact of mandatory detention, there has been a tendency to highlight the plight of women and children to the exclusion of or above the predicament of adult men. In doing so, two problems arise.

Firstly, there is the consequence of suggesting mandatory detention of adult men is more acceptable. To my mind, it is unnecessary to argue a hierarchy of ‘bad’ in a system that causes such great damage to all it abuses. While children may be able to ‘cope’ less well because of their level of maturity and psychological development, it is grossly inappropriate to imply that adult men are ‘resilient’ to detention. Many adult men are harmed so badly by this process that they commit suicide, attempt suicide, cut themselves, starve themselves, and sew their lips together. If we slightly rewrite the above ChilOut statement, we can see it is equally applicable to the adult men Australia ‘detains’:

Who Are These [Men]: They are [adult men], they have fled war zones, watched family members killed or persecuted, or who have been subject to persecution and harm themselves. Many are alone, they are frightened, they are traumatised. They are incarcerated by Australia.

Secondly, demoting the circumstances of adult men in detention the campaign does naught to counter the demonisation of adult refugee men as dangerous and the ‘other’. If detention is so unacceptable that we demand children and women must be immediately released into the community, then we must argue equally as forcefully that this should be the case for adult men. To not do this is to suggest that these men, who are largely not white and many Muslim, are a hazard to be secured away from the normal population; that treating them as less than human is appropriate.

In her analysis of two Commonwealth Ombudsman’s Reports of March 2001, Angela Mitropoulos looked at this issue and argued eloquently (and correctly) that:

Whilst the release of anyone from the internment camps is welcome – and would perhaps be an occasion for celebration if all those who were released were not then subject to a 3-year visa with limited rights, or better: if the camps were simply shut down – the preoccupation with “women and children” is in fact an argument for the continued imprisonment of adult men who arrive by boat and without papers.

Indeed, such a proposal is founded on a series of slanders against adult male detainees which serves to justify their continued internment — a slander that is undeniably linked to racist depictions of ‘non-white’ men as threatening, less than human and necessarily requiring incarceration.

Proposals to ‘release’ women and children are not a challenge to racism and xenophobia. Rather, they are a direct appeal to such sentiments and a continuation of them in a form other than the increasingly discredited one of ‘invasions’. If there are grounds to release women and children from the camps, then there are grounds to release men from the camps also. If there are those who can accept the former but cannot accept the latter, this is undoubtedly because of a resort to sexism (and ageism) which views women and children as passive and therefore not bearers of the same level of threat that only a xenophobia is capable of discerning in the first place.

The Australian Greens have been one of the key progressive political voices on the issue of mandatory detention. Their policy on refugees does not delineate between men, women and children, and these terms do not even appear. Yet the party’s spokespeople continue to emphasise these distinctions. While clearly Sarah Hanson-Young, whose tweet opened this post, believes all refugees should be released from their incarceration, the focus on children and women in her campaigns and statements reproduces the marginalisation and ‘othering’ of adult men; the same adult men who are by far the majority in our detention camps.

At a time that the federal ALP is again ramping up the rhetoric and punitive policy on this issue, we must also turn our minds to the failure of the movement to make any serious inroads on this issue over the medium term. The effective return of Temporary Protection Visas is another defeat for the movement. These visas leave refugees without the security of knowing they can make a new life in Australia, and forbid them from working when the welfare payment they are provided is a fraction of a livable income. The early victory of ending detention for children has given way to cruel and sickening government policy. The anguish on the part of Hanson-Young and others in the Greens is clear – morally, the ALP’s policy is reprehensible. However, putting a ‘moral’ position on this issue is perhaps one of the key problems. It is therefore timely to think again how the campaign to end mandatory detention might be refocused.

The ALP government, with few voices of dissent, is now completely committed to enacting a consciously cruel policy, allegedly to scare off others hoping to come here to make better lives for themselves. Within official politics and the media there is little criticism of this, and it is usually painted as an unfortunate necessity or evil. As Lenore Taylor reported in the Sydney Morning Herald last week, ‘Labor is politically locked in to achieving a slowdown in the boat arrivals, and for now it has to rely on “cruel” policy to send a rapid message of dissuasion’. Taylor argues, ‘since August when Labor jettisoned its own policy and accepted “stopping the boats” and stopping the drownings as its overriding political goal, a reputation for cruelty is – to some degree – exactly what it needs to achieve’.

The Greens and others involved in the campaign to demand a compassionate refugee policy must have a more political approach to this issue.  There is no point in simply calling on the government to adopt a humane approach when the current policy framework is deliberately crafted to be inhumane. Indeed, rather than being about ‘saving lives’ it is intentionally crafted to achieve certain political and electoral ends. The ALP has decided that being cruel to refugees will work in its favour electorally, whether or not this is actually the case. They have not determined this path because they are unaware they are being brutal and vicious. We need to call a spade a spade – the government has adopted a sadistic policy for political ends, and this must be the core of what we argue. It is morally reprehensible that they do this, but an appeal for them to behave more ethically will not take the campaign far.

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Discussion6 Comments

  1. [...] Elizabeth Humphrys: Children, women, men – the ALP’s conscious cruelty [...]

  2. Mike Grewcock says:

    Good post. But there is another dimension to this – the notion that Australia otherwise has a good record in promoting children’s rights. Forced transfers, removal and organised abuse of children are part of the institutional DNA of Australia as a colonial settler state. Witness the ‘nation building’ practices of the stolen generation, ‘orphan’ migration schemes etc. The government’s preparedness to transfer refugee children to Malaysia and Nauru to demonstrate that ‘no exceptions’ will apply in relation to border policing policy not only shows how hollow the pledges contained in the recent Apologies really are, but also a view of children that regards them as expendable if their mistreatment can be used as a ‘deterrent’ to adults.

    • lizhumphrys says:

      You know I’d not consciously reflected on that first aspect, about an appalling historical record in relation to children. Yet of course it is true.

  3. Fran Barlow says:

    Nice post Elizabeth. It’s hard to dispute anything important in it. One quibble though …

    If detention is so unacceptable that we demand children and women must be immediately released into the community, then we must argue equally as forcefully that this should be the case for adult men. To not do this is to suggest that these men, who are largely not white and many Muslim, are a hazard to be secured away from the normal population; that treating them as less than human is appropriate.

    I don’t agree with the reasoning here. Yes, there’s undoubtedly that element in the calculus. Some xenophobes feel more threatened by non-European men than non-European women and children. Some may also feel differentially constrained because of taboos about harming “the vulnerable” — construed narrowly here.

    One important factor here is that in as much as there is a punishment and deterrence model operating here, adult men are seen as more culpable for any wrongful act and thus more fit to be punished than wives, adult daughters and children. If you are going to punish anyone, they reason, you start with adult men. In short, this is one aspect of the problem in a system that is conceived as punitive. How you can punish significant male adults in a child’s life without punishing the children as well is something that typically goes unanswered.

    I suspect the Greens see this emphasis on women and children as an attempt to trade on cultural taboo to undermine the integrity of the policy as a whole. So while your reasoning is sound, logically one ought to oppose the whole paradigm of mandatory detention — and as noted we Greens do — the reality is that we are short on fellow travellers, and if women and children could be freed, the policy is weakened.

    I very much doubt this focus in practice reinforces xenophobia or the kinds of agency you suggest because the kinds of people who might be influenced by this focus are probably not hardened xenophobes. Is this the right thing to do? IMO, no it isn’t. We should emphasise that punitive rendition and kettling are wrong as a matter of principle, and in as much as we mention women and children merely point out that this is indispensible if the punishment that the regime seeks to inflict is to ‘work’ — i.e. be an effective deterrent to seeking the protection of Australia.

    The regime is not really concerned about that though. All it really wants is to guard its right flank — to say that nobody seeking a robust “border protection” policy need vote Liberal because these policies are already in force, whether they are “working” or not.

  4. lizhumphrys says:

    Hi Fran – thanks so much for the comment. I agree the Greens and other organisations consciously thought if children were freed then parents would likely be as well, and this would undermine the whole agenda. The thing I did not say in the Overland post originally, but is worth saying here to a more activist and clearly Left audience, is that while the focussing on children tactic might have been one that seemed reasonable we are now at a point where we must admit that the refugee campaign has been a real failure on many levels – particularly the policy/real change level. I’d argue that in retrospect, we probably took the wrong approach on this question.

    I really do feel however, that adult male refugees are targeted differently to adult women. As I said in a comment on the original Overland post, it is not that the media is entirely sympathetic to women in detention it’s more complicated that that. Muslim women are still the other, however it appears there is a demonisation of men as perpetrators of ‘bad’ and that non-white, Muslim and Arab women are their victims. I think Sara Farris puts it well in her article ‘Femonationalism and the “Regular” Army of Labor Called Migrant Women’:

    The current contraposition between male and female Muslims, with the latter playing the role of the passive victims of non-Western male “congenital violence” who require protection, can be regarded as constituting the contemporary form of a well-known Western mythology, or an “old ploy” as Leila Ahmed calls it, namely, that of the “white men [claiming to be] saving brown women from brown men,” to use Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s apposite phrase.

    From my comment on Overland…

    The emphasising of women and children over men within the frame of the campaign, plays into this frame to my mind.

    In terms of the Greens, I think simple things like changing how they put their position. Instead of saying this is illegal under human rights law or this is inhumane and the ALP must follow the law, they should really be highlighting that the ALP’s policy is deliberately racist and being used for political ends. It is not that the Greens never say the latter, so it is perhaps what they prioritise saying.

    And I think taking up the question of who is to blame for the racism against ‘boat people’ is key. Donna Mulhearn stated on Twitter the other day that people in Western Sydney were to blame for the government’s policy on asylum seekers (a tweet she has now deleted saying it did not come out right). It may not be what she intended, but I do not find this an isolated position in the left. People want to blame racism on various elements of the community without really thinking through what the impact of long-term bipartisan racist policy is on the electorate. At election time there is always a lot of ‘thank you uneducated working class people for voting for Howard/Abbott/etc and being racist fucks’.

    The slogans on SHY’s home page today, related to refugees, are ‘No Children in Detention’ and ‘We Can Save Lives Today’. This is my thinking on the spot, but I believe a return to a frame of ‘End Mandatory Detention: Stop the ALP’s Racist Policies’ would be a step forward. Or perhaps ‘Stop the Racist Border Policy: Every Refugee living safely in our community’. But I worry people don’t want to use those sorts of words (such as saying the ALP is racist), and even calling the ALP cruel could be seen as partly covering/softening the fact they are deploying racist policies. The next question is then what action you take to enact that different frame. One of the biggest jumps in Greens membership and vote occurred off the back of their campaigning on refugees, against the wars, and in support of Hicks and Habib (including the heckling of Bush). Compare that to The Greens work on refugees now, and the fluffiness directed at Obama when he was here. I think things have really taken an unfortunate turn.

  5. Fran Barlow says:

    The current contraposition between male and female Muslims, with the latter playing the role of the passive victims of non-Western male “congenital violence” who require protection, can be regarded as constituting the contemporary form of a well-known Western mythology, or an “old ploy” as Leila Ahmed calls it, namely, that of the “white men [claiming to be] saving brown women from brown men,” to use Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s apposite phrase.

    I don’t doubt that there is some of this going on, though it seems rather nuanced for your average xenophobic bigot. While they do cite the “clash of civilisations” stuff — not usually in those words — this is really just a throwaway aimed at wedging left-liberals — who are seens as pro-women and favouring secularism. It might be somewhat truer of educated left-liberals of course.

    Instead of saying this is illegal under human rights law or this is inhumane and the ALP must follow the law, they should really be highlighting that the ALP’s policy is deliberately racist and being used for political ends.

    I agree. This is a clear case of pandering to racist parochialism and tabloid spatial angst, for the most base of political ends.

    {people in the western suburns being racist} may not be what {Donna Mulhearn} intended, but I do not find this an isolated position in the left. People want to blame racism on various elements of the community without really thinking through what the impact of long-term bipartisan racist policy is on the electorate.

    That’s true. There can be absolutely no doubt, especially since Tampa, that the ALP has legitimised racist commentary on these matters. They did it again in the 2010 election when Gillard expressly solidarised with those who fancied that asylum seekers were jumping the queue and getting welfare privileges ahead of folks in the western suburbs. She dogwhistled it again in April of 2011 when she cast The Greens as unpatriotic inner city elites who didn’t see the moral virtue in work and community.

    This is my thinking on the spot, but I believe a return to a frame of ‘End Mandatory Detention: Stop the ALP’s Racist Policies’ would be a step forward. Or perhaps ‘Stop the Racist Border Policy: Every Refugee living safely in our community’.

    That would be fine by me. I’d also be happy with End punitive rendition and Down with refugee capture and storage!. and Humanity not brutality for refugees.

    The entire language attached to mainstreram policy has to be problematised. “Border security” is not about protecting refugees, but in this case, defending the laager. A policy that really sought to affirm the welfare of refugees would render border security null and void to the extent of any conflict between the two ends.