Governments tend to dislike being called torturers. That’s why the George W. Bush administration went through such legal contortions to exclude waterboarding from the definition of torture. That this relied on a definition too idiosyncratic for anyone outside the Republican Party hardly mattered because it allowed President Bush to say, “the United States does not torture,” with a straight face.
So on one level, when Amnesty International reported last week that Australia’s system of offshore detention — in which asylum seekers heading to Australia by boat are intercepted and sent to camps in Nauru or Papua New Guinea indefinitely — “essentially amounts to torture,” the Australian government’s response was entirely predictable.
“I personally find that to be offensive,” said the head of the immigration department, Michael Pezzullo.
“I reject that claim totally,” declared Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. “It is absolutely false.”
But that’s largely where the defense ended. Mr. Turnbull wasn’t about to engage in a legal argument on Amnesty’s claim. There was no need because he knows that ultimately not all that many Australians care all that much.
That’s been true for at least 15 years, when former Prime Minister John Howard prospered so handsomely from his asylum-seeker policies, from which the current program is derived. Repeated polling since 2013 shows that whatever those policies seem to be, somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of Australians think they should be even more severe. Around another 35 to 40 percent think the policy is about right. The view that our policy is too harsh tops out at around 27 percent.
These figures scarcely change, no matter how many reports come out from Human Rights Watch, the United Nations or Australia’s own Human Rights Commission.
You see, we’ve “stopped the boats.” That quote doesn’t come from anyone in particular. It’s everyone’s. Mr. Turnbull’s predecessor, Tony Abbott, most relentlessly repeated it, but it’s on high rotation in every government official’s playlist. Whatever the scandal, whatever the latest account of refugee children attempting suicide or detainees setting themselves on fire, it’s all anyone need say.
This is the great sedative of Australian politics: dulling our attention, rendering all else some indecipherable white noise we only vaguely register before we fall asleep. Then we can snooze through any bombshell. Even Amnesty’s language isn’t arresting anymore. Merely a year and a half ago a United Nations special rapporteur found systematic violations of the Convention Against Torture. None of it registers because as long as boats carrying asylum seekers aren’t making it to Australia, all is justified.
So Australia’s detention regime becomes virtuous, brutality repackaged as compassion. Those languishing in detention centers, even the people who die there thanks to violence or woefully inadequate medical care for simple afflictions, they’re just a warning to others who might be tempted onto a boat. It’s true the journey is deadly, but it’s also true that Australia is using the more than 1,200 other people stuck in limbo in Nauru and Papua New Guinea as a deterrent. These are the starkly utilitarian terms of the policy: We sacrifice the lives of innocent people to dissuade others from risking theirs.
This rhetoric masks an enormous problem. While Australia was adamant that anyone arriving by boat would be turned away forever, it has never had any idea where these people would ultimately go. Paying other countries to detain them could be only a stopgap measure. Eventually their refugee claims would be processed, and eventually they would need to be resettled somewhere.
And while we were sleeping, that moment arrived. Papua New Guinea’s highest court in April found the detention center there to be illegal, meaning the detainees must be sent elsewhere. Australia has paid Cambodia $42 million to resettle refugees — only two have been successfully resettled. Otherwise, Australia resorts to persuading people to return home to the lands they’re fleeing — war-torn countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, among other menacing places.
We have traded a boat problem for a resettlement one. And in the meantime, lives are still being destroyed, just slowly.
It’s here we confront Amnesty’s most arresting finding: Australia’s policy is a kind of contagion, lowering global standards on refugee policy, shifting the boundaries of what nations now find acceptable.
The most direct example is Indonesia, which, partly at Australia’s urging, has sharply increased its own use of detention centers, criminalized the act of providing accommodations for anyone without a visa, and attempted to return boats headed for Indonesia back to the countries they had left.
But we’re also seeing a procession of European far-right nationalist parties — the U.K. Independence Party in Britain, the National Democratic Party of Germany and the Danish People’s Party — expressly hold Australia up as an inspiration. There are even individual voices of support from within mainstream conservative parties, like Britain’s Tories. It’s clear that Australia would like its policy to be adopted more broadly.
Successive prime ministers — most recently Mr. Turnbull in his September address to the United Nations — have encouraged the world to follow Australia’s lead. It’s the kind of thing you can say when you’re an island nation far removed from the theaters of human misery producing the current refugee crisis. But it’s not the kind of thing to which the world can afford to listen.
The human displacement is too deep, the numbers too large. And with a global problem this urgent, the very worst you could do right now is reach for a sedative.
Waleed Aly is an Australian columnist, broadcaster and politics lecturer at Monash University, Melbourne.