LOVE LETTERS TO TANZANIA: When border protection turns inhumane

Friday November 10 2017



By Sabine Barbara

In 2016, talking with international students, I made a comment which surprised me as much as them. Emphatically, as if accused of a crime, I asserted that I was “not Australian”. New friends and acquaintances usually assume that I am, as I take delight in showing visitors the many sights of my beautiful adoptive home and encourage everyone I meet to visit Australia.

However, I derive no sense of pride from artificially drawn borders on a map and do not believe nationality contributes to a person’s worth. As people are defined by their character and actions, not by their nationality, religion, tribe or gender, I value the company of virtuous citizens of any given country. Thus, my comment made little sense.

In fact, I perceive most residents of Australia –citizens or not – as friendly and compassionate, responding to my contributions to society with appreciation and respect. It seems I instinctively overreacted to the suffering caused by disgraceful government policies at the time. Someone had prefaced a comment related to the unlawful imprisonment of asylum-seeker children with “Your government…” and hit a nerve.

The anger and shame felt in relation to Australia’s refugee policies prompted me to distance myself from leaders who further breach international conventions by discriminating against asylum seekers based on their mode of arrival. Any person attempting to enter Australia “illegally by boat” (in other words: traumatised refugees) will never be allowed to settle here, they warn. Australia simply outsources its obligation towards such refugees by taking them to “processing centres” in the Republic of Nauru and Papua New Guinea.

Ironically, on Australia Day every year, the nation celebrates British ships illegally entering Australian waters in 1788, an invasion which brought the Indigenous inhabitants small pocks, massacres and years of anguish.

According to a 2017 poll, most Australians see the detention of asylum seekers offshore as cruel. Obviously, government attempts to suppress media reports about inhumane conditions and human rights abuses occurring there did not succeed. Medical staff visiting detention centres were threatened with up to two years’ jail, if found guilty of “unauthorised disclosure” of information relating to detention centre conditions. Citizens are encouraged to close their minds and their hearts to desperate, persecuted people.

In contrast, refugees in Uganda are given land to cultivate and a chance to retain some dignity, even though over one million are hosted by Uganda. Around 300,000 refugees are estimated to have made northern Tanzania their temporary home. Yet, the Australian government only wants to accept 19,000 annually. According to the Refugee Council, Australia resettled around 140,000 refugees in the ten years to December 2015, ranking 31st in the world on a per capita basis and 46th relative to national GDP – a country larger than India and wealthier than France!

A United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights report found that the “harsh physical conditions” at offshore centres “did not comply with international standards”, yet asylum-seekers continue to be imprisoned there and held indefinitely, while their physical and psychological health deteriorates. Australia’s foreign aid contributions, needed to address humanitarian crises which produce more refugees, were also reduced. How can Australian residents not feel a sense of shame?

Could Australia’s leaders learn from East Africa? Given a chance, could organisations and individuals involved in assisting huge numbers of displaced people seeking refuge in East Africa inspire Australian leaders? The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees explicitly urged the Australian government to end the practice of “offshore processing” and to revise refugee policies which ignore “common decency”. Australian leaders need to develop a deeper understanding of their responsibilities, so they can conform to international standards.

As Australia will join the United Nations Human Rights Council next year, let us hope that the protection of human rights, including free speech, will be a priority and that new members will find some inspiration. If not, perhaps I will need to seek political asylum somewhere in East Africa.