There are some matters about which all Australians should feel corporate guilt and shame. Two come to mind. First, we should feel guilt and shame that we have elected to power and tolerate in government political leaders who refuse to acknowledge and give due weight to the consequences of climate change. And secondly, we have elected a government and have kept in power the same political leaders knowing that in our name innocent asylum seekers are being passively tortured on Manus and Nauru. We are all diminished because wilful blindness and deafness from our leaders causes an unnecessary environmental burden on all future generations and especially on the poor; and because some of the world’s most vulnerable have been subjected to crushing cruelty, supposedly in the name of our security.
Over the New Year I have read Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend but the Mountains, 2018. Behrouz is an Iranian Kurd being held on Manus. His manuscript was laboriously tapped out on a mobile phone. It should be compulsory reading for all federal politicians and indeed for any who might still hold lingering thoughts that what we are doing is justified.
Behrouz, is a journalist, academic, poet and writer and a very astute observer of human behaviour. He holds many media and literary awards.
The book begins with an account of his terrifying journey from Indonesia, including the eventual sinking of the unseaworthy boat, his rescue, and eventual arrival on Christmas Island. He was unlucky enough to arrive just after legislation was passed which meant no asylum seeker who arrived by boat would be settled in Australia , however worthy that person might be, let alone declared a legitimate refugee by the UN. They must either return to their country of origin or languish indefinitely on Manus or Nauru.
The book is primarily about his years on Manus and what he describes as a Kyriarchal system designed to intimidate and break those held as its prisoners. A Kyriarchal system is one in which those in power seek to control in submission others, who, for whatever reason, are considered unworthy of the respect and decency that should normally be afforded another human being. Such systems have operated throughout human history with racial, gender, economic, religious and class overtones.
How the system has worked on Manus in our name is so shameful that it makes very painful reading. Behrouz methodically describes all aspects of daily life and how it dehumanises, resulting in developed behaviours, necessary for survival, that the system then rewards. Detainees, with a few exceptions, do not have the luxury of emotional empathy for others. Life revolves around food; the detainees are constantly hungry. Those who arrive first avail themselves of the pick of the food. Those who are last have least. Those who arrive first are always the same, the strongest.
Phoning loved ones back home is a life line. Inflexible rules govern everything. Behrouz tells the story of a man who needed to phone his dying father. The Australian officers would not allow him to make the call for three days because that was his scheduled time for a phone call. By then his father had died.
Medical assistance is described in less than flattering terms as a battle to get past paracetamol and advice to drink more water.
The stench of human bodies in close quarters with crude toilet facilities unavoidably leads men choosing to relieve themselves anywhere other than the designated place.
Adding to our shame, Behrouz describes the Australian officers in a much less favourable light than the Papuans who themselves are treated as less than equals by their contracted Australian overseers. We read of several occasions when the Papuans showed obvious empathy and care when confronted with the detainees suffering; empathy that appears to have been almost totally absent from the Australian custody offices.
Several incidents of death and self-harm are recorded.
Let us pray that Behrouz will soon arrive in Australia, we will be so much the richer for his presence. His insights, which are expressed both poetically and philosophically, are every much as needed as those of the doctor, lawyer or scientist. I particularly liked his insight into the role of the prophet. He observed that every true leader should be a prophet, one capable of leading her or his people into new understandings of truth. Given what passes for leadership these days in the US, or here in Australia, we can but long for such.
What makes our offshore detention even more cruel and hollow is that these days we may have strong maritime borders, but the same does not apply to our airports. Thousands arrive by air, who soon after arrival seek to change the terms of their visa.
There never has been any justification for incarcerating asylum seekers as if they are criminals. The pain and suffering is well documented and well known. The remaining detainees (Behrouz describes himself and others as prisoners) must not simply be released, but resources must be made available for years to come to assist them in recovery from the mental and in some cases physical scars they carry.
I strongly commend Behrouz book to you and recommend you pass it on to your representative in the Australian parliament. Those who continue to hold that our position is morally justified must be confronted with the account this book provides and if they continue to hold this position must envision themselves as directly responsible for its implementation and be held to account, if necessary by the courts, certainly by the justifiable condemnation that history will impose.