When is a prison not a prison?

Aung San suu kyi picThis is  Aung_San_Suu_Kyi. If anyone knows what it feels like to be imprisoned in a prison that is not like Long Bay, then it’s her.

We all know that if you can’t get out, you are imprisoned.  How can we deny that detention is prison?

That question was in the back of my mind while I was re-reading Arthur Miller’s The Crucible last night. Perhaps that’s why this passage leapt off the page at me :

‘Political opposition, thereby, is given an inhumane overlay which then justifies the abrogation of all normally applied customs of civilized intercourse.’

Miller was talking about the ‘justice’ meted out to the Witches of Salem, as well as the so-called Communists of the McCarthy era. In both cases, the victims were painted as demons, making it okay to punish them in ways society would not normally accept.

That was when it hit me – wasn’t that exactly what successive Australian governments had done with refugees arriving here by boat?

First we were told the ‘boat people’ were queue jumpers because they pushed in ahead of ‘good’ refugees who remained in the camps of Indonesia, patiently waiting for some country to take them.

I admit, at the time, this argument did make me stop and think; my parents and I had been refugees too. We had had to wait in a camp until a country took us. How would we have felt if other refugees had pushed in ahead of us, just because they could?

But then I learned that the number of people jumping the queue by plane far outnumbers those arriving by boat! What the?

Apparently these well-heeled queue jumpers come in by plane, with a temporary visa of some sort, and then pretty much disappear. No one seems to care too much so long as they don’t try to get onto welfare.

And this brings me to the next label – economic refugees. Apparently refugees who arrive by leaky boats from Indonesia are not real refugees because they can afford to pay the people smugglers for the privilege of drowning at sea.

Now this label resonated with me as well until I learned exactly how these ‘economic’ refugees get the money to pay the people smugglers. Think large family groups. Now think of those family groups saving every cent they can collectively lay their hands on. Once they have enough, they select one of their group to make the dangerous trip by boat.

The thinking behind this strategy is that once this person has citizenship in Australia, they can get a job, save money and bring the rest of the family group out to join them. Sacrifice for all, to pay for hope.

Now think about how much these refugees would have to do without in order to save up the thousands of dollars [6? 8?] necessary to put this desperate plan into practice.

I can’t imagine living so tough. I can’t imagine being that desperate. And that, I think is one of the biggest problems; we are all so comfortable we cannot imagine what it must feel like to be dispossessed, unwanted, with no future and no hope.

And so, instead of feeling a normal, human sympathy for these desperate people, we dismiss them as queue jumpers and economic refugees and the kind of horrible people who deliberately throw their children overboard to get what they want.

The refugees earned that last, corrosive label after the Tampa incident. It became known as the ‘Children Overboard’ affair, and was happily fostered by the then Howard government. In time, we learned that the refugees had not thrown their children overboard for gain. But of course, by then the damage was done, and the mud stuck.

So to keep these dreadful people out of Australia, we, as a nation, have spent HUGE sums of taxpayer money on building and maintaining detention centres, paying other countries to detain our problems and buying all sorts of weird orange equipment to send refugees back where they came from.

What no one is talking about is how much we would have saved had we just let these refugees in while their claims were processed.

If the Abbott/Hockey Budget is to be believed, that kind of wasted money is okay, but spending on NewStart, Disability pensions and Age pensions is not. And we accept the spin. But why?

Part of the answer lies in the dehumanizing of the refugees, but underlying that reason is another, unspoken thing – the race card. As the Daughter said, would we and the government react with such ferocity if the boat people were white South Africans?

Australia had a ‘White Australia’ policy for a very long time. It was based on fear. We were the only European country in South East Asia, and we feared that the yellow, brown and black hordes would overwhelm us if we gave them an inch.

Things have changed. Australia has become a multi-cultural country, although still largely European, and we now boast quite large pockets of Vietnamese and even Sudanese populations. But deep down inside, there are still a lot of Australians who fear these new arrivals.

That unspoken fear of the ‘other’ is exacerbated by the fear of terrorism sweeping the globe. And guess what? Heaps of those nasty boat people are both brown and Muslim! They’re probably all terrorists trying to sneak into Australia to set up home grown terrorist cells.

-face palm-

Puleeze! Do we really think any self-respecting terrorist would be that stupid? And inefficient?

Terrorists are far more likely to come in by plane. It’s far safer and cheaper than a leaky boat. Think about that.

Unfortunately most of us don’t think things through. I know I didn’t. For a very long time, one part of me was horrified by what we were doing to the asylum seekers, yet at the same time, another part of me wondered if perhaps it might not be justified.

And then, of course, we and our duly elected government have one nice, conscience-salving justification that is hard to deny – people on leaky boats die a lot.

Scott Morrison uses that high, moral card a lot, but crocodile tears aside, the truth is that we would not have this problem if 99% of the refugees did die on those leaky boats. The government’s problem is that so many of them survive.

So a few more facts:

1. Detention centres in Australia may not be like high security prisons, but they are prisons nonetheless. Aung San Suu Kyi was imprisoned in her own home for years. She may have lived in comfort, but she was still in prison.

2. No prison in Australia keeps children under 10 locked up. Detention centres do.

3. Detention centres outside Australia appear to be many times worse, in terms of comfort, than any high security prison here in Australia.

4. Children are being kept in prison as punishment for the so-called crimes of their parents.

There is no way around this, and Scott Morrison doesn’t even try. He believes that anything is justified so long as it works to achieve his aim of stopping the boats. He believes he is being cruel to be kind. He believes he is punishing children to save the lives of other children who might attempt to reach our shores by boat.

Excuse me?

If we are going to do this evil thing then at least let’s call the spade an effin’ shovel. Or have we dehumanized the refugees to such an extent that we truly believe it’s okay to do awful things to them under the pretext of saving their lives?

Apparently the answer is yes. But I no longer believe.


About acflory

I am the kind of person who always has to know why things are the way they are so my interests range from genetics and biology to politics and what makes people tick. For fun I play online mmorpgs, read, listen to a music, dance when I get the chance and landscape my rather large block. Work is writing. When a story I am working on is going well I'm on cloud nine. On bad days I go out and dig big holes... View all posts by acflory

8 responses to “When is a prison not a prison?

  • EllaDee

    I think its fair to say most resident Australians have never encountered refugees-asylum seekers-boat people-illegal immigrants aka Them. And assumptions are made… a little like Joe Hockey saying poor people don’t drive much. Detention centres are definitely prisons. I’ve been in one many times. The detainees and their circumstances/stories many and varied. Them can only be perpetrated by government, media and people who set store by that by keeping the issue generic. I have no idea what the answer is amongst all the spin but not all of us buy it. Many of us know better. At least there is that.


  • Jeri Walker-Bickett (@JeriWB)

    This reminds me a lot of the talk about how to handle immigration that goes on in the USA. It really is a heartbreaking issue and your post indeed a powerful one.


  • Candy Korman

    Amazing post!
    You’ve summed up a complicated issue for Australia and many other nations. The U.S. is a nation of immigrants, but historically we’ve had a fraught relationship with both legal and undocumented people. There are tons of ways around the system and they all require $$$. The role of money is always front and center.

    Odd but true, that at the same time the U.S. sends people back to Mexico (and other South/Central American Nations) and to other scary or economically deprived parts of the world, wealthy people from all over the world gobble up expensive apartments in prestigious U.S. cities. They don’t plan to live here — no, it’s a parking place for their money. It skews the real estate market for locals and it’s nuts.

    The weirdest thing is the contrast between holding under-aged, undocumented kids in detention centers while enabling wealthy people to buy big pieces of New York, Los Angeles, etc. Money makes the world go around in this situation, too.


    • acflory

      I admit I thought about the illegal immigrant issue in the US when I wrote about our own situation.

      I guess money does ‘talk’. Trouble is, these days with all the spin flying around, it’s hard to hear who’s saying what, and whether it’s B$ or not. 😉


  • davidprosser

    I’d have thought it easier to rescue the people from the boats once inside Australia’s waters and then to sink the boats so they can’t smuggle people again if this is such a problem. If the people are then returned from whence they came, it’s unlikely thy could raise the money to try again and anyway, there would be less boats to help them.
    Since they’re coming to Australia for a reason, maybe their claims could be hurried so that the expense of of sending too many back is reduced. You never know, some of them might turn out to be valued members of society.
    xxx Massive Hugs xxx


    • acflory

      I think they do most of that, except for the ‘return from whence they came’ until recently. Unfortunately this government has put a ‘cone of silence’ around its activities so nobody actually knows what they’re doing. 😦 We do know about all the kids in jail though.


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