January in Australia is usually hot. Stinking hot. Right now, this minute, Australia is literally the hottest spot in the world*. Adelaide reached tops of 46+ degrees today, which is pretty bloody hot, but I am reminded by many on Twitter about the horrible conditions the asylum seekers on Nauru face, every day.

Not only do pregnant women have to endure oppressive heat throughout their pregnancies and births, but then they have to leave mediocre hospital facilities, taking their newborns back to the tent city, where temperatures have been reported to have reached 50 degrees. And can you imagine what it’s like for the children in those hot, cramped and rat-infested conditions?

But if you choose to listen to some of our politicians, life as a detainee ‘aint half bad.

In December last year, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was blasted after she praised condidions on Nauru, describing them on ABC radio as “certainly better than mining camps in Australia.” Turns out, though, she didn’t even check out the conditions of detainees, instead visiting the admin block and staff accommodation.

According to reports, Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young was also at the detention centre at the same time, and said “[Bishop] didn’t actually visit the detention camps themselves.”

Despite Minister Bishop’s claims of the “high standard” medical services, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has slammed conditions for detainees at both Nauru and Manus Island, citing that facilities on Nauru in particular “do not provide safe and humane conditions of treatment in detention“, calling on our government to stop sending women and children to these offshore processing centres.

And the doctors actually treating patients on Christmas Island have painted an appalling picture of the failings from the Australian government’s treatment and care of the detainees. Last November, a group of them sent a 92-page “letter of concern” to their employers, IHMS (International Health and Medical Services), claiming that even considering mitigating factors, such as remote location and limitations imposed by the Department of Immigration and Border Prtection, “…many aspects of the IHMS health service fall well below accepted standards for clinical practice and are unnecessarily dangerous”.

But like most of the pleas from like-minded and concerned groups, it seems to have fallen on deaf ears, with Immigration Minister Scott Morrison this week announcing the closure of four detention centres, a move he says will save the federal budget close to $90 million a year. (Coupled with the $4.5 billion Australia is saving from cuts to foreign aid, cruelty is turning into quite the money-spinner here in Oz.)

Loose lips, invites ships

Apparently it’s all money well saved, because, in case you missed it, we’re at war. Yep, Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his crew have declared war on those wretched asylum seekers daring to attempt to infiltrate our nation’s borders. In an interview on Ten’s Wake Up breakfast program, the PM talked about being “in a fierce contest with these people smugglers”. He went on to compare his government’s cloak of secrecy around the ‘stop the boats’ campaign to a wartime strategy. (Minister Morrison announced this week an end to his farcical weekly briefings on Operation Sovereign Borders to an “as-needs basis”.)

The Prime Minister’s tight-lipped policy, though, is in complete opposition to his handling of this grubby political football while he was in Opposition. As the ABC’s Jonathan Green, points out: “Under his own terms, his eager promotion of our failures in that same war as prosecuted between 2010 and 2013 must leave Mr Abbott a loose-lipped traitor to the national cause.”

It seems this talk of war is quickly becoming a reality, with allegations of Australian Navy boats breaching Indonesian waters (against agreements made with our neighbours), shots being fired at vessels and asylum seekers transferred onto lifeboats, purchased by our government, and sent back to Indonesia.

And stay out

Another troubling development has been the announcement earlier this month by Immigration Minister Morrison of another dehumanising policy, which decrees that refugees who arrived by boat will find it even harder to bring family members to Australia—in fact agencies have been directed to put their claims at the back of the queue.

The policy is to be applied retrospectively, so even boat arrivals who have been already been granted permanent visa holders, who may have forked out thousands to get relatives settled in Australia (‘legally’, mind), will be placed at the end of the queue.

SBS World News Australia shares the tale of Abdul Karim Hekmat, who arrived by boat in 2001 and gained a permanent protection visa in 2004. Five (“long and stressful”) years later he was able to bring his mother, brother and two sisters to Australia through the humanitarian program. Now he is trying relocate his extended family from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But that door is now closed, with agencies predicting the policy may affect up to 30,000 refugees trying to reunite with their families, regardless of any (significant) money spent on lodging their applications.

(The directive applies to all permanent visa holders until they obtain Australian citizenship. You can read the directive here)

But as Senator Sarah Hanson-Young suggests, this is likely to force more people onto boats, which is exactly what the government claims is their harsh policies are trying to stop. “Govt moves to cut family reunion for refugees already in Aust is just cruelty for cruelty’s sake,” she Tweeted.

International attention

Australia’s (ill)treatment of asylum seekers is also receiving global attention. In case you missed it, a massive story broke last year when a boat carrying asylum seekers arrived at Christmas Island. The big news was that also onboard were US journalist Luke Mogelson and Dutch photographer Joel van Houdt. Afghanistan-based reporters, the pair posed as Georgian refugees seeking asylum, each paying smugglers US$4000 (a bargain rate, Mogelson wrote in his New York Times magazine piece, ‘The Dream Boat’) to undertake the journey from Afghanistan to Indonesia to Australia. The pair painted a bleak, haunting and eye-opening account of what it is really like to undertake the perilous journey, capturing all the desperation, despair and unwavering hope of the asylum seekers.

Yet even in the face of our government propaganda and shifts in policies, the asylum seekers still hold out hope. As Mogelson writes:

“Australia’s decision to send all boat people to Papua New Guinea or the Republic of Nauru only compounded everyone’s anxiety. Although no one allowed himself to take it seriously (if he did, he would have no option but to do the unthinkable—give up, go home), the news was never decisively explained away. ‘It’s a lie to scare people so that they don’t come,’ Youssef told me when I brought it up. Another man became agitated when I asked him what he thought. ‘How can they turn you away?’ he demanded. ‘You put yourself in danger, you take your life in your hand? They can’t.’ A third asylum seeker dismissed the policy with a shrug. ‘It’s a political game,’ he told me.

“In many ways, he was right. It’s hard to overstate how contentious an issue boat people are in Australian politics. From an American perspective, zealousness on the subject of immigration is nothing unfamiliar. But what makes Australia unique is the disconnect between how prominently boat people feature in the national dialogue, on the one hand, and the actual scale of the problem, on the other. Over the past four years, most European countries have absorbed more asylum seekers, per capita, than Australia — some of them, like Sweden and Liechtenstein, seven times as many. All the same, for more than a decade now, successive Australian governments have fixated on boat people, making them a centerpiece of their agendas.”

Let’s hope such international focus on the inhumane treatment of these people prepared to risk everything to leave horrors we couldn’t begin to imagine helps to affect change in our the policies. But I won’t hold my breath.

* At the time of writing, Jan 16, 2014.

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