An apology to asylum seekers past and present from a future Prime Minister

Date

Alex McKinnon

To be delivered in the house of representatives by a future Prime Minister.

Asylum seekers arriving on Wednesday 24th July 2013.

Asylum seekers arriving on Wednesday 24th July 2013. Photo: Sharon Tisdale

In the event that a future Parliament deems it necessary to offer a national apology to those who have been held in mandatory detention the following is a draft motion to be considered by the federal House of Representatives.            

I move: That today we honour those Australians who arrived in this country as asylum seekers and refugees, and suffered under the policy of mandatory detention. We reflect on their past mistreatment.

As a Parliament and a nation, we offer our unreserved apology to those Australians who were wrongly imprisoned, deported, maltreated and abused as a direct result of policies and laws enacted by successive Australian Parliaments and governments.

Dawood Waladbegi (black shirt)  is one of the survivors that was rescued 4 days, after his boat capsized heading for ...

Dawood Waladbegi (black shirt) is one of the survivors that was rescued 4 days, after his boat capsized heading for Christmas Island. He lost his wife, two children and 8 other relatives. January 6, 2012. Photo: Quentin Jones

Since the policy of mandatory detention for asylum seekers was first introduced by Prime Minister Paul Keating in 1992, it has taken on many different forms, but the basic principles and effects have remained the same. We now recognise that this policy and the sentiments that inspired it were deeply wrong, and contrary to the spirit of decency and fairness that should guide the Parliament of Australia in its every action.

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This policy had a severely detrimental impact on the lives of tens of thousands of people who, fleeing war and persecution, sought the safety of Australian territory by boarding boats, primarily from Indonesia. Upon being intercepted by Australian authorities they were detained and imprisoned without trial or conviction, despite being guilty of no crime and in breach of no law. They were held in prison-like institutions, often for years at a time, and suffered untold physical and psychological trauma as a result – trauma that still resonates in our community today.

Further, these people were unfairly vilified by members of Parliament – including, I am forced to admit, numerous former Prime Ministers – as criminals, terrorists and illegal immigrants, when in reality the vast majority were genuine refugees. When finally granted the chance to build a life in Australia, these people and their families endured hostility, mistrust and outright hatred from parts of the community – a hatred that successive Australian Parliaments helped to foster and inspire.

First refugee families off loaded from a Triton that was rescued last night off Christmas Island. in July 2013 .

First refugee families off loaded from a Triton that was rescued last night off Christmas Island. in July 2013 . Photo: Sharon Tisdale

If an apology is to be sincere it must, above all, be an admission of guilt. In that spirit, we must admit to being guilty of some disturbing things. So let us not mince words. Under our care, ordinary people were sent to island prisons, thousands of kilometres from civilisation. They baked in makeshift tents in forty-degree heat. Pregnant women and infants went without proper medical care. Children were born and raised inside prison walls, spending the most important years of their lives knowing nothing of the world outside. They waited for years, some of them, in limbo, unaware even of the reasons behind their detainment. On at least one occasion, they were attacked by mobs wielding machetes and batons. Some were sent back to their homelands, where they were tortured or shot.

The result of this maltreatment was as horrific as it was inevitable – the slow but inexorable breaking of the will to survive. Deprived of hope and dignity, they sewed their lips together and cut their own bodies. They swallowed handfuls of pills, shampoo and broken glass. They bashed their heads against walls until they went unconscious. They dug mass graves in the common areas. They tied towels and shoelaces to pipes and door frames, and hung themselves.

I realise these words may seem exaggerated or melodramatic, so I have turned to the records of the time to let them speak for themselves. One of the companies hired to provide “services” within these detention centres, Serco, was required to log every incident in its books. I take the opportunity to read out some of those incidents now.

Pro refugee advocates protest against Federal Labors policies on asylum seekers in Sydney, Saturday, July 20,  2013.

Pro refugee advocates protest against Federal Labors policies on asylum seekers in Sydney, Saturday, July 20, 2013.

“Client found standing on table in the cabana with a microphone lead around his neck attached to the rafter.” December 14, 2009.

“[REDACTED] claimed to International Health and Medical Services that he was sexually assaulted approximately 7-10 days ago.” November 3, 2010.

“[REDACTED] was found hanging in the breezeway outside Room 102 in Delta compound.” February 4, 2011.

Signs at  the Lombrum Naval Base at Manus Island erected by asylum seekers.

Signs at the Lombrum Naval Base at Manus Island erected by asylum seekers. Photo: Angela Wylie

“Client (child) suspected overdose.” May 19, 2011.

To refer to these events, as the original reports do, as “incidents,” and the people within them as “clients,” is nothing short of cowardice. It is a sentiment we have encountered before. Even as we implemented mandatory detention, we sought to hide its effects from ourselves – banning photography and videos to be taken inside detention centres; calling our victims by mealy-mouthed terms like “transferees” and “illegals”; tying ourselves in knots by committing legal absurdities like excising our entire mainland continent from its own migration zone. Let us now speak plainly: these were entirely preventable tragedies, inflicted on innocent people for no reason.

These people fled their countries of birth because they refused to submit to the ignorance and fear that tyranny thrives on. Their homes and possessions, even their families, were taken from them, but their minds and spirits remained intact – they saw in Australia a nation that rewarded those who stood on the courage of their convictions, not punished them, and sought to make a new life in such a place. Had they been welcomed here, and encouraged to contribute to this country rather than be shut out of it, how might they have rewarded our generosity? What innovations and cures for illness did Australia deny itself as it shuttered the minds of those who might have thought of them?

Asylum seekers arrive at Royal Perth Hospital after surviving their ship overturning in waters 120nm from Christmas ...

Asylum seekers arrive at Royal Perth Hospital after surviving their ship overturning in waters 120nm from Christmas Island. 22nd June, 2012 Photo: Simon Santi

In doing so, we failed to recognise that a society is only as strong as its weakest members, as compassionate as its most downtrodden. We made our nation more scared and less moral, more hateful and less trusting. In withholding aid and comfort to those who needed it most, we trampled on the ideals of liberty, freedom and the rule of law that we had built our country on. Qualities we had always thought of as intrinsically Australian gradually became mockeries of themselves because we were not willing to fight for them, tossing them aside when they clashed with our prejudices or our short-term political interests. We tore our own hearts out.

We must also recognise that the fault lies not with one party or government, but with all of us; a Labor Party that ignored its founding mandate to care for the most marginalised in our community; a Liberal Party that turned its back on the right of the individual to determine the course of their own life, without unnecessary government intrusion; and thousands of Australian Parliamentarians who, with precious few exceptions, failed in that most basic duty of any who serve in public office: to alleviate human misery, wherever and whenever they have the means and the opportunity. Whatever their other triumphs and achievements, this fact cannot be erased. It is a profoundly uncomfortable reality to confront, but it must be accepted if we are ever to move forward.

I can only take hope in the knowledge that after decades of state-sanctioned violence against some of the world’s most vulnerable and long-suffering people, we have come to our senses and recognised the error of what we have done and, in however inadequate a fashion, sought to make amends by gathering here today.

A funeral for one of the assylum seekers who were killed or lost at sea when their boat broke up on the rocky shores of ...

A funeral for one of the assylum seekers who were killed or lost at sea when their boat broke up on the rocky shores of Christmas island. 15 February, 2011 Photo: Nick Moir

As Prime Minister of Australia, I am sorry.

On behalf of the Government of Australia, I am sorry.

On behalf of the Parliament of Australia, I am sorry.

I commend this motion to the House.