Donald Trump has enshrined “build the wall” in the Western lexicon. But “build the wall” is more than a slogan or a policy description: It’s a worldview. From the proposed moratorium on Muslim immigration to the on-again off-again promise to deport America’s 11 million undocumented immigrants, the Trump campaign has managed to paint a picture of the outside world as a scary, dangerous place the US needs to separate itself from.
In the increasingly unlikely event that Trump wins in November, the US may no longer be able to pride itself as an open, welcoming nation of immigrant success and universal opportunity. Instead, it will become a fearful, isolationist fortress. But while this may be a dire “what if” for America, Australians are already dealing with a very real wall of their own: one made of water.
Australia’s modern image as a diverse, laid-back society built on immigrant labor and multiculturalism is giving way to an atmosphere of fear and hatred toward outsiders, especially refugees of Middle Eastern background. Boats filled with asylum seekers from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere are routinely intercepted at sea by Australian patrol guards and turned back to their points of departure. This is in direct violation of international law.
If the boats cannot be turned back for safety reasons, their passengers are detained and sent to Guantanamo Bay-like detention centers on remote islands. These detainees have little to no chance of being resettled in Australia. Other countries have at least attempted to grapple with the Syrian refugee crisis, but Australia has responded to its own ongoing refugee disaster by closing itself off from the world for more than two decades.
Australia’s atrocious record has flown under the radar of the international media for years, but recent news events have renewed global scrutiny. On Aug. 10, journalists at The Guardian Australia released the Nauru Files, a massive tract of leaked documents revealing, in horrifying detail, the abominable conditions in Australia’s offshore immigration detention center on the tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru. They include dozens of allegations of child sexual and physical abuse, rape, and sexual violence, as well as hundreds of reports of detainees self-harming, undergoing severe mental anguish and trauma, and attempting suicide.
Refugees trying to kill themselves is such a common problem that detention center guards carry special knives designed to quickly cut down people attempting to hang themselves in their cells. The Nauru Files join a growing list of stories that have managed to make it off the island and into the Australian media. For example, in the space of just five days earlier this year, two refugees on Nauru set themselves on fire, and another six attempted suicide. Refugees trying to kill themselves is such a common problem that detention center guards carry special knives designed to quickly cut down people attempting to hang themselves in their cells. In 2014, 23-year-old Iranian man Reza Berati was bludgeoned to death when Papua New Guinea locals stormed a compound on Manus Island and attacked protesters in what was described as “a frenzy of out-of-control violence”.
Australia’s minister for immigration and border protection, Peter Dutton, has dismissed the Nauru files as “hype” and suggested asylum seekers were fabricating some of the claims, as well as deliberately harming themselves, in an effort to bolster their immigration cases. This is in line with the government’s history of denial and deflection: Former workers have asserted that reports of abuse, assault, neglect and serious mental illness are routinely met with indifference and silence. In one case, allegations of child sexual abuse on Nauru reported to the Immigration Department went uninvestigated for 17 months.
In the wake of these controversies, Australia’s mandatory detention policies are now under a harsh spotlight. The country’s longstanding policy of housing asylum seekers who arrive by boat on far-flung islands has become synonymous with rampant human rights abuses, government cruelty and ineptitude, overt and covert racism, and the rise of Islamophobia as a political force. Despite worldwide condemnation and myriad violations of international law, Australia still clings to offshore detention—ominously known as the “Pacific Solution”.
Similarly to the US, the issue of Muslim asylum seekers has dominated politics since 2001, when then-prime minister John Howard secured his Liberal Party government’s re-election by refusing to allow a boatload of Afghan refugees into Australian waters. Capitalizing on public fears toward “boat people,” Howard’s government falsely claimed that the Afghani refugees had thrown their children into the sea in an effort to force Australian border authorities to take them aboard. This became known as the “children overboard” scandal. In a moment that would set the tone for years of rancorous debate, Howard famously declared, “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.”
Since then, any governmental attempt to wind back or disband mandatory offshore detention has been viewed as political suicide. In Sept. 2013, the right-wing Liberal Party was elected largely on the promise to, once again, “stop the boats.” Then-prime minister Tony Abbott used the phrase so often that “stop the boats” became a nationwide in-joke, shorthand for the mindless three-word slogans politicians throw around when they have nothing else to say. Like Trump’s “build the wall,” it’s a phrase that captures Australia’s fearful, small-minded approach to its borders.
While nations like Germany and Canada were pledging to take tens of thousands of Syrian refugees in 2015, Australian government ministers insisted that they would only accept Syrians from Christian and other religious minority groups. The racism that underpins how Australia treats “boat people” cannot be underestimated. The language used by tabloid newspapers and government ministers mirrors that of the right-wing Western governments in other regions, with asylum seekers routinely conflated with Islamic extremism, derided as “illegals,” and described as “invading” the country. While nations like Germany and Canada were pledging to take tens of thousands of Syrian refugees in 2015, Australian government ministers insisted that they would only accept Syrians from Christian and other religious minority groups.
During this time, Abbott’s government also announced Operation Sovereign Borders, a military campaign designed to halt the flow of asylum seekers trying to reach safer waters in Australia. This included many ominous changes to governmental structures: The Department of Immigration was renamed to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, and last year the country’s Customs and Immigration branches were revamped into the Australian Border Force (ABF), which is now a quasi-militaristic body. Tourists visiting Australia are now greeted on arrival by gun-carrying ABF officers in black, military-style uniforms more reminiscent of an old Soviet dictatorship than the friendly, welcoming country pictured in travel brochures.
To prop up the regime, Australian lawmakers have been increasingly infringing on the civil liberties of anyone who opposes or investigates these matters, and have taken clandestine steps to silence journalists and prevent them from stepping foot on Nauru or Manus Island. And for those workers who do manage to make it onto one of the islands, they are then muzzled when they leave: In July last year, Australia’s federal parliament passed the Border Force Act, which is a piece of legislation that makes it illegal for doctors, teachers, humanitarian and social workers, and guards working in Australian offshore detention to speak publicly about conditions inside the camps, with a penalty of up to two years jail. Since then, hundreds of current and former detention staff have gone public in defiance of the law, with many openly daring the government to prosecute them. Another 103 joined them shortly after the Nauru Files were published.
Exactly how the Nauru Files will impact Australia’s detention regime, if at all, is difficult to predict. Any genuine alternatives to offshore detention remain too politically unpalatable for governments to contemplate. These include coming to a multilateral agreement with Asia-Pacific nations to address the region’s ongoing refugee crisis, substantially increasing Australia’s humanitarian intake, or simply flying asylum seekers in Indonesia and elsewhere to be processed on the Australian mainland.
On Aug. 17, protesters interrupted a major economic speech by prime minister Turnbull, storming the stage where he was speaking and shouting, “For fuck’s sake Malcolm, close the fucking camps.” Later that day, Australia and Papua New Guinea announced that the Australian detention facility on Manus Island would be shut down after the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court ruled the camp was illegal and unconstitutional. The fate of the camp’s 854 inhabitants remains unclear, with the Australian government reiterating that they will never be resettled in Australia.
Maybe these protests will help push through reforms. Unfortunately, if the past is anything to go by, the status quo is likely to remain. The feverish bigotry that vaulted former prime minister Howard back into power in 2001 is still there, and Australia’s political leaders either lack the means, the will, or the inclination to challenge it. A new, far-off place to build another Guantanamo of the South Pacific will be found to replace the facility closed on Manus Island, and the Nauru Files will be added to the forgotten, yet ever-growing pile of damning evidence.