Australia Has Seen This Horror Before

“It is important to note that these minors are very well taken care of,” said United States Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen in an address to an American sheriffs’ association. “Don’t believe the press – they are very well taken care of.”

She’s referring to the big issue occupying the front pages of newspapers across America: the Trump administration has taken a “zero-tolerance” approach to anyone caught crossing the US border – meaning that they all face criminal prosecution for doing so. This policy, announced back in May by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has resulted in parents being split from their children every day, with the parents sent to jail and the children transported to government custody.

Despite the fact that the US has maintained a very, very punitive border regime for a long time – including under previous president Barack Obama – the grim images coming from where these children have been incarcerated away from their parents have sparked a special kind of outrage from the American population.

Part of this is because of the sheer grimness of the imagery coming out of various outlets and from the offices of US politicians, which depict kids locked up by the dozens.

For Australians though, this is nothing new at all. In fact, even Nielsen’s prepared press lines defending the vicious new policy aren’t new either. We’ve seen it all before in our refugee detention centres, and we’ve become so desensitised to it that it has been fully fortified in bipartisan policy with grim prospects of ever being wound back.

Some of the lines being parroted by those in and adjacent to the Trump administration sound like they’ve come straight out of the Australian playbook. Nielsen’s attack on media coverage of conditions in immigration detention sounds like Peter Dutton:

We have been taken for a ride, I believe, by a lot of the advocates and people within Labor and the Greens who want you to believe this is a terrible existence. These photos demonstrate otherwise. People have seen other photos in recent weeks of those up on Manus out enjoying themselves outside this centre, by the beach and all the rest of it.

Australia showed no shame in weaponising the relationship between refugees and their children during the notorious Children Overboard affair, when the government’s official line was the proven lie that asylum seekers were throwing their children into the water from their boats as a ploy to secure entry into Australia. It wasn’t true, and the government knew it. Now Trump makes the same seedy insinuations the Howard Government did all the way back in 2001.

The one difference Americans can hold onto is that the Democrats – who, in fairness, engineered parts of the punitive border enforcement laws – are at least providing some resistance throughout the party to the horrors being enacted on children in the name of national security. In Australia, refugee detention and what it does to those in the system elicits barely a peep from Labor, who are perpetually worried about the effect it would have on polling. They’ve let it become a hopeless wedge issue and bark down any internal attempts to do something about it.

“No nation can have the policy that whole classes of people are immune from immigration law or enforcement,” said senior policy advisor Stephen Miller, often pointed to by American media as the architect behind the current policy. “It was a simple decision by the administration to have a zero tolerance policy for illegal entry, period.”

Again, Australians are entirely familiar with this kind of rhetoric and where it leads. Since Paul Keating and Labor first implemented mandatory detention in the early 90s, and certainly since the boat people panic reared its head under John Howard, we’ve been bashed over the head by this same line of reasoning: real nations protect their borders. Nobody can be exempt, and a zero tolerance policy, enacted as brutally as our laws and international obligations will allow, is the only thing keeping the system functional. Of course, it’s a solution which completely ignores the messy global politics of displaced people, and openly rejects basic, fundamental humanity.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Trump himself had learned his current rhetoric and strategy from the Liberal Party, who use refugee detention as a political wedge issue across a variety of subtle and overt fronts including population, demographics, crime.

Australia has seen all of this before, and we took the worst path. Our own brutalisation of refugees and displaced people are a solid part of our national fabric, which constant protests and awareness efforts seem to have little effect in reversing. Every few weeks we hear a new story of a refugee in detention taking their own life, and it has no effect on the policy.

We’ve seen where this story goes. We know what happens when the establishment rolls over and lets this kind of deprivation of human rights become rote. We can only hope that advocates over in the US keep up the fight.