In January, as part of the highly controversial Operation Sovereign Borders, a small, crowded boat carrying desperate people seeking asylum in Australia was intercepted by the Australian navy off the coast of Darwin. Allegations soon emerged that some of the men on board had received deliberate burns at the hands of Australian military forces; having forced the men’s hands onto scalding hot engine parts. Now, the ABC has managed to speak with some of the people levelling those allegations.
On the ABC’s 7:30 Report, Sudanese refugee Mustafa Ibrahim detailed the horrific scene, “Those people hold us and put our hands on the engine and burnt us. One came out this side and the other one came out the other side and they put my hand on the exhaust.” This as means of punishment after the asylum seekers attempted to sabotage the boat’s engine to prevent it from returning to Indonesia.
However the crux of the issue is that the claims from these Asylum Seekers remain, in an official capacity, unsubstantiated. The Government refuses to investigate the allegations, and is yet to officially question any personnel at the centre of the issue. And yet all I can be left to wonder is why? If there is no case to answer, then that’s an issue that can be cleared up quickly and with minimal fuss. Like a splinter in the foot, it can be removed easily if you admit there’s a problem and pay appropriate attention to it. But the Government remains steadfast in its desire to hobble and wince.
Military personnel are, from the moment of interception, responsible for the well-being and safety of these people desperate enough to risk their own lives on boats barely fit for river travel, let alone the open sea. There exists in that relationship an inherent duty-of-care, which cannot be successfully applied without a certain level of accountability for those placed in charge. Governmental policy at the finish line will never be enough to discourage that gamble altogether. The simple reason being that no amount of admonishing, verbal or advertorial discouragement will ever outweigh the physical and emotional hardships that the alternative option presents.
But let’s look at the three potential outcomes for these claims. The first is that the asylum seekers are telling the truth; that Australian forces deliberately and maliciously burned the hands of people whose actions were based on desperation. If that is the case, that is without question a heinous and despicable act that no responsible Government should ignore. The second outcome is that the asylum seekers, feeling backed into a corner over whatever it is that occurs inside the walls of a detention centre, have self-harmed as a means of gaining attention. In this instance, questions need to be raised over the processes of detention that would drive an already desperate man to such extreme lengths. But with the banning of Human Rights lawyers from other centres, that seems less likely to happen, and raises suspicion even further that the Government has something to hide. And the third option is that the allegations are false, in which case I have to wonder why the Immigration Department, the Military, the Coast Guard, anyone on that boat, anyone in Canberra, anyone at all hasn’t simply stood up and calmly explained the verified truth and put the matter to bed once and for all.
The cold, hard truth of the matter is that the current policy does not work. If you have men who are being burned by military personnel, the system has failed. If you have men who are desperate enough, or so bereft of any foreseeable hope that they self-harm in order to get attention, the system has failed. If you have continually emerging allegations of misdoings and allegations of hundreds of breaches of international law, the system has failed.
It might be true that whatever has allegedly happened or is happening in offshore processing facilities is completely false. But the monetary and political cost of doing something and being wrong will always be enormously outweighed by the very human price of doing nothing at all.