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Last week, guerrilla projectionists lit up the Australian Embassy in London with the faces of three recently deceased young men, each of whom died while under the ‘care’ of the Australian government in its offshore refugee detention system. The protest is all the more potent after another detained refugee died on Friday. 23-year-old Iranian refugee Omid set himself on fire last Wednesday during a visit by UN officials to the Australian offshore detention centre on Nauru. As he set himself alight, Omid cried out, ‘This is how tired we are, this action will prove how exhausted we are. I cannot take it anymore‘. His death comes after reported delays in providing him with appropriate medical care. Not only did Omid have to wait two hours to be seen by a doctor on Nauru, the hospital he was taken to did not have the resources to give him intravenous pain relief. He waited almost a day to be airlifted to a hospital in Brisbane, Australia where he died on Friday.
Many people detained by Australia on Nauru, Manus Island, Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Christmas Island have been held there for over three years in conditions which the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights condemned as displaying ‘hostility and contempt’ towards refugees, and which the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture declared to be in violation of the Convention Against Torture on multiple counts. This week PNG’s Supreme Court ruled that Australia’s detention of refugees on Manus Island was contrary to the PNG constitutional guarantee of personal liberty, and the PNG government has ordered that the detention centre be closed. It is unclear at this stage what Australia will do with these refugees, but the Australian Immigration Minister is resolute in his refusal to allow them to come to Australia, or to shift the country’s brutal refugee deterrence policy. Originally labelled ‘the Pacific Solution’ by then Prime Minister John Howard in 2001, refugees who reach Australia by boat are detained on remote islands in the Pacific and Indian Oceans while their asylum claims are processed. The vast majority of people arriving by boat are found to be refugees, but under a policy introduced by then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in July 2013, instead of being allowed to live in Australia, these refugees are to be offered resettlement in a ‘third country’ with a significantly lower standard of living, such as PNG or Cambodia. The explicit motivation behind the ‘Pacific Solution’ and the third country resettlement scheme is to subject refugees to such dire conditions that others will be deterred from attempting the journey.
Exacerbating the intransigence of the situation is an almost total media blackout on reporting of conditions on the islands. It is all but impossible for journalists to access the island ‘processing centres’ (referred to by some as ‘gulags’ and ‘concentration camps’), and last year it was made a criminal offence for medical or humanitarian staff to speak publicly about conditions inside the centres. In the Nauru centre, guards carry special knives in order to cut down refugees who have hung themselves. Although information on conditions on the islands is sparse, there have been reports of serious abuse by guards, rape and lack of adequate healthcare. It is unsurprising that the camps have seen riots, hunger strikes, self-harm and deaths.
All three of the men whose faces were projected onto the Australian embassy were ethnic Kurds fleeing persecution in Iran. Fazel Chegeni, a 34-year-old refugee, was found dead at the bottom of a cliff on Christmas Island last November. Chegeni, who had spent all but a few months of his four years in Australia confined to immigration detention, was suffering from severe mental health problems and had made a desperate attempt to escape the previous day. Chegeni arrived in Australia by boat in 2011 and was declared a refugee in March 2012 but was not granted a visa allowing him to be released from detention until April 2013. After being free for eight months, Chegeni was charged with assault in relation to a one-minute ‘fight’ that had taken place in detention two years earlier. Following legal advice, Chegeni pled guilty and was convicted. The then immigration minister Scott Morrison revoked his right to live in the community and he was returned to detention. For Chegeni, as a stateless refugee with no safe country to return to, Morrison’s decision to revoke his visa meant a sentence of life imprisonment in immigration detention.
It is still unclear exactly how Chegeni died. Having suffered rape, torture and imprisonment in Iran, Chegeni’s ongoing detention exacerbated his trauma and led to a severe deterioration in his mental health, including attempted suicide by hanging. It is possible that Chegeni took his own life on Christmas Island, though some detainees believe Chegeni’s death was ‘very, very suspicious’ and that ‘Serco officers did something to him’. Chegeni’s death caused a riot in the Christmas Island centre and was met with outpourings of grief from his friends. ‘Fazel is free now,’ one detainee said, ‘God gave him a visa’.
Hamid Khazaei, a 24-year-old refugee from Iran, died in a Brisbane hospital in September 2014 after a blister on his leg became infected and turned septic while he was detained on Manus Island, PNG. The Australian administration’s bureaucratic neglect and malfunction which led to lethal delays and failures in his treatment were the subject of a television documentary which aired in Australia last week, featuring a number of prominent medical doctors who risked criminal charges by speaking out about Khazaei’s case. Khazaei had arrived by boat in Australia in August 2013. He was transferred to Manus Island, where he remained until his emergency medical evacuation to Brisbane in August 2014, where he was declared brain-dead. Doctors claimed that the cramped, tropical and unhygienic conditions in the Manus Island centre contributed to Khazaei’s initial infection, which involved a bacteria found in tropical and subtropical climates. According to more than one Australian doctor, Khazaei’s death was entirely preventable. His life could have been saved by ‘cheap and available’ drugs, which were not in stock at the centre. Doctors also noted that Khazaei might have survived were it not for needless delays in his emergency transfer to Brisbane caused in part by Australian bureaucrats questioning the judgement of doctors. The Khazaei family’s final wish that their son’s organs be donated to Australian patients was not able to be fulfilled due to septicaemia having infected his whole body so severely.
Iranian Kurd Reza Berati was also just 24 when he was beaten to death inside Manus Island detention centre in February 2014. Berati was described by a group of detention centre contractors as a ‘gentle giant’ who ‘had a close relationship with many of the other transferees’ and was working hard to learn English inside the centre. Berati had arrived in Australia by boat in July 2013 before being transferred to Manus Island. Berati was killed during a wave of attacks that occurred when individuals broke into the centre following protests by detainees at conditions in the centre. An Australian Senate committee report later described the violence as ‘eminently foreseeable’ in light of the inhumane and uncertain conditions in the centre, the growing tensions between detainees and neighbouring locals, and the inexperienced and inadequately trained private security staff. Last week, two PNG men were given 10 year jail sentences for murdering Berati by repeatedly hitting him with a piece of wood and dropping a large rock on his head. The sentencing judge noted that other parties not before the court were also involved in Berati’s murder, reportedly including former guards from Australia and New Zealand.
Despite the deceptive statistics bandied about by various ministers in an attempt to prove that Australia is a generous and humanitarian nation, the country hosts less than 0.5% of the world’s refugee population (as an indicator, Jordan received 2,771,502 refugees in 2014 while Australia received 35,582). As others have pointed out, Australia’s deterrence strategy does not ‘stop the boats’ and thus save refugee lives, it just stops boats from arriving in Australia. Refugees fleeing violence and persecution will continue to undertake treacherous journeys in their attempt to find safety, they will simply take those journeys elsewhere. Alternatively they may be stranded in their home country and killed. As Julian Burnside has argued, the current policy ‘might stop people drowning inconveniently in view of Australians’, but if they are deterred from fleeing to Australia and are instead killed at home, the policy cannot be considered ‘humanitarian’.
The Australian embassy sits on a busy intersection in central London, its imperial architecture and navy blue flags peppered with mini Union Jacks marking out the diplomatic territory of one of Britain’s most devoted colonies. Inside its sandstone walls, the Australian High Commission works alongside Tourism Australia and The Britain Australia Society to perform the day-to-day work of representing the Australian state in the heart of the colonial motherland. It is perhaps fitting that the images of Fazel Chegeni, Hamid Khazaei and Reza Berati appeared like ghosts on the walls of the Australia House – the physical border of Australian diplomatic territory – never to be permitted entry, just as in their short lives. Meanwhile, inside the building, the daily work of branding Australia as a desirable destination for tourists, students, highly-skilled workers and international investment continues. Last week’s projection illuminates the ongoing racist violence that has defined this settler colony since its inception. It is a violence that its rulers both deny and seek to conceal. But international condemnation of Australia’s treatment of refugees grows, and as this projection demonstrates, the world is watching.
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Sarah Keenan is a London-based writer, teacher and activist. Her work focuses on understanding and subverting structural racism, particularly as it is produced by law. She is a lecturer at Birkbeck Law School and has previously written for The Guardian, The Conversation and Critical Legal Thinking. Twitter: @sarahjkeenan
This feature was commissioned and edited by MD’s Editor-at-large Lola Okolosie. To pitch an article, review or feature please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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