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Australia reopens Christmas Island detention centre: A callous political stunt Open in fullscreen

CJ Werleman

Australia reopens Christmas Island detention centre: A callous political stunt

Morrison claims new laws would increase numbers of people trying to reach Australia 'illegally' [Getty]

Date of publication: 15 February, 2019

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Comment: The demonisation of refugees and immigrants has long been a feature of Australian political discourse, writes CJ Werleman.
With Australia's national election only weeks away, and with the incumbent coalition government staring down a landslide defeat at the polls, the world's most vulnerable people - refugees - are again being exploited as pawns in the cynical politics of division and subtraction.

On Tuesday, Australia's opposition parties - Labour and the Green Party - essentially blocked the conservative government's control of over the floor of the House of Representatives by mustering enough votes to ensure passage of what has been called the "Medivac bill," which ensures up to 300 refugees and asylum seekers on Australia's illegal offshore detention centers are eligible for immediate transfer to Australia, in order to receive urgent medical care and mitigate against preventable deaths.

Trailing by double digits in the polls, Prime Minister Scott Morrison's Liberal Party has seized on this development with the kind of predictable hysterics and fear mongering consistent with any contemporary politician or political party in need of a desperate and last minute goal to keep the contest alive.

In the same way US president Donald Trump manufactured a crisis by whipping up fear of so-called "migrant caravans" approaching the US-Mexico border prior to the 2018 Midterm elections, Morrison and his right-wing coalition is putting parliament's decision to humanely provide these refugees and asylum seekers with medical care on centre stage.

The government is more than willing to use refugees as a desperate and racist ploy to win reelection when trailing in the polls

This amounts to nothing more than a patently transparent effort to elevate border security to the centre of Australia's political debate.

Australia, a white settler state in an Asian neighbourhood, has always suffered what international relations scholars have described as "borderphobia," so the demonisation of refugees and immigrants has long been a feature of Australian political discourse.

This time, the government and the right-wing-media ecosystem are claiming without evidence or even a strand of reasonable logic that tens of thousands of asylum seekers will set sail for Australia's shores. People smugglers around the world will view the transfer of 300 physically and mentally unwell refugees to the Australian mainland, away from what have been described as "Guantanamo Bay" of the South Pacific - Manus Island and Nauru. Or so the thinking goes.

A detainee hangs out her washing at Australia's Christmas Island detention
centre, which closed in 2018. [Getty]

To paint a vivid scene in the minds of Australian voters, an image of tens of thousands of Arabs, Afghans and Indonesians (read Muslims) swarming towards the continent, Morrison announced the reopening of the detention facilities on Christmas Island, which is located thousands of miles closer to Indonesia than it is to Australia, and which is deemed "ill-equipped" to deal with new asylum seekers.

"We have approved putting in place the re-opening of the Christmas Island detention facilities, both to deal with the prospect of arrivals as well as dealing with the prospect of transfers," Prime Minister Morrison told reporters on Wednesday.

In response, David Price, the local council chief executive for Christmas Island, countered by telling an Australian radio station that the tiny and remote island is not prepared or capable of providing care to asylum seekers who are suffering from complex medical needs.

The world's most vulnerable people - refugees - are again being exploited as pawns in the cynical politics of division and subtraction

"If a person has a compound fracture, they're air-vacced out," while adding, "There's no operations done here. Some of these people would have serious mental problems that need to be dealt with by specialists. We haven't got the specialists here to do that."

When I interviewed Kon Karapanagiotidis, director of Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, he told me, "The reopening of Christmas Island detention centre is nothing but race baiting political theatre at its worse, and based on a lie that refugees transferred there will receive medical care there, despite the fact medical services don't exist."

Read more: Bahraini footballer threatened with 'torture deportation' heads back to Australia

Amnesty International, which had praised the Medivac bill as a "welcome step towards humanity for refugees," has described Morrison's reopening of the detention centre as a "cruel and unnecessary political stunt,". He also called out the government's hypocrisy for rightly portraying Bahrain born Australian professional footballer Hakeem al-Araibi as a persecuted refugee in need of asylum status, while at the same time demonising asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island.

"Most of the people on Manus Island and Nauru are recognised refugees who have proven their lives would be in danger if they were returned to their countries of origin," says Dr Graham Thom, Amnesty International Australia's Refugee Coordinator.

"You can't demonise the refugees on Manus and Nauru on one hand while welcoming others and praising their contribution to Australia. They are not simply pawns to be used to score political points, they are human beings who deserve a safe place to live and access to adequate healthcare."

Australia is a white settler state in an Asian neighbourhood

Australia's conservative party – the Liberal Party – has demonstrated in the past, however, that its more than willing to use refugees as a desperate and racist ploy to win reelection when trailing in the polls on the eve of an election.

In the lead up to the 2001 election, the then Howard government was staring at an electoral defeat, but in August a refugee boat called Tampa, carrying 433 passengers, entered Australian waters. Prime Minister John Howard ordered Australian Special Forces to board the vessel, and then later falsely claimed refugees threw their children overboard as a ploy secure rescue and passage.

No such thing happened. Of course mothers and fathers did not throw their most precious cargo - sons and daughters - into shark-infested waters, but it reinforced racist and xenophobic narratives and tropes about predominantly Muslim refugees being "uncivilized and barbaric," helping the Howard government eek out a narrow electoral victory.

History doesn't repeat, thought it often rhymes, as the saying goes, but time will tell whether Australian voters will again reward an incumbent but dysfunctional government for deploying what is objectively a xenophobic strategy to retain power. Given American voters didn't fall for this tired, old gambit in 2018, I'm confident my fellow countrymen and women will this time call it out for what it is: a cynical ruse.

CJ Werleman is the author of 'Crucifying America', 'God Hates You, Hate Him Back' and 'Koran Curious', and is the host of Foreign Object.

Follow him on Twitter: @cjwerleman


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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