Why we need to know the truth

For years, refugee rights supporters have rightly denounced the press and the politicians for creating hysteria about boat arrivals.

Unlike others who travel, refugees allegedly “flood”, come in “waves” and threaten to “swamp” the country. The Sydney Daily Telegraph’s 2011 front-page headline, “OPEN THE FLOODGATES – Exclusive: Thousands of boat people to invade NSW”, was atypical only in that it attracted official censure. 

This racist panic – scapegoating that drags political discussion to the right – depicts human misery and vulnerability as a source of fear rather than deserving of compassion and solidarity. When the Liberals were in opposition, scarcely an hour passed without them highlighting the arrivals of refugees or making other demands to draw attention to them, such as Scott Morrison’s call for police to be informed whenever asylum seekers were released into the community

But now that they are in government, the Liberals want to stop the constant attention. Scott Morrison’s job as immigration minister these days includes suppressing information about boat arrivals and maritime search and rescue missions. The Daily Telegraph now hides its stories on boat arrivals deep inside the paper.

Make no mistake, successive Australian governments have always accompanied their demonising pronouncements against refugees with lashings of secrecy, whether hiding the huge numbers in detention (including hundreds of children), the dozens of suicides in the detention centres, the epidemic of self-harm and mental illness created by mandatory detention or the deportations back to the dangerous regimes from which asylum seekers had fled. Journalists remain unable to interview anyone in detention.

The government’s attempted media blackout is not about overcoming hysteria in the interests of refugee rights. On the one hand, the government now wants the issue of asylum seekers to go away. Having contributed to the hysteria that every boat arrival represents a threat to those already living in Australia, news of more arrivals now hurts them. Refugees are no threat to anyone, so without daily reports, the issue will drop off most people’s radar.

The other, more enduring, reason for the media blackout is to cover up the reality: desperate people will seek asylum, often at great risk. So at the end of September, while Morrison and Abbott were refusing for 36 hours to answer questions about reports that the government had ignored Mayday calls from a stricken vessel, dozens of people were drowning.

Who could hear the heartbreaking stories of deaths at sea, such as that from Abdullah, a survivor of the sinking, and not loathe the government that let them die? “We wait two hours; we wait 24 hours, and we kept calling them, ‘we don’t have food, we don’t have water for three days, we have children, just rescue us’. And nobody come. Sixty person dead now because of Australian government.”

No wonder Abbott and Morrison want to stop scrutiny of what the government is doing to these people – whether it is deporting, imprisoning or drowning them. The Liberals’ rationale for the government’s lack of transparency – “operational reasons” – is a dead giveaway. “Operational reasons” is what security, intelligence and law enforcement agencies hide behind to avoid public scrutiny.

Information might harm their operations – another reason to want it. The greater the cloak of secrecy under which governments operate, the more likely abuses are to occur, with officials and their political masters relieved of the threat of public scrutiny.

We need to know everything that is happening with asylum seekers, but not because we need to see whether or not the government’s policies are “stopping the boats”. We need to know in order that we can find out who is being tortured and how, and so that we can hold this disgusting government to account for its human rights violations.

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