Minister for immigration and border protection Scott Morrison – better described as minister for torture and cruelty – has, in the few short months since he took office, brought Australia’s already miserable treatment of refugees to new lows.
In September, after the Coalition won government, Tony Abbott put three-star General Angus Campbell in charge of “securing” Australia’s borders from the threat of traumatised asylum seekers. Under “Operation Sovereign Borders”, all government agencies involved in border protection are under the command of the general and report directly to the immigration minister.
On Friday 11 October at an Operation Sovereign Borders weekly briefing in Sydney, Morrison announced that he would not reveal incidents of self-harm in detention centres because that is an “operational matter” that could encourage “copycat” behaviour among detainees. (Are we supposed to believe that Morrison has ordered that Australian newspapers be delivered daily to detainees?)
In a deal signed on 17 November, the Australian government agreed to assist the Sri Lankan government to recapture people fleeing persecution. Australia will give Sri Lanka two patrol boats – the better to return asylum seekers to danger.
In November, Amnesty International visited Manus Island. Its report, “This is Breaking People: Human Rights Violations at Australia’s Asylum Seeker Processing Centre on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea”, found that the conditions on the island breach the UN Convention against Torture.
“The compounds are extremely cramped, leave no room for privacy and provide no shade or shelter from the oppressive tropical heat, humidity and heavy rain. Detainees spend several hours a day queuing in the sun for their meals. Foxtrot’s P Dorm is particularly concerning and violates obligations under the UN Convention against Torture. It has a corrugated iron roof, no windows and only two small working fans to be shared between 112 men in overcrowded conditions.”
In early December, the Coalition unsuccessfully attempted to reintroduce temporary protection visas. The measure would ensure that no one who arrived by boat in Australia would ever gain permanent protection.
In mid-December, Morrison introduced a new “code of behaviour” for more than 20,000 “irregular” immigrants living in the community on bridging visas. This code doesn’t extend only to illegal behaviour but also includes being “disrespectful”, “inconsiderate” or even, in the minister’s words, a “nuisance”.
Morrison cited asylum seekers congregating in large numbers in apartments as the type of “antisocial” behaviour that could get them thrown into detention. “Currently there’s no provision to really manage that behaviour”, he said. If this code were applied to politicians, we would have to deport the lot of them and keep them under lock and key for life – but currently there is no provision to deal with their outrageous behaviour.
On 21 December, Morrison claimed never to have seen a damning letter from 15 doctors about the medical procedures on Christmas Island. His department had been in possession of it for a fortnight. The letter detailed “gross departures” from standard medical practices.
Gillian Triggs, president of the Human Rights Commission, said the 92-page document was “chilling in its scientific clarity” in describing the inhumane conditions on the island. Among the litany of degrading practices, the doctors listed antenatal care as one of the most serious.
Elham, an asylum seeker from Iran who was 13 weeks pregnant, miscarried after she begged for, but was refused, an ultrasound. Her husband was later told by hospital staff that the baby might have been saved had his wife been brought in earlier.
In January, Morrison dismissed allegations that asylum seekers were tortured by being told to hold onto hot parts of a boat’s engine while it was towed back to Indonesia. The accusations were “sledging” the navy, he claimed. ABC News obtained footage of the asylum seekers being treated for burns after they were picked up in Indonesian waters on 6 January.
On 8 January, Indonesian villagers pulled a number of asylum seekers out of the water. A local police commissioner told the Guardian after speaking with people on the failed trip to Christmas Island that the Australian navy “shot into the air just to scare them”. The boat was carrying 25 people, including four children. It is difficult to image how the situation could be more callous short of shooting directly at refugees.
These incidents and responses capture only a small part of Morrison’s crimes. According to the doctors who wrote the report into conditions on Christmas Island, an International Health and Medical Services manager told them in September: “There will one day be a royal commission into what is taking place on Christmas Island. He suggested we document well.”
A royal commission is too good for the likes of Morrison. He, along with his gang of military thugs and private prison operators, should be tried and locked up for their crimes against humanity.
Follow Kim on Twitter @kim_doyle1