I love my country. I love the landscape, the big sky, the size of it; I love my home city, the multitude of peoples, the languages, the complexity of our culture. I think there are many good things we are capable of as a nation, so many opportunities for greatness. I like it here. But as I sit down in my comfortable home, as I enjoy what’s around me, I know there is something spoiling its grandeur, making it sour. Something else is going on and it is rotten.
Your person is searched thoroughly. There is a list of contraband that is strictly enforced. You are, with your compatriots, herded into crowded living quarters. It’s hot in the day, cold at night. The food is tasteless. High-wire fences surround you and guards watch your every move. Some might care, but many others take pleasure in the extremes of your discomfort. Others bash you. You cannot return home yet you cannot move on. The locals hate you. Few outsiders are allowed in to see what is happening. Your friends are depressed, anxious, psychotic. You watch people cut themselves, swallow razor blades, drink poison. Children are in despair, contemplating the end. Your sisters and mothers are molested—with nothing else but their bodies in their possession, they become commodities. Mothers talk of ending their sordid lives and dream of taking their children with them into the sea. There is no hope of leaving, no hope in staying. You can smell death.
What am I describing to you? What does it sound like? Is it a prison? Is it a World War II ghetto? Is it a Russian gulag? Is it an internment camp for ethnic or political prisoners in a time of war? No.
You know what it is.
The Nauru files detail heinous conditions for those on the island. The incident reports reveal not only the kinds of abuse, but that there are many more incidents likely to be occurring, unreported, that there are more children in depths of pain you and I cannot imagine. Those who have worked on the island—doctors, teachers, security personal—will tell you it’s the tip of the iceberg, that it is inherently toxic. The files will tell you that incident reports are purposefully downgraded in their level of severity. Those involved will tell you that children cannot understand why Australia hates them so. Anyone with tuppence worth of brains will tell you that this amounts to psychological torture, to leave them stateless and without recourse, that they cannot seek asylum—as our international legal obligations would demand—whilst returning home often means grave mistreatment, or even death. For others, the trauma seen on the island rivals that produced by some of the worst natural disasters and terrorist attacks. It’s almost too much to contemplate. And all the while the world is watching and the world is judging.
Not that the government would have you believe it, but the correct word for this place is something more like prison, gulag, or internment camp. Instead we’re being fed Orwellian terms: ‘Immigration detention centre’ and ‘processing’. We’re told things are done for the sake of ‘security,’ and we’re told by some of the highest ranking officials in the land that these people would take the easy road, would blackmail us with their self-immolation, that they are lying to us about the callous disregard and violence they experience, that comparing this squalid place to Guantanamo is ridiculous. We’re even told that this is somehow not the responsibility of our own government, that it all falls on the Nauruan people. This from the government that has placed upon this poor island nation this squalid mess, that is paying for the system with our money, billions of dollars.
Surely there are alarm bells going off when the fact is that those working on the island face criminal charges just for talking about the conditions there, for letting the Australian people know what is going on. This shroud of secrecy the government seems intent upon is the biggest giveaway, one of the most obvious signs of its wretchedness. The geography is bad enough—Nauru is 3,000 kilometres away from mainland Australia—and journalists are so rarely allowed on the island that we have to resort to footage and pictures taken in secret. Laws have to be broken for us to know the truth, something many of us still aren’t being exposed to despite the admirable efforts of many journalists, whistleblowers and campaigners.
What is going on here? Who is actually believing this government and its sickening minister for immigration?
When did the STASI move in? How long has the Propaganda Ministry been in action? What is happening to my country?
The rationale, unsurprisingly, is irrational. I’ll make this one concession: maybe there is some worth in the idea of turning boats back, maybe the people smuggling trade does need a strict response, and maybe (though my mind doubts this) denying these people a place in our society damages this trade enough. But even if I grant you all that, it is no reason for inflicting great pain on these people. Why do we have to dump them there, these legitimate refugees, in an unforgiving purgatory? There cannot be any point in effectively torturing them on some obscure pacific island when we could deny them asylum in much better, safer conditions on the mainland. Denying them a chance to live among us is deterrence enough. There must be another way.
Contemplating my own life in this context is odd. My life is pretty good. I’ve been educated, I have a good home, a supportive and loving family. I get to play music, to enjoy the company of my friends in a city I love, to enjoy the fruits of our culture, to move and work freely. I can do all the things we, that I, take for granted.
But perhaps it is possible that something so disgusting and violent, something so repugnant and wretched is occurring, even to so few, that everything else is made tasteless, ash in the mouth; that everything else is tainted with the grime of someone else’s torment, covered up in they grey blanket of government secrets. That something so awful can ruin everything else. There are things to be proud of in this country, many great things. But this, and not only this, is the filth on our flag that so many of us like to think we’re proud of; it is more blood on the face and hands of our nation. It makes my heart blue with shame.
The next time you sit for a meal with your family, the next time you enjoy the comforts of a free citizen, picture yourself: destitute, desperate, without hope, wanting to die, beaten, assaulted, laughed at. Picture yourself there and then the nation responsible for it—idle, uncaring, cruel, secretive. Only watching you suffer. Picture its citizens, going about their day, working, living, voting for this government, watching their taxes pay for it all. This Australian gulag. See them there.
Watching you diminish.
Watching, watching, watching. And nothing.