Nauru abuse reports should mark an opportunity for compassion, not more dehumanisation

Peter Dutton suggested asylum seekers in detention on Nauru have self-harmed in order to get to Australia. AAP/Dan Peled

Since The Guardian Australia released more than 2,000 leaked reports of abuse in the Nauru detention centre, there have been calls to do something – from a royal commission to public protests.

But what we need most is a call for immediate change to government policy. This call can only come from the Australian people.

The problem is, Australians have been so convinced by the strategic dehumanisation of asylum seekers the government and the media have undertaken over the past 15 years that, according to polls conducted during the 2016 federal election, 42% of voters agree with the continued offshore processing of asylum seekers.

Words and phrases such as “illegal maritime arrivals”, “boat people”, “terrorists”, “detainees”, “people smugglers” and “illegals” have filled discussions about people who attempt to seek asylum in Australia.

This language has enabled their dehumanisation to a point where almost half of the Australian population supported spending more than A$1 billion in a year to lock up roughly 1,500 people who committed no crime.

Political response suggests no change

The response of Immigration Minister Peter Dutton to the release of the Nauru abuse reports exemplifies the continued attempts to dehumanise asylum seekers.

Dutton suggested those held in detention in Nauru have:

… gone to the extent of self-harming, and people have self-immolated in an effort to get to Australia.

By turning the blame back on those who are detained, describing them as willing to set themselves on fire in an attempt to get to Australia, Dutton is again positioning asylum seekers in a way that makes them unrelatable to Australians.

Rather than acknowledging the self-immolation and self-harm as a symptom of the desperation and hopelessness and a result of the significant mental trauma that has been inflicted on those held in detention, Dutton once again managed to dehumanise those held on Nauru in an attempt to ameliorate the compassion that is leading to the demand for changes to offshore processing.

Nauru is home to one of Australia’s offshore processing centres. People who have risked everything to attempt to travel to Australia to seek asylum from war or political and other forms of persecution are locked up and warehoused in indefinite detention with no hope for resettlement in Australia, and little hope for the future.

This is despite approximately 77% of those whose asylum claims have been processed having been recognised as legitimate refugees.

For many years, research has repeatedly demonstrated the long-term impacts of detention on people seeking asylum. There is compelling evidence from across the world that demonstrates the detrimental impact of detention on the mental and physical health of children and adults.

But despite the documented impact of detention, it continues as Australia’s policy and practice toward asylum seekers.

Lifting the veil of secrecy

Perhaps one of the most concerning aspects of Australia’s offshore processing facilities is the secrecy that surrounds them.

Journalists are virtually forbidden entry to Nauru; media visas cost A$8,000 per application.

The Australian Border Force Act enables the prosecution and possible imprisonment of any offshore detention staff member who speaks out about conditions in the centres on Nauru and Manus Island. This is one of the reasons why the Nauru abuse reports’ release has caused such a stir.

This leak has suddenly given Australians access to reports, notes and documents that illustrate the extent of the abuses the Australian government is enabling and perpetuating.

As a country, as taxpaying citizens, are we OK with a system that has resulted in seven reports of sexual assault of children, 59 reports of assault on children, 30 incidences of self-harm involving children, and 159 reports of threatened self-harm involving children – all in 26 months?

The reports provide hard evidence of something Australia and the world has known about for a long time. But they also provide startling proof of the scale and staggering incidence rates of the self-harm, assault and abuse that is being experienced.

The data is there, the evidence is there, and the outcomes have been proven with decades of research. Can the Australian people read of young detainees who sew the shape of a heart into their own hand using a needle and thread, or grab bottles of cleaning fluid in their classrooms and desperately drink it and not be affected?

What the reports may enable, through the detailing of the documented horrendous experiences of asylum seekers, is compassion from the Australian public. And through compassion it may be possible to overcome the decades of considered dehumanisation that have enabled the detention regime to continue.