I’ve been living on Lesbos since November. As a volunteer, and then as an NGO employee, I moved freely in and out of temporary accommodation sites for refugees (otherwise known as refugee camps) doing my daily work. When the EU-Turkey deal came into force and the EU started deporting newcomers to Turkey, the camps on the islands became closed detention centres. Save the Children, Medecins Sans Frontieres, the Norwegian Refugee Council and UNHCR among others, suspended their operations in these detention centres claiming their continued presence would make them complicit in an unfair and inhumane system. Others, including volunteer groups, wished to stay. But, as the Greek Government, supported by the EU, took over the closed detention facilities, the humanitarian space shrunk dramatically. We, the humanitarian community, are still struggling to find our role on the Greek islands.
Last month, I came back home to Australia for a stint. I’m sitting at my parents’ house in Canberra right now – it’s chilly, serene and 2am. I’m on European time. Between two worlds, I usually go through a one week reintegration process when I get back. This includes peering (warily) into the chaotic mess that is Australian news and (even more warily) dipping in. This time it’s all happening: the dissolution of both houses of parliament and a very early election – it’s all cringeworthy campaigning from here on in. And then there’s a whole lot of news about the (un)affordability of housing and these new crazy, draconian lockout laws in New South Wales. It’s all interesting and it’s all important.
The newspapers also tell us that asylum seekers are burning themselves.
No one will be able to say that we, the Australian public, didn’t know about the conditions on our offshore detention centres. We knew. We know. But it seems we know too late. We write very well about it, we listen to brave whistleblowers, and many Australians – including very highly respected household names – speak up on behalf of asylum seekers and refugees. This follows a proud history of pro-refugee activism. So yes, we knew it was bad: but as bad as this? On the island of Nauru, guards at the immigration detention centre are issued with special hooked knives to cut down people who are trying to hang themselves. Within the last eight days, two young people – an Iranian man and a Somali woman – have set themselves alight in utter desperation at their treatment. The Minister for Immigration has the audacity to blame refugee advocates for inciting refugees to protest. I sit here, I read this: how can this possibly be my country?
How Australia got here is a story well told: for the last 15 years, bi-partisan support for a deterrent refugee policy shaped an offshore immigration detention regime of unimaginable cruelty – a regime that (unashamedly) flies in the face of Australia’s international legal obligations. I’ll not retell this story here. What I’m interested in right now, from my 2:30am in-between-worlds position is this: how the hell did this start? Coming from Lesbos, I can’t stop thinking about the shrinking humanitarian space I witnessed there. I keep thinking about how quickly the space for civil society narrows, how the human space contracts from little to nothing in a flash. I’m confounded: when did we Australians lose sight of our detention centres? When did we allow private contractors to take over the administration of these facilities? At what point did the walls become so high? When did they move refugees from the Australian mainland to far away islands? How did we get to a point where foreign journalists are not even allowed to visit the island of Nauru? As our detention centres slipped from our sight, conditions got worse and worse.
And people are burning.
Where we’ll go from here I’m not sure. I hope desperately that this regime is unraveling. But elections have never been a good time for migration policy in this country. In between two worlds, I look back at Europe:
To my dear colleagues and friends,
Do not let your immigration detention facilities out of sight.
With thanks as always to Karim Ani for the photo of Moria Camp, Lesbos.