So begins the letter sent by detainees of Manus Island detention centre to their friend, Reza Berati, killed by his jailers, the agents of the Australian state one year ago today on the 17th of February, 2014. No one has yet stood trial for his murder, just as no one has been charged for the death of another of his friends, Hamid Khazaei who died of a treatable infection in September last year, due to the negligence of private medical staff.
Today, the sky over Sydney was emblazoned with the words Shut Down Manus as activists commemorated the first year anniversary of Reza’s useless death. Groups all over the world are holding vigils and protests, others are disrupting sporting events such as the Cricket World Cup currently being hosted in Australia. The #NothingLikeAustralia campaign is repurposing the Australan tourism industry’s slogan to highlight Australia’s particular cruelty to asylum seekers. The world can no longer ignore the fact that Australia, a rich country is holding 2,000 people in offshore detention camps, outsourced to its poor regional neighbours – Nauru, Papua New Guinea and soon, Cambodia: cash for asylum seekers, if you will.
But, while Australian liberals demand to know ‘What Have We Become?’, presaging an idea that, as the hashtag goes, #We’reBetterThanThis, the reality is that mandatory detention for asylum seekers, both on- and offshore has become a billion dollar global industry in which the stakes are too high to lose. Transfield, the company that runs the concentration camps on Manus Island and Nauru alone has a $2.1 billion contract with the government. Serco, the British company which huge stakes in the global private prison business and Wilson Security are other big players in the game. But the NGO sector too has its role to play with organisations such as the Salvation Army and Save the Children all having had their hand in. Those of us who work at Australian universities and are mandated to invest for our retirement through the universities superannuation fund, UniSuper, may have been shocked to learn that it had significant shares in both Transfield and another company with a stake in mandatory detention, Decmil. UniSuper has since sold its shares in Transfield, but has not committed not to reinvest in the future. Meanwhile the health workers’ superannuation fund, HESTA has become a substantial shareholder in Transfield, effectively lending Transfield millions of dollars of their members’ money: doctors and nurses.
The campaign to end mandatory detention, therefore, needs to hold many lines: changing public opinion with actions such as today’s skywriting, the disruptions of sporting events, and the protests and vigils. But it also demands the less spectacular approach of making the case of divestment from the mandatory detention industry, as was seen with the boycott of the 19th Sydney Biennale in 2014, through the call for HESTA and others to divest. Australia will only feel the pressure to dismantle mandatory detention when international pressure shames it into doing so. Ultimately, there will be the need for a boycott.
Most importantly, calling for inquiries, Royal Commissions, or access to the detention centres for journalists and politicians will not end mandatory detention. Bringing asylum seekers as effective indentured labour onshore – the euphemistically named Tasmania Opportunity – as was proposed by the campaigner Julian Burnside and supported by the Green Party too, is not equatable to ensuring freedom of movement. Either we believe that all human beings have the right to move, to seek a better life in the country of their choosing or we do not. There is nothing to justify the detention of any innocent person from anywhere in the world; the only justification is racism.
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