Wednesday, March 30, 2011

When mandatory detention kills people protest is a necessary moral act

On Monday night I attended a public seminar on Australia's refugee policies and the unfolding crises in immigration detention. Not surprisingly much of the discussion focused on recent riots, protests and property destruction at the Christmas Island Detention centres.

A number of speakers and audience members expressed the view that whilst they understood the reasons behind the protests, such action was harmful to the cause of the asylum seekers themselves and to those working on behalf of asylum seekers and refugees.

Although the argument is understandable (and common), it is in my view limited and fundamentally flawed.

In fact, it could be argued that opposition and resistance to mandatory detention by detainees (and civil society) is a necessary moral action to prevent the death of asylum seekers, to protect the human life and well being of detainees, and to make visible and highlight the reality of state-corporate crime.

The Australian lawyer and academic Michael Grewcock argues that resistance and protest by detainees is a legitimate response to state inflicted harm and to a criminal system based on violence and abuse and denial of humanity. Grewcock argues that Australia's treatment of asylum seekers should be regarded as a state crime. Protest is a claim to legitimacy and visibility by those whose humanity has been systematically denied or challenged:
" resistance makes detainees visible; it can highlight the contemporary reality of state organized abuse".
The death on Monday of another asylum seeker at the Curtin Detention Centre (the 6th death in immigration detention in 7 months)  is further evidence that Australia's system of mandatory detention is increasingly killing people.

As Ian Rintoul from the Refugee Action Coalition and Pamela Curr from the Aslum Seeker Resource Centre point out mandatory detention for many asylum seekers has become a death sentence. As Pamela Curr points out if these were deaths of people other than asylum seekers there would be a public and political outcry.

In addition to causing deaths, the evidence is clear that mandatory detention is a form of state sanctioned violence and abuse. It traumatizes people, abuses children and destroys the mental health and the physical and psychological health of thousands of detainees. Incidents of self harm and suicide continue to grow exponentially. Ian Rintoul writes that in just one detention centre:
"Self-harm in Curtin is at epidemic proportions. There is an incident almost every day"
Mike Grewcock argues that Australia's refugee policies, including mandatory detention and border policing, are "crimes" committed by the state ( in conjunction with corporations such as Serco). Grewcock argues that in criminalizing and demonizing asylum seekers, the Australian state has systematically employed criminal strategies to achieve its ends.

For Grewcock various features of mandatory detention that make it a form of state crime include:
  • alienation (lack of lawful status, restricted access to legal redress, physical separation from civil society, ideological construction as illegal and dangerous outsiders)
  • systematic and intentional breaches of human rights and legal obligations
  • the infliction of systemic abuse, death or harm on children, men and women (psychological impact of detention, mental illness and depression, self harming and destructive behavior, suicide).
  • forceful denial by the Australian state of the legitimate expectations of asylum seekers and unauthorized arrivals to free movement and protection and due process before the law
  • use of illegal  and criminal regimes (incarceration, regimes of force.
Grewcock's work demonstrates that a system that uses criminal strategies to inflict death, harm, pain and suffering  upon children, men and women, all to serve political ends, is frankly illegitimate and acting criminally. Opposition, resistance and protest are not just legitimate but necessary. As Grewcock argues those who fail to oppose or resist these policies are accessories to a crime.

So rather than criticize and vilify those detainees who protest and demonstrate inside (and outside) detention centres we should support and applaud their courage and willingness to take a stand against  what is fundamentally a criminal regime.

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