There’s no evidence to prove asylum seeker advocates ‘coach’ how to self harm – because we don’t

The Guardian, July 14 2014. Read the original here.

A new culprit has emerged in the human rights catastrophe of Australian asylum policy: refugee advocates themselves. Since Friday, The Australian’s Paige Taylor has reported unsubstantiated allegations against asylum-seeker advocates, specifically my colleague at the Refugee Action Coalition, Ian Rintoul.

Taylor has reported false allegations by a former senior Immigration official, Greg Lake, that an unspecified prominent refugee advocate “coaches” asylum seekers to self-harm for political gain.

Little matter that, on his own admission, Lake has no actual evidence for this grotesque claim, acknowledging that he did not monitor any of the communications in which he imagines this alleged “coaching” occurred. The best Lake can do, Taylor tells us, is state that “what was going on was obvious and often emerged later in interviews with detainees who had hurt themselves on purpose”.

As the grounds for a serious accusation, this is risible. If there was evidence of this, it would be a scandal.

Lake has recently started to criticise some aspects of the government’s refugee policy. Previously, however, he was a senior manager of Australia’s detention program. Last week, he defended Abbott’s widely decried “moral barrel” remarks about suicidal mothers on Christmas Island – the other prong in Taylor’s campaign against Rintoul.

In March 2013 he strongly praised the managers running the detention system; in September 2013 he supported Morrison’s concealment of boat numbers; and in a spectacular instance of bad judgement, he characterised Reza Berati’s murder on Manus Island as “while tragic, also the death we needed to have”. With friends like these, refugees scarcely need enemies.

The current assault on advocates is far from novel. Establishing the legislative framework for current refugee policy in 1992, the then-Labor immigration minister Gerry Hand declared that refugee advocates, among other things, encouraged their clients to commit suicide, and “tempt[ed] them into taking drastic and futile measures such as hunger strikes”.

It’s not a surprise that these kinds of allegations are resurfacing again. The government’s failed disappearance of Sri Lankan asylum seekers, and the spate of suicide attempts and self-harm on Christmas Island have prompted intense criticism. But Morrison’s secrecy over “on-water” matters has the side-effect of muting attention on people smugglers, the villains of the piece that governments and their propagandists have spent so much effort creating.

Refugee advocates, it would seem, can now play that role. The present allegations are yet another deception, on which Australian refugee policy has always been sustained – from Philip Ruddock’s notorious lies about children overboard, to Bowen’s scarcely noticed ones about the Malaysia solution.

Attacks on advocates snap-fit right into the inverted logic which rationalises Australia’s persecution of refugees in the public mind. State-driven brutalisation of asylum seekers is presented as actually being in refugees’ interests. No matter how horrific its consequences – the murder of Berati, the violence and malaria-laden nightmare of Manus, the lip-stitching, the suicides, the island-sized medical emergency of Nauru, the corrosive despair of bridging visas, the self-immolations, the refoulements – it supposedly “prevents deaths at sea”.

This being the case, it becomes necessary to demonise the unequivocal advocacy of Rintoul, the Refugee Action Coalition, and other asylum supporters, all of which directly challenges this narrative.

Most people would no doubt readily acknowledge the inherent unlikelihood of the allegations, to say nothing of their lack of evidence. Likewise, the persecution of refugees by Coalition and Labor politicians goes well beyond what most of the public would themselves initiate.

Manus Island, Nauru and Villawood are not policy measures forced on the political classes by the virulent racism supposedly present in the community, as many commentators argue. The idea that the well resourced, powerful and highly paid professional politicians in federal parliament are essentially bullied into extreme asylum policies by disempowered outer-metropolitan voters – thought to embody “electoral necessity” – is ridiculous.
Australia’s vicious refugee posture reflects the character of the Australian political establishment, not that of the Australian public. The reason that anti-refugee sentiment presently enjoys a foothold in the community is that it is fostered and inflamed by the major parties. Marles’ and Plibersek’s recent excruciating evasions are powerful evidence, yet again, of just how little principle the ALP will apply to asylum questions: now, we understand, they have nothing against boat turn-backs.

This morning, Taylor continued her attack on Rintoul, over whether desperate acts like throwing oneself from a container, attempted hanging, ingesting toxic liquids, and self-cutting count as “self-harm” or “attempted suicide” – categories often hard to differentiate, according to a medical source quoted by Fairfax. Late last week, the number of Christmas Island detainees on suicide watch had reportedly risen to 14.
The facts speak for themselves. Self-harm and suicide attempts are not due to refugee advocates, but to policy from Canberra, as this leaked Serco report, published last week by Guardian Australia, recognises. Most of the suicidal mothers have been on Christmas Island for a year without being processed.

The attacks on advocates reinforce the warped premises of Australia’s refugee debate. What would until recently have seemed impossible is now eventuating. It is only right to wonder what previously inconceivable horror Australia’s political elite will next find it necessary to execute and justify.

How will this ever change? In exactly the way that so many other systemic human rights crimes around the world have been ended: not by the courts or enlightened elite opinion, but by ordinary people in an assertive social movement, like the one which Rintoul and the Refugee Action Coalition are helping to build.

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