Madam Speaker, I move that today we deliver an apology to survivors of Australia’s immigration detention regime.
The policy of mandatory detention was introduced in 1992 by a Labor government, with the support of the Liberal-National coalition. Originally intended as an extraordinary measure, it soon became an ordinary one. In 1994, this parliament voted to lift the 273-day limit on detention thus rendering it not only immediate but also potentially indefinite; in 1999, the Woomera Immigration and Processing Centre opened and in 2001, the Pacific Solution introduced offshore processing. Soon there were detention centres in the city, the desert, the country, even other countries. In total, across twenty years we have run more than twenty detention centres.
The practice of detaining people for long periods in isolated locations caused immense harm. We cannot say that we did not know, because we did. This parliament itself conducted dozens of inquiries, under the auspices of various Senate, Joint, Standing and Select Committees. Other government bodies such as the Auditor General, the Attorney General, the Australian Human Rights Commission, the Commonwealth and State Ombudsmen, all investigated and reported on conditions in immigration detention.
International bodies such as the United Nations reported multiple times through multiple arms, including the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, and the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture. So too did non-government organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. There were special investigations into specific cases, conducted by Mick Palmer, Neil Comrie, Phillip Moss and others. Most importantly, the asylum seekers themselves told us, first from within and then from beyond detention, on some occasions in this very parliament. But still we would not listen. Today we have. Today we do. And we hope that you the survivors will in turn listen to this—our apology.
To those who came across the seas, seeking a life free from fear and persecution but instead found themselves imprisoned like criminals—we say sorry.
To those whose suffering in their homelands and on the high seas was compounded by our centres of detention—we say sorry.
To those who were held in countries we deputised to detain you, such as Papua New Guinea and Nauru, who either could not or would not keep you safe—we say sorry.
To those who were confined in the middle of our cities, in Villawood and Maribyrnong, surrounded by millions but all alone—we say sorry.
To those who were isolated in Woomera, Baxter, Curtin and Christmas Island—we say sorry.
To those who were dehumanised and called by number not name—we say sorry.
To those who starved yourselves, stitched your lips and dug your own graves—we say sorry.
Detention damaged all who endured it but it wrought particular effects on families. We apologise to the fathers who could not provide for their loved ones, the mothers who could not care for their babies, and the children who lost their childhoods. No child should ever be deprived of safety, liberty and education and yet this is precisely what we did.
We apologise to every child who endured detention but especially those who arrived as unaccompanied minors. So young and so far from home, we abandoned you when you needed us most, making your guard and your guardian one and the same. We left you to navigate a system that no child could conceive, let alone comprehend. To the families who loved and looked after you, even as they themselves were often struggling through that same system, we say thank you. We are in your debt.
Of course, there are some to whom we cannot apologise, for they are gone. We grieve for those who went to a watery grave, the more than 1000 souls who were lost at sea in the SIEV X, the SIEV 221 and other maritime disasters. We grieve for those such as Reza Berati and Hamid Kehazaei who died while in our care. We also grieve for those who did manage to survive detention but who could not survive beyond that, who felt so haunted and hunted that they took their own lives. And we grieve for those who did survive, but who still suffer from anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
We also acknowledge those of you who emerged, against the odds, with your mental health relatively intact. We are in awe of your strength but also realise that your resilience does not diminish the gravity and immorality of our actions: a great injustice was done, your human rights were wronged, and you suffered unnecessarily. To you too, we say sorry.
More broadly, we acknowledge the immense harm these practices caused other migrants, permanent residents and citizens. To Vivian Alvarez Solon, a citizen who was deported, to Cornelia Rau, a permanent resident who was wrongly detained, and to the countless others who were caught in the dragnet of this sweeping, unjust policy—we say sorry.
We also apologise to those Australians who had arrived by boat previously, whether from South-East Asia in late 1980s and early 1990s or from the Middle East in the late 1990s and early 2000s. How painful it must have been for you to witness each new round of arrivals, each new round of vilification. You would have known what suffering was in store for your fellow travellers and you would have felt—yet again—that you were not truly welcome here. To you too, we say sorry.
So many people have worked so hard, for so long to make this day come about. We salute various advocacy groups, including the Refugees, Survivors and Ex-Detainees, the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, the Asylum Seekers Centre, the Refugee Advice and Casework Service and many others. We thank the whistleblowers, the caseworkers, the guards, the migration agents, the medicos and the departmental officers who chose to ignore their confidentiality clauses and who risked their careers in order to speak the truth. We thank the artists, the activists, the lawyers, and the lobbyists for speaking out when no one would listen and for showing moral courage when many around you did not. These are precisely the virtues, and you are precisely the people, we are proud to call Australian.
But as they themselves would insist, this is a peripheral matter, for we are here to apologise to the survivors of detention and to honour their courage and sacrifice. And so I want to finish by offering you a belated but heartfelt welcome.
In truth, it is an extraordinary human being who leaves everyone and everything they know, who hurries into the night, onto the truck, the train, the plane, the boat; who, upon arriving in detention, musters the strength to get through just one more day, one more month, one more year; and who, having finally left detention sets to work—finding a job, making a home, starting a family and building a community, our community. These are precisely the virtues, and you are precisely the people, we are proud to call Australian.
Together, you and your advocates worked tirelessly in the hope that Australia would one day realise what it had done to you, to itself, to ourselves. I am here to tell you that day is here; that day is today.
And we say to you today what we should have said to you all those years ago—we are so sorry for your suffering, please come in. You are safe now, here with us. Better yet, you are home.
Read Caroline Wake's feature coverage of Australian refugee detention.
RealTime issue #126 April-May 2015 pg. 3
© Caroline Wake; for permission to reproduce apply to firstname.lastname@example.org