It’s time for an intervention: Australia’s goose-stepping over refugees to villainy

It is a matter of historical record that the majority of European governments knew of the existence of concentration camps prior to World War II. Political refugees who had escaped the Third Reich brought reports of beatings, torture and executions, and this was backed by a few brave reporters. European powers reacted with disbelief. Similarly, reports appeared in US media, but were interspersed and moderated with other stories of conflict and war that desensitized the audience.

A lot of the denial about the activities of Nazi Germany arose out of the sense that they were ‘one of us.’ As they were regarded as a developed Western power with a long and illustrious history of shared contribution to the development of capitalism and western civilisation, it was inconceivable that such systematic atrocities on an industrial scale could occur.

That denial was the foundation of the death of millions: Jews; Roma; homosexuals; people with disabilities; unionists; and other communities considered a threat, real and imagined.

And that is our problem with Australia.

Our mates. Our fellow Anzacs. Our favourite holiday destination, Gold Coast. Where our mothers go for long shopping weekends. Where our whānau shift for better jobs, better pay, better opportunities. Where the softies amongst us end our OE because we’re homesick.

We cannot imagine an Australia that is an out of control human rights abuser. We cannot reconcile the Australia that has established asylum seeker detention centres on off shore islands like Nauru and Manus Island. Today the Guardian lifted the lid on those detention centres. We can do away with the euphemism now: detention centres are modern concentration camps. Remember there was a distinction between concentration camps and extermination camps; concentration camps were detention centres where people were forced to work. The Guardian reveals over 2,000 incident reports from the detention centre on Nauru which demonstrates reports of rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, assault, self-harm, self-mutilation, suicide ideation, malnutrition and neglect. Children are disproportionately affected. Australia has created concentration camps.

We also tend to want to distinguish between the people of Australia and the government of Australia. To make it clear that a flawed Australian government is responsible, not your average cobber on the street. But that’s not entirely true either. Vote Compass from June this year shows that detention camps and turning back boats are polarizing, but over 40 percent of Australians do support both, and amongst Australians over the age of 35 years support is higher at 45 percent and amongst Australian men support is 60 percent. A large number of Australian voters support detention camps, even as more information is revealed.

This from the same country in which the treatment of First Nations peoples in custody and prison is manifestly unjust, illegal and in some cases includes torture, as recently demonstrated in the tapes that were leaked from the Northern Territory, and in which the highest number of inmates held off-shore for indefinite periods under their draconian laws on cancelling visas are New Zealanders.

Just as European and American powers were before the start of World War II, so too our government is essentially silent. The New Zealand government has asked that our detained residents are returned in an orderly fashion and has been silent on the other issues. Others in our Parliament have not been so quiet, but have failed to get the government to itself make some more active response. Our response as a public has been lukewarm at best. With the growing injustice we have become desensitized to what are clearly crimes against humanity.

Australia is not likely to institute a regime that puts refugees to death. But it has already instituted a regime that turns a blind eye to crimes committed by workers and guards that Australia funds. Systematic killing condoned by the State is not going to happen; but torture and abuse ignored by State is already happening. It is a small step from where we are today to turning a blind eye to disappearances and mass graves in these secretive, out of sight facilities. If you consider it wild fantasy, you’ve not been much of a student of the history of civilised countries.

If Australia was a Third World country whose culture, identity and appearance was alien to us and whom we didn’t depend on economically, we would push for sanctions, for bans on travel, for our leaders to raise the issues when meeting with the regime in that country, for us to support international bodies like the UN and the International Criminal Court in taking action against leaders and regimes that authorised acts that caused suffering and injustice. But Australia isn’t that Third World country. It’s our second biggest trading partner after China, we are a junior partner with them in the Five Eyes network, it’s the largest source of our tourists and a lot of New Zealanders live there. Our national fortunes are tied to Australia.

So any action we take makes us feel small and ineffectual: unsupported by the government and trying to engage an uninterested public and with few media allies. Yet when Halt All Racist Tours formed to protest South African sporting ties in 1969, they were a small fringe in a rugby mad country still 12 years from the mass civil disobedience that we remember them for. The New Zealand Campaign for an Independent East Timor began on university campuses in 1976, with little fanfare and little hope for New Zealand playing a positive role in the fragile independence East Timor achieved in 2002.

We can follow the lead of our elders in protests like the above in relation to Australia now: regular protest and vigils at the embassy; campaigns to raise the awareness and response of our political leaders and the public; protests and actions against Australian leaders who come across the ditch; support Australian groups leading the campaigns against these abuses with donations, communication and people going to support their actions; and yes, we can write blogs and posts and tweets and be active slacktivists. What we cannot do, if we wish sleep easily at night, is shrug and turn away whilst Australia constructs a wall of the bodies of thousands of refugee men, women and children to hide them from the needs in the world.