I’ve tried about three times to write this entry. Whenever I hear stories about people self-harming as a result of policies I support, I’m gripped with horror. I am directly aware of the way people who are supposed to be receiving care get dehumanised: in the immigration detention system, in the hospital system, in the prison system.
Julia Gillard once claimed that every boat that arrived in Australia was a policy failure. We always knew of worse policy failures: refoulement, torture, and self harm.
Every time it happens, I return to exactly the same mental space: ‘What the fuck have we done?’
There are two common responses to these sorts of incidents, and they’re both performative. The first is the mainstream right wing rhetoric: ‘These people are selfish. If they don’t like it, they can go home. Australia is forking out cash to keep them fed and housed, and they self harm for attention.’
This response is obviously racist. We would never accept this sort of argument when talking about our neighbours or family members. The rhetoric is about protecting the image of Australia as a generous country doing something supererogatory. ‘This is charity,’ they say, ‘And they are criticising our charity.’
‘We don’t even want them here.’
The second response is equally performative: incoherent outrage that this has happened. In order to appear that we are not racist, in order to appear compassionate and empathetic, we must denounce and decry everything related to the self harm. The person at the centre of the discussion had no agency, we forced them to self harm. The Minister for Immigration might as well have poured the petrol himself; the Shadow Minister lit the match.
It’s the bluntness of the response that is the most shocking because it leaves absolutely no room for critique or discussion.
But this response relies entirely upon ignorance. The data has to be cherrypicked so that the single instance is a verification of everything we already believe. You can’t look at the broader context — for example, the fact that self harm is constant across all models of asylum seeker management — because that would take away the vibrancy of the outrage.
This sort of self harm is not a necessary consequence of the ideal offshore processing model. It shows that the standards of care are inadequate, especially when it comes to mental health. But there’s a problem: there is already resentment in the community that asylum seekers in offshore processing are getting better treatment than the locals. The solution is in improving the standard of living for people in the community. There’s nothing new in this statement. If we want offshore processing to work, we need the lifestyles of our Pacific neighbours to improve. Healthcare, education, and job opportunities.
But we’re not going to have that conversation if we have to shout over people shouting about gulags and blood on hands.