On last weekend’s episode of “Last Week Tonight,” John Oliver had a few choice words to say about my homeland. Australia, he said, is not just the country that gave the world Russell Crowe—it is, in many ways, “the Russell Crowe of countries.”
The focus of Oliver’s mockery was Australia’s strict quarantine laws, which last week were violated by Johnny Depp, who snuck his two pet dogs into the country without putting them in quarantine for ten days, as is legally required. Minister of Agriculture Barnaby Joyce gave Depp a 72-hour deadline: Get the pooches out of the country, or we’ll put them down. It created a media storm in Australia and abroad—the Los Angeles Times dubbed it “The War on Terrier”—and eventually Depp capitulated and put the dogs on a private plane out of the country.
This is not the first time that Australia has made a performative spectacle out of enforcing its quarantine laws; every time I land in my hometown, I am informed by a large placard in the airport that there may be cameras in the vicinity filming footage for the reality show on Australian network television, “Border Security,” about the quarantine agents who work at Sydney Airport. Even though our quarantine laws are serious, the whole affair—mostly thanks to the sheer absurdity of the human characters involved and the undiluted canine cuteness of Pistol and Boo—was a little ridiculous. It deserved to be roundly mocked by Oliver (and frankly, Australians are just happy when the rest of the world, and especially America, remembers that we exist).
But instead of mocking Australia for its callous treatments of a celebrity’s puppies, the international community should be shaming my homeland for its appalling treatment of human asylum seekers. Sure, the Depp story is entertaining, but it’s a distraction from Australia’s insular turn and the deep-seated xenophobia that politicians exploit when selling hardline immigration policies to the public.
The recent history of Australia is one of successive waves of immigration: In the post-war period, the nation adopted a “populate or perish” approach, and the demographics and culture of the nation were transformed as the population swelled with “new Australians” from Western Europe and then, since the 1960s and 1970s, from various neighboring Asian countries. But in the late 1990s, there was a sudden increase in asylum seekers arriving on Australia’s doorstep: in 1998, 271 people arrived on 17 boats. In 1999, it was 3,721 on 86 boats. A 2013 parliamentary report on the topic stated that there is “a widespread perception in the community that Australia is being swamped by asylum seekers arriving by boat [which] continues to strongly influence government policy.” In the last 15 years, the question of illegal immigration has become one of central political import—a way to scare voters, a way to enforce a certain vision of what it means to be Australian, and, to the nation’s shame, a way to repeatedly violate United Nations agreements and the standards of basic human decency.
Since 2012, the Australian government has granted almost 35,000 refugee visas—no small number for a nation with a population of about 23 million. But in 2013, under a new conservative government, the nation almost halved the number of refugee visa claims it granted from the previous year, a drop from 20,000 to 13,800. And as the acceptance rate has dropped and living conditions have deteriorated in places like Iraq and Afghanistan (where Australia sent troops as part of the Coalition of the Willing), as well as Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Iran, the number of people attempting to enter Australia illegally has soared. The government estimates that between 2012 and 2013, 18,000 people arrived in Australia illegally.
The majority of attempted illegal arrivals happen by boat: Asylum seekers pay large sums to people smugglers, who convey them to Indonesia, the closest major landmass to Australia’s north. Then, in rickety boats packed with fellow refugees, they travel the roughly 1,800 miles to Australia, a nation whose national anthem assures that, “for those who’ve come across the seas, we’ve boundless plains to share.” It’s a perilous journey, and since 2001, hundreds of people have died attempting it.
The phrase “boat people” has been in the Australian vernacular for decades; it was first used as a way to describe asylum seekers coming to Australia from Vietnam during the 1970s. At some point in the last five years, however, the phrase “boat people” largely fell out of use. Now, when politicians and commentators, particularly those on the right (but not exclusively, to be sure), talk about these asylum seekers, they don’t even acknowledge them as human. Instead, they say, “turn back the boats.” In 2010, when now-Prime Minister Tony Abbott—then the leader of the opposition Liberal party—tried unsuccessfully to unseat the Labor party, he did so with a four plank platform, and one of the four items was “Stop the boats.” The name of the ad in which Abbott presented that platform? “Stand up for Australia.”
Now, under the Abbott government’s highly controversial Operation Sovereign Borders, these vessels are intercepted by the Australian military. The people on them are forcibly returned home by the Australian Navy—as recently happened with refugees from Sri Lanka and Vietnam—or sent to offshore detention centers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, with, as the U.N. Refugee Agency puts it, “no prospect of durable settlement in Australia.” The result at home is that since Abbott took office, no one is known to have arrived illegally by boat. But the cost of that “achievement” is unbearably high.
The conditions in these detention centers are, by most accounts, appalling. Last year, riots that broke out at the Manus Island detention center in Papua New Guinea lasted for three days and resulted in two detainee deaths and more than 70 injuries. An inquiry into that incident found that the violence was “eminently forseeable” and put the blame for the security breakdown on the Australian government. Detainees have reported sexual violence and other forms of assault by guards and staff at the centers, and many have attempted self-harm; in January, two detainees launched a hunger strike and then swallowed razor blades.
This week, at another parliamentary inquiry, this one into conditions at a detention center on Nauru, a former camp doctor “said that he knew of one woman who claimed to have been raped by a cleaner when she ventured out in the dark to use the camp’s toilet facilities,” The Wall Street Journal reports. That doctor also said “that he knew of others who had been offered perks—such as extra shower time—in return for sexual favors.”
Australia’s treatment of refugees has been repeatedly criticized by the U.N., with the offshore detention program coming under particular fire recently. In March, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on torture reported that the Australian government, “by failing to provide adequate detention conditions; end the practice of detention of children; and put a stop to the escalating violence and tension at the regional processing center, has violated the right of the asylum seekers including children to be free from torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.” The Australian government, the U.N. concluded, is in violation of the Convention Against Torture.
In response, Abbott said that Australians are “sick of being lectured to by the United Nations.”
It’s not just the U.N., though; plenty within Australia have called for an end to the practice of turning away refugees and of imprisoning them for seeking asylum, which is explicitly not a crime. This Easter, Tim Winton, one of the nation’s most renowned living novelists, gave a Palm Sunday address in which he declared “that what has become political common sense in Australia over the past 15 years is actually nonsense. And not just harmless nonsense,” he went on. “It's vicious, despicable nonsense… Australians have gradually let themselves be convinced that asylum seekers have brought their suffering and persecution and homelessness and poverty on themselves. Our leaders have taught us we need to harden our hearts against them. And how obedient we've been, how compliant we are, this free-thinking, high-minded egalitarian people.”
To go along with the “newly manufactured” political common sense that those people represent a threat to Australia’s prosperity, sovereignty, and national identity, Winton said, “is to surrender things that are sacred: our human decency, our moral right, our self-respect, our inner peace.”
But as in the United States, poor treatment of those seeking refuge is framed as necessary to protect the nation’s interest, and Abbott has gone so far as to argue that it’s the humane thing to do, as it will protect refugees from dying at sea or from attempting the dangerous passage in the first place. Which might be true, but it won’t give them a safe place to live, either. As in the U.S., openness to immigrants and the nation’s history, as one of millions of immigrant success stories, is built into Australia’s national self-identity. In practice, though, Australia’s comportment belies the promise of its national anthem, and its claim to being a modern and “fair go” society.
Australians don’t like to admit it, as the national character demands not taking oneself too seriously, but we long to be taken seriously. Australia wants to play on the world stage with the big kids. It wants to be a world leader—Abbott has held up his “success” in preventing illegal immigration as an example to Western European nations struggling to respond to waves of refugees. It’s easy to forget Australia exists, and at times like this it’s even easier to laugh at it, this small island nation at the end of the earth that just made international headlines by threatening to euthanize Jack Sparrow’s puppy dogs. But the big kids—themselves not always great on upholding human rights—shouldn’t be laughing. They should be paying attention to how Australia is treating the poor, tired, and hungry masses who are huddled just offshore. If Australia wants to lead on the world stage, then providing a home to the homeless and tempest-tossed, who dream of better lives in enviable nations, is a great way to start.