Every time there is mass gun violence in America, Australians can be counted on to give Americans an earnest lecture on how we do it better. We got rid of guns after Port Arthur in 1996 – why can’t they just do that, and solve their gun problem?
But Australia has been more subdued this week – a week when the media showed images of children separated from their parents, imprisoned in cages on the US/Mexican border.
Donald Trump’s executive order to stop separations but to imprison families together is something we know how to do. Since September 2001 we have been imprisoning children indefinitely with their families and making conditions so bad in offshore centres that children as young as 10 attempt suicide.
For almost 20 years, we’ve elected governments on both sides that have been creative and crafty in devising their so-called solutions (which of course are not really solutions to anyone) to asylum seekers arriving on our shore by boat.
So what advice could we give the Americans on how we do “refugee solutions”?
Let me count the ways.
How about you enter into commercial arrangements with impoverished island nations so that they take your refugees.
And when you build the camps, how about you make them so grim and dangerous that they are often worse than the conditions people were fleeing from. Why don’t you put the refugees in a place as hot as hell, with all sorts of tropical diseases and only basic medical care. Places where there’s nothing to do and nowhere to go. Places with random outbreaks of violence, that end in murder (RIP Reza Barati). Places where it’s easy to get away with rape. Places where pregnant women can’t access abortions. Places that are almost guaranteed to send their inhabitants mad.
And America, the people running the camp should be from the private sector. They should be from some security company that is not accountable in the same way a government employee is. By the way, be prepared to spend big – it costs a lot of money to treat people this badly (a 2016 report produced by Amnesty International, titled Island of Despair: Australia’s Processing of Refugees on Nauru, estimates that the operations on Nauru and Manus cost the Australian government $573,000 per person, per year).
And why don’t you tell the refugees, that no matter what they do, no matter how much despair they are in, no matter how much they cut or burn or harm themselves, they will never arrive at their final destination.
Why don’t you take away their hope and why don’t you deny their children an education. Why don’t you produce YouTube videos, like we do, saying: YOU WILL NOT MAKE AUSTRALIA HOME.
Double down on the cruelty. It’s worked for us. Both major parties run election campaigns around being tough on refugees. It’s a race to the bottom. Your president even expressed shock at our brutality. “You are worse than I am,” he told Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull in 2017, when Turnbull explained Australia’s mandatory detention policy. To steal a line from Sylvia Plath: “We do it exceptionally well. We do it so it feels like hell.”
But Trump is catching up to us in his rhetoric. When he says he doesn’t want the US to become a refugee holding pen, he almost sounds like an Australian politician. This line was effectively used by former Australian prime minister John Howard. Americans, feel free to borrow it: “we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.”
Also America, you made a big mistake showing pictures of the separated children to the media. You have to hide these people! They should have no identity and no recognition. You see, if you show people their faces and their pain, an empathetic response by the public is triggered and that’s the end of your policy.
It’s really hard to inflict pain on someone whose face and name you know – so just give the media the same old stock footage and blur out faces. As for the camps, no one is ever allowed to film in there, OK?
And you have to threaten anyone who works with these people – say any doctors or aid workers – with jail, with a loss of their livelihood if they speak out against how the kids are treated.
Because everyone knows that what’s going on is deeply shameful, but we’ve convinced ourselves that it’s better this way.
Yes, America, we have so much to teach you about cruelty and brutality and violence to some of the most vulnerable people on earth. We are a small nation, but on this issue we really punch above our weight!
Lots of love,
- Brigid Delaney is a Guardian Australia writer and columnist