Human Rights Overboard

Human Rights Overboard: Seeking Asylum in Australia by Linda Briskman, Susie Latham and Chris Goddard, with a foreword by Julian Burnside, Scribe Press, 2008.

If I let my inner dictator loose, every person in Australia would be forced to read this book, while listening to the Paul Kelly song “I get a little emotional sometimes”. Human Rights Overboard is a collection of the oral testimony and written submissions
from the People’s Inquiry into Detention, established by the Australian Council of Heads of Schools of Social Work in 2005.
The Inquiry was partly in response to the Cornelia Rau affair, whose harrowing story begins the book.

By 2005, a great deal of work had been done on the problems inherent in Australia’s system of immigration detention by Federal Parliamentary Committees, the UN Human Rights Committee, the Commonwealth Ombudsman, psychological and medical experts, NGOs and in particular the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. We’d already come a long way from when I first started out as a refugee advocate for the churches in 2000 and not even SBS would run a story on children in detention.

We knew – even in 2000 when the numbers were swelling – that mandatory detention was inherently and irredeemably problematic, and ultimately irreconcilable with basic human rights and respect for human dignity. We knew mandatory
detention had the propensity to result in arbitrary detention, which then took an unacceptable psychological toll on a vulnerable community. We knew the use of private contractors to administer detention centres led to problems with accountability and
transparency. Those of us who regularly visited detention facilities in Australia and Nauru saw and reported systemic cruelty and damaged humans on all sides of the fence. By 2005, Australia was facing international embarrassment and condemnation on the world stage. By 2005, research had shown the availability of more effective and cheaper alternative models, which would still ensure the integrity of the migration system.

I knew then, before I read this book, that in, that our system of detention from 1994 until now, was “something systematically rotten”. This was how Waleed Aly phrased his reaction to Human Rights Overboard in the Australian Literary Review and it is spot on. I knew it. I believe we all should have known it. And I cried anyway. I needed to hear the tale of the whole: we always
need to hear the actual words of those who suffered, and we will need to reflect on where it all went wrong for years to come. It is also very important to record the many Australians who participated in this Inquiry, who stood up for these people, advocated on their behalf, criticised the system, visited people, wrote letters, engaged with individual cases and policy reform. I am proud of the many lawyers who tried their best to put the case for complying with Australia’s obligations under international law and the most basic principles of justice that relate to detention.

But in my view, looking back, it was expressions of shared humanity, not legal argument or policy papers that eventually swung opinion polls and politics. It was the social workers, in my view. Their emphasis on the lived experiences of individuals and families is a language that can get buried in the words spoken in Parliament and courts. I congratulate the Australian Council of Heads of Schools of Social Work and the authors of this book, and on their continuing work on so many issues of preserving human dignity in our communities.

There is still a long way to go in the reform process before we can genuinely say “never again” in relation to immigration detention. Many people are still detained who are not asylum-seekers and their rights must be upheld. I was proud to be present in the ANU Law Library audience to hear Minister Chris Evans announce the changes to policy in broad terms. There are still
elements of the old policy, like excision, to be grappled with, and uncertainty about how some issues will play out on the ground. There is excellent chronological description of policy changes in this book, and an equally excellent description of how all
the various elements of law and government policy affected these individuals so adversely. Those laws are largely still
on the books. The Department is seen as largely resisting the cultural change prescribed in the Palmer Report. The people described in Human Rights Overboard are now what advocates call the “legacy caseload” and there are still many more scenes to play out in the resolution of their situations. This book serves as a reminder to us to put dignity and humanity at the centre of our work now on immigration reform, and to stay strong.

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