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Stereotyping asylum seekers

By Stuart Rees - posted Friday, 10 June 2005

In 1788, administrators of Sydney's first settlement assumed flogging and hanging were appropriate forms of control and punishment. An investigation of the current Department of Immigration’s practices should also uncover the assumptions of staff employed to implement official policies.

Following the Palmer inquiry into the detention of Cornelia Rau, a more exhaustive investigation should pose the key question whether the imprint of Phillip Ruddock's attitudes gave the cue for all his minions to follow. In the same vein, the Labor Party's complicity, and pride in having invented mandatory detention, should also be examined as factors that may have influenced bureaucrats' perspectives.

Leaving aside the influence of Ministers and other politicians, an inquiry into the Department of Immigration would have to answer questions about education and training of staff. Are they familiar with the use of discretion in public policy? Do they have any sympathy for the view that - apart from prisons and the military - the exercise of power in bureaucracies does not have to be only about control? Such staff may have learned the sub clauses of departmental administration but are they also knowledgable about those human rights protocols that affect their work? Are they allowed to think for themselves and are they able to do so? In that respect, did Secretary of Immigration, Bill Farmer, follow only the rule of obedience to Ministers Ruddock and Vanstone?


In addition to questions about education and training, the influence of the staff's personal values will need to be considered. Employees of the department may have stereotyped some asylum seekers as unlikely to be real Australians and therefore undesirable as prospective citizens. We should ask whether the ethnic background of staff has affected their judgments about asylum seekers and refugees. The history of immigration shows that the most recent migrants are often the most intolerant towards the next wave seeking refuge. If such a trend is reflected in official policies, it is dangerous if not illegal, yet ex members of the department have admitted racial discrimination is a feature of the department's culture and that racist attitudes have influenced decisions.

In my experience of dealing with the department regarding visas for West Papuans, it was not overt racism that characterised exchanges. Rather it was staff reluctance to reveal, let alone question, their own assumptions. Discussion was difficult if not impossible. Even in response to the request, “Let's look at this matter in a different way”, I encountered a fearful repeat of the department's rules. It was as though staff were sandwiched between the twin forces of their apparent pleasure in giving negative labels to people of unusual appearance and their fear of doing anything that might incur criticism from their superiors. Such fear and labelling may characterise the behaviour of only a few staff or the culture of the whole department. We need to know.

In building a civil society, state intervention was designed to protect the vulnerable. In the atmosphere engendered by the appearance of the Tampa and the dispatch of SAS troops in rubber dinghies to protect Australia's borders, however, a humanitarian civil society principle has been converted to an interest in punishing the weak. The cruelty has been so awful - and successive Ministers' justification so cowardly - that it sometimes seems as though the First Fleet has just landed.

Five brave Liberals have found the courage to question the merits of 21st century forms of punishment. Yet in response to this protest, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition have ruled out a conscience vote. What are they afraid of?

The official line of no alternatives to mandatory detention and only one policy demonstrates strength has produced countless victims, including Cornelia Rau, Vivian Solon, the 3-year-olds, Naomi Leong and Bonnie Yu, plus the 66 other children in detention and the 54 still locked up on Nauru. The bipartisan support for such policies suggests that Shadow Minister Laurie Ferguson might have no greater sense of humanity or vision than Amanda Vanstone. He might even be worse.

In the early years of settlement, the policies of hanging and flogging were not an invention of privates and other lowly military personnel. In 2005 the incompetent and punitive attitudes of low ranking detention centre guards and departmental bureaucrats appear to have been sanctioned by the highest echelons of government. High-ranking officials and politicians need to be cross-examined. The dark shadows of their influence are everywhere.

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About the Author

Stuart Rees is Professor Emeritus of the University of Sydney and Founder of the Sydney Peace Foundation. He is the former Director of the Sydney Peace Foundation (1998-2011) and of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (1988-2008), and a Professor of Social Work (1978-2000) at the University of Sydney.

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