More than 60 Australian writers – including Nobel laureate JM Coetzee and Booker prize winners Thomas Keneally and Peter Carey – have condemned the government’s offshore detention policies as “brutal” and “shameful”. The open letter’s 61 signatories include: Coetzee, a South African-born novelist and naturalised Australian who won the Nobel prize in 2003; Booker prize winners Peter Carey and Thomas Keneally; Helen Garner, Gail Jones, Michelle de Kretser, Alexis Wright, and Frank Moorhouse.
Both Nauru and Manus detention centres have seen consistent reports of physical and sexual abuse of men, women and children, as well as acts of self-harm and attempted suicide, including by children as young as seven. Two asylum seekers have died in offshore processing since 2014.
The writers ask: “do we wish to live under a government that routinely treats other humans cruelly? Can we be sure of our own immunity to cruel treatment when such practices are, we know, obviously common, no matter how secretive immigration authorities are about the entire detention system. Not only does our current system bring shame to Australia, in its demonstration of brutal government power and disregard for human dignity it brings shame on us as a nation. We express our outrage at this in the strongest possible terms.”
The letter cited former director of mental health services for IHMS Dr Peter Young, who said conditions on Nauru and Manus meet the threshold for “torture”, and Dr David Isaacs, a paediatrician who formerly worked on Nauru and who describes conditions there as “child abuse”. It also quotes Behrouz Bouchani, an Iranian journalist incarcerated on Manus Island, who wrote of his detention: “How can I describe the pain and suffering? Who can answer our questions and explain what human rights and freedom means? ...nobody can answer my questions and they are treating me like a criminal. We begin the day with pain and we sleep under nightmares.”
Author Thomas Keneally, who won the Booker Prize in 1982 for Schindler’s Ark, explained the lives of children were being used as “pawns” to pursue the government policy’s of stopping boat arrivals. “These children are being forced to endure every pain imaginable short of death, for this stated policy aim of stopping drownings at sea. The best professional advice, and all the medical advice, says that these people, these children in particular, will be damaged by being sent to those places. But the proposition that the only way to stop drownings at sea is to run these punitive camps is not only wrong, it is grotesque. There are other policies, they may be difficult, but there are other more constructive, more humanitarian, and less punitive policies Australia could be pursuing.” He said political discourse over refugees in Australia had been debased by political sloganeering and the calculated dehumanisation and demonisation of asylum seekers.