In the remotest parts of Australia's great outback, refugees are incarcerated, insulted and abused


There has been a lot of political partying in Australia this year. First, there was the centenary of Federation, the coming together of the Australian states in 1901 as "a proud independent entity". This has required a considerable lapse of historical memory. Pride and independence had nothing to do with it. The Australian states united in order to persuade Mother England to be more protective of her faraway colony which, they pleaded, was threatened by "Asiatic hordes", Russians, Germans and other demons.

There has also been the centenary of the foundation of the Australian Labor Party. A commemorative book, True Believers, was launched by the party's famous figures, including three former prime ministers. What was striking about this celebration of Australia's social-democratic tradition, known as "fair go", was that all but one of the eminent true believers present implemented a Thatcherism that has devastated "fair go".

These days, Australia has what marketing people call a high global profile. Record numbers of tourists are coming in the wake of the Millennium Olympics, whose success was due not to marketing, but to thousands of cheerful volunteers. "There is a welcoming openness and generosity about Australia from its leaders on down," effused an American travel writer. That depends on how you get to Australia, and where you come from. The thousands of frightened, vulnerable and forgotten people imprisoned in the heat and dust of wretched camps in the remotest parts of the great outback will dispute this picture-postcard view. They include women and children, tear-gassed by private security guards paid by the federal government, and others so desperate they have tried to commit suicide and burn down a camp called the Curtin detention centre.

Last year, hundreds of frantic men, women and children broke out of the Woomera detention centre and fled into the southern desert rather than endure conditions described by the former conservative prime minister Malcolm Fraser as a "hell-hole". These people will be astonished by the boast of the minister for immigration, Philip Ruddock, that Australia is a "beacon". Curtin and Woomera and other hell-holes are where his government conceals and mistreats refugees who have had the courage to head for the antipodean beacon.

It used to be that the treatment of the Aboriginal people was Australia's darkest secret; but that is now widely known throughout the world, much to the chagrin of those in a political class who practise a local version of Holocaust denial. For picking on the most vulnerable, the far right once again takes the coward's prize: the antithesis of the Australian self-image. As Robert Manne, associate professor of politics at La Trobe University, has pointed out, immigration minister Ruddock has conducted a "long and highly personal campaign . . . with remorseless vigour, against the political refugees who have fled to Australia from the most bru- tal regimes on earth". Coming mostly from Afghanistan and Iraq, almost all are genuine refugees by the most narrow definition. Fewer than 12,000 reach Australia every year, many after perilous sea journeys. They are greeted, wrote Manne, with "the most humanly unpleasant mandatory detention system in the western world, where asylum-seekers, including children, now languish for months or even years behind razor wire, in some of our most remote regions and harshest climates". Indeed, no other western country, including Jack Straw's draconian Britain, routinely incarcerates genuine refugees for months and longer, without them even being interviewed by officials. No other western government minister personally abuses those in his government's care - people merely seeking safety - as venal and selfish, as Ruddock does constantly.

Ruddock's camps are run by an American security firm. Last month, a guard at the Port Headland camp was given a suspended sentence for thrashing a handcuffed refugee. The day after the assault, 120 refugees rioted. Ruddock's reaction was to urge that chemical injections be used widely in the camps "to calm the detainees". Port Headland, one of the hottest places on earth, is a 20-hour bus journey from Perth. According to Eira Clapton, an Anglican deacon helping the refugees, those who get to Perth "have been brutalised. The guards call them by their numbers, they insult them, they criticise their religious beliefs. There is a complete disregard for humanity."

There have been reports in the Australian press about this disgrace. In a vivid article in the Sydney Morning Herald, Penelope Debelle wrote that the paper had requested permission to visit the camps, but was still awaiting a response. What seems astonishing is that no journalist has gone undercover and personally investigated the camps. As the BBC's Newsnight discovered, television cameras are banned even outside the perimeters. Australia used to have similar concentration camps in the bush, where Aboriginal people were "protected" and which the press ignored. In this way, the Australian apartheid was also hidden.

In so many areas of Australian life, the reputation of a decent society is deserved. After all, this is where, long before Europe and North America, the struggles of ordinary people achieved a legal minimum wage, an eight-hour working day, pensions, child benefits and the vote for women. All of which makes the mistreatment of the refugees an even greater crime, and the world should know.

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2001 issue of the New Statesman, There are years of fun to come

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