Thursday, October 18, 2018

Death in Detention

Australia has a long history of being a welcoming haven for refugees. They came because they were kicked out of England for stealing a cup of tea, or they were fleeing famine in Ireland, or avoiding arrest and imprisonment in Italy. And Australia has a proud history of working class organizing and anti-elitist attitudes are ingrained among the general population.

But the overwhelming majority of these refugees and working class organizers I'm talking about are of European origin. This is because Australia had a whites-only immigration policy for most of its existence as a country.

Australia may not be the same place it was in 1950. There are now thriving, multi-ethnic cities there. But the nation's founding racism runs deep. Despite all the international conventions the country has signed, despite the fact that Australia has one of the lowest population densities of anywhere on Earth, despite all the talk of freedom, democracy and the rule of law, both of the ruling parties of Australia disposed of the rule of law decades ago, at least as it applies to human rights.

Human rights, that's the idea that humans have rights, just because they're human. Officially, almost all countries in the world agree with that idea. In practice, only Australian citizens or people flying in on a tourist visa have rights. Humans – who all fall within the UN covenant on the rights of humans, and also specifically the rights of children as well, and the rights of refugees, too – aren't human enough unless they have enough money or enough melanin. If Australia were to honestly rewrite their immigration laws to reflect policy, this could be how they'd phrase it.

Now there has been yet another suicide in detention in Australia. Why are there so many refugees in detention in Australia, even though they have been given official refugee status? Why are they killing themselves in such large numbers? Why are they being refused medical care?

One of the refugees who killed himself recently was named Omid, from Iran. He had fled his home with the love of his life. They made it to Australia, they got refugee status, and then they were detained indefinitely by the Australian Navy on a mosquito-infested, environmentally-destroyed little former mining colony island with 90% unemployment called Nauru.

There's an ancient Persian poem called Leila and Majnun. In the poem, Majnun can't be with the love of his life, Leila, because Leila's parents won't allow it. He wanders off into the desert and goes mad as a result. If you replace Leila's parents with the Australian state, the poem works well in the modern context.

Leila and Majnun
When Leila met Majnun it was at a traffic light
He handed her his number at first sight
It all happened very quickly, soon both of them were aware
That life can be so good when it's shared

When Leila met Majnun it was convenient, it would seem
That both of them were living in the city of their dreams
They had no plan to leave and lots of plans to stay
But one day that all changed and they had to go away

So Leila and Majnun together left the country
They got on a crowded boat, sailed the Pacific Sea
They were headed to Australia, a place they thought they knew
Then the Australian Navy took them to Nauru

Where Leila and Majnun were kept there in detention
On a tiny little island run just like a prison
Where they were told by Immigration, dream all that you can
But your only pathway off this island is on a boat back to Iran

Leila and Majnun, amid the heat and damp
Tried to make the best of life in a prison camp
But the strongest of foundations eventually will shake
And the strongest of hearts eventually will break

Leila and Majnun were on the island when
One day there came some visitors from the UN
The next thing Leila knew, she was witness to the scene
Of her beloved doused in gasoline

Leila saw Majnun in a state no one should be in
Bright flames rising, burning off his skin
Sometimes you can reach a point – so beaten down, so tired
The only option that seems left is to set yourself on fire

When Leila met Majnun

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