We pretend there has been change under Labor but hundreds of refugees are still in detention | Behrouz Boochani

After taking happy snaps in Biloela the new government has made no effort to change Australia’s cruel immigration policy on refugees arriving by boat

The return of the Nadesalingam family to Biloela was one of the first acts by the new Labor government in Australia. Happy snaps and footage of the prime minister, Anthony Albanese, and some of his ministers with the family were splashed all over the media. The release of the family was widely welcomed and celebrated by the public.

Without a doubt, the Nadesalingam family were victims of a cruel policy by the Liberal government, and their return to the home they had been snatched from should be celebrated. But we need to look at the wider picture.

This very public return of the family is a paradoxical and challenging story. Especially when we remember that there are still more than 200 asylum seekers remaining in Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea and Nauru; when we remember there are hundreds in immigration detention throughout Australia. The paradox is that on the one hand Australia jails asylum seekers and on the other hand releases them into a so-called normal life.

This is a familiar pattern: a particular refugee or family’s story becomes known by the public, they are eventually released from detention, the public celebrate this release as an achievement but there is no fundamental change. Other asylum seekers are not released, no policy is changed, nor does it prevent the government from incarcerating other asylum seekers.

This paradox is a primary part of white saviour culture – a culture that is integral to the continuation of Australia’s immigration policy. The public feel they have saved lives, have righted an aberrant wrong, and can now return to everyday life having done a good job.

On the day the Nadesalingam family were returned to Biloela, Albanese and his ministers represented themselves as saviours, promoting an image of change and justice. These photo opportunities may look good and quieten critique, but they mask the fact that nothing has changed when it comes to hundreds of refugees still in detention.

The reality is that the new Labor government is completely silent in front of the tragedy that continues to unfold in Port Moresby, Nauru and Australia. Not only are they silent but they continue to enact the policy. They have turned back boats from Sri Lanka, they have not yet provided any certainty for those on insecure visas, they keep many imprisoned in immigration detention centres and repeat the former government’s strategies. A few weeks ago, those asylum seekers brought to Australia through the medevac legislation received a letter from immigration restating: “The Australian government’s policies have not changed and unauthorised maritime arrivals will not be settled permanently in Australia.”


Asylum seekers are used to receiving this kind of letter to remind them they have no future in Australia and should expect to be deported, incarcerated in detention centres or transferred back to PNG and Nauru. They were used to this when the Liberal government was in power, and there was hope it would change under the new Labor government. But there has been no change, and asylum seekers who arrived after 19 July 2013 are still not treated the same as those who arrived before 19 July 2013. They are still excluded from having their claims processed under the international convention that Australia is signatory to.

There are more than 200 men – refugees – remaining in Port Moresby and Nauru. Since Labor took office they continue to enact the endless detention, amounting to systematic torture, of the past nine years.

In October the Australian government announced that in January this year PNG would take full responsibility for refugees and asylum seekers who remain there. In March, New Zealand’s offer to resettle 150 refugees that Australia is responsible for, over a period of three years, was finally accepted. But in another cruel twist, the agreement excluded those held in Port Moresby.

The dissonance between what asylum seekers experience on the ground and what the Labor government is showing the public cannot be overestimated. It is public knowledge that the asylum seekers in PNG and Nauru have lost almost everything, that their families are destroyed, and that they have been profoundly mentally and physically damaged. Yet the government shows no interest in real change. Instead, they have committed to what has marked federal governance over the past nine years – an abdication of responsibility.

The triumphant story of the Nadesalingam family’s return to Biloela is used to mask the current Australian government’s recommitment to populism and hypocrisy. Much of the Australian public, and especially Labor supporters, pretend there has been change, that they have created change, that they have saved lives; choosing to ignore the asylum seekers who remain indefinitely detained in what amounts to systematic torture.

Nothing has changed until there are 200 more Biloela families returned to Australia from Nauru and Port Moresby, and until threats of deportation, re-detention, or return to PNG or Nauru end.

Nothing has changed. The system is still working, the mentality that condones detaining innocent people is still entrenched, and the detention industry flourishes.

  • Behrouz Boochani is a writer, journalist and former refugee

  • Janet Galbraith contributed to editing this piece


Behrouz Boochani

The GuardianTramp

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