There is a lot to be said for the value of proximity when discussing world events. We are of course far more invested in something that is happening in our own neighbourhood than something happening on the other side of the world, with the exception that events in ‘culturally similar’ Western states will always receive more media coverage than comparable events in non-Western states. Just consider the recent terrorist attacks in Belgium and Pakistan. White lives are of infinitely greater interest to our delicate postcolonial sensibilities.
Of course when people from over there start coming over here, it gets all gets a bit difficult. It becomes a bit harder not to care about people when they’re in close proximity; if someone is having a heart attack in front of you, you sort of have to call an ambulance, even if you don’t really like them. You can’t just cover your eyes and run away (running with your eyes closed is not recommended in any context). If someone comes to your door in a frantic state because they’ve just been in a car accident, your first instinct is probably to help them, thanks to that tiresome human capacity for empathy. What a drag.
The Australian Government has found a rather ingenious solution to this emotional inconvenience. By taking all the people trying to come over here in order to escape conflict over there, and sending them even further away, to tiny islands in the Pacific ocean, we can essentially bypass our empathic dispositions altogether. This is especially effective once a media blackout is enforced for “on-water matters”. If we “turn back the boats”, we can stop people drowning at sea on our doorstop, and send them off to drown at sea somewhere else where we can’t see them, and thus don’t have to share in their hopelessness and desperation. Problem moved out of sight is as problem solved.
One of our favourite dumping grounds is unquestionably the notorious Island nation of Nauru. Now, without cheating, open your atlas or turn to your desktop globe (whichever is most convenient), and point to Nauru. Did you find it? It’s not embarrassing to concede defeat in this exercise; you probably need a magnifying glass to succeed. The nation is, after all, smaller than Rottnest Island.
I was surprised too. To help visualise their comparative sizes, I have created this handy scale rendition of the two islands side-by-side (finally putting that geography major to use).
Of course, the tiny size of the island is not its only noteworthy feature. It’s also very, very far away. From anywhere.
The nearest landmass to Nauru is Banaba Island (part of the Republic of Kiribati), a raised coral island 300km to the east, which has an area of 6km2, and is about 3km from coast to coast at its widest point. If you left Nauru in search of an island that is any larger, you would need to travel across the ocean for about 1100km (about the distance from Perth to Exmouth) before coming across Malaita Island of the Solomon Islands.
If heading to Nauru from Australia, you would likely be leaving from Brisbane, facing a 5-hour flight to cover the 3,300km distance. So imagine flying from Perth to Sydney, but instead of flying over land, you are flying for hours and hours with nothing but the Pacific Ocean beneath you. Can you begin to feel the seeping hopelessness of extreme isolation?
This incredible distance also explains some of the inordinate costs involved with offshore detention, particularly on Nauru. In order to accommodate the 634 asylum seekers who were in the Nauru detention centre at the end of May last year, Australian taxpayers (that’s us!) spent $645,726 to cover just the 11 preceding months. That’s about $1,927 per asylum seeker per day.
To add a little more perspective to this conundrum of costs and distances, while also tying in a bit more space into this spatial discussion, let us now consider the International Space Station. The ISS is essentially where all astronauts go these days, since the Apollo missions finished in the 70s, and it orbits the Earth at an altitude of about 400km. That’s almost exactly the distance from Perth to Albany, meaning that if it were directly overhead, it would take about four and a half hours to drive there, depending on the traffic (and also ignoring most laws of physics).
This really brings us to the crux of my argument. It seems that there are two key advantages to sending asylum seekers very very far away into the most isolated places on earth. Firstly of course, it means that we don’t have to see them or share in their suffering, and thus we can pretend that they don’t exist. Secondly, it tramples their spirits and strips away what little dignity they might have left, exacerbating the soul-crushing hopelessness of their situation and thereby teaching them a valuable lesson about wanting a better future for their children. Somehow, according to our government, this will influence the number of refugees seeking asylum (at a time when we are faced with the greatest number of displaced people since the Second World War). Perhaps in their warped neoliberal view of the world, they think that by reducing demand for refugees, they will invariably reduce the supply. I believe in the real world though, the situation is a little more nuanced, with things like violent conflict and the persecution of minorities having more to do with people fleeing their homes.
However, there may actually be a better, more cost efficient way to deal with this overwhelming influx of up to tens of impoverished people. At a time when we are spending around $1.3 billion on offshore detention (not including the $6 million recently splurged by our eminent Minister of Propaganda Peter Dutton on what I’m sure will be a thrilling and totally unbiased telemovie about seeking asylum in Australia), I think it’s time we asked ourselves: is it cheaper to send asylum seekers into space? Many politicians from both the Labor and Liberal parties have personally assured me that offshore processing is the only way to deal with asylum seekers, but maybe they’re just not thinking outside the square, or in this case, atmosphere. Why can’t we put a motion forward for extra-terrestrial processing?
By spending a little time digging around on the internet I discovered that it costs around $22,000 per kilogram to launch “material” into space. Given that many of the asylum seekers coming to Australia are children, and most adults would be fairly emaciated due to malnutrition, we can perhaps assume an average mass of 50kg per human. To launch 50kg into space would cost us around $1.1 million, which unfortunately is still more than the $650,000 odd we spend per year detaining one person in Nauru. Of course we could always lower this weight by reducing conditions in detention even further, with the hope that it might encourage some hunger strikes. I wouldn’t put it past that crafty Dutton to come up with such a scheme.
At this point though, you might be thinking this is a futile argument, since we haven’t even looked at the cost of getting them back (from space). Luckily, the Government budget for resettlement is even bigger than its budget for offshore processing (so long as the resettlement isn’t in Australia). So far, at a cost of $55 million, we have managed to resettle five asylum seekers in Cambodia. So on a budget of $11 million per person, we can probably shackle together some kind of re-entry vehicle that can crash-land in Cambodia or Malaysia, or even North Korea (as long as it isn’t Australia, right?).
While this is still just a pipedream, there is some hope for this simple ‘fire and forget’ solution to the ‘asylum seeker problem’, now that we actually have a Science Minister again, and are living in Malcolm Turnbull’s Age of InnovationTM.
But for now, as far as sending people very far away so we can pretend that they don’t exist – that they are not actually sentient beings capable of feeling love, loss, fear, or suffering, that they are not human at all – then remote Pacific Islands are still probably the best choice we have for achieving maximum isolation and soul-crushing hopelessness for little more than $1 billion a year. There are other questions we could ask ourselves though: How much would it cost to process their asylum claims in Australia? Around $239,000 per person per year. And what about the costs of a bridging visa or community detention? About $40,000 per person per year. And what if we processed them a bit quicker? Say, instead of an average time in detention of 445 days, with almost a quarter being detained for more than 750 days, we processed claims in 30 days (average wait time in the US), or 25 days (average wait time in Canada). That would save a bit of money wouldn’t it? Perhaps the real question we should be asking ourselves is: Why are we doing this at all? What happened to “boundless plains to share”? How can we care so little about the incredible suffering we inflict on others for no tangible benefit whatsoever?
Offshore detention achieves nothing for you, me, or those who are detained. Perhaps the only beneficiaries are the shady governments of the countries on whom we place this horrific burden. For over a decade we have stripped the humanity of those who need our help. We have demonised and demoralised and shaped a fallacious narrative that excuses the on-going persecution of those who flee persecution. Offshore detention happens in your name. And in my name. And it will continue to happen until we demand that it stops.
Words by Ed Smith