Friday, 31 January 2014

When People Become Things

I often ride my bike past the Seventh Day Adventist church on O'Keefe St in Buranda.  This week the sign in front of the church read "Love People. Use Things."  I'd like Scott Morrison and co (including their Labor colleagues who are just as bad) to read this sign.

I haven't posted on refugee issues for a while.  I've been too depressed about it to write anything.  Our current government has ratcheted up the deterrent to a point where it has become absurd - a military style intervention whose sole purpose is to repel boatloads of asylum seekers and return them to Indonesia from where they have generally departed or, failing that, send them offshore to detention facilities on Manus Island or Nauru where they can expect to stay indefinitely no matter what their refugee status. 

The result has been a growing number of horror stories and embarrassments - pregnant women and newborn children interred in terrible camp conditions or returned there soon after; the Australian Navy "accidentally" breaching Indonesian waters, accusations that naval officers deliberately burnt the hands of a number of asylum seekers.  The Australian Government's response to these various scandals is to refuse to provide any information "for operational reasons".  Truth, as I alluded to last week, is the first casualty of war, even if the war is against helpless unarmed civilians in leaky boats seeking refuge from much more serious wars elsewhere.

The problem we have here is that successive governments, starting with Howard in 2001 and escalating ever since, have entrenched a political and policy approach that treats these people as things.  Tony Abbott went into the most recent election promising to "stop the boats".  Notice what is being stopped?  Not asylum seekers but boats, inanimate aquatic vehicles.  "Stop the Asylum Seekers" does not work half so well as a slogan.  "Stop the People" is out of the question.

The same thing applies to the enthusiasm of our government for calling these asylum seekers "illegals".  There has been plenty of discussion about this term.  Under international law it is not illegal to seek asylum.  Despite numerous breaches, Australia is still a signatory to the United Nations Convention on Refugees.  But accepting for a moment that they have broken the law, their crime is a minor one.  They have entered Australian territory without the appropriate paperwork.  Their crime is equivalent to parking in a no-parking zone.  This does not make them criminals.

The appropriate response to this minor administrative offence ranges from a modest fine (if they have a legitimate reason to be in the country but just messed up the paperwork) to deportation (if they have no legitimate reason to be here).  Why, then, does the Australian government not send these people back to their countries of origin?  The answer is of course that they can't because it's not safe for them to go back.  They are seeking asylum for a reason.  Up until very recently this was essentially the end of the story in relation to the vast majority - once their lack of safety in their home counties was established, they would be granted protection here in Australia and become part of our communities.  They become our neighbours and co-workers.  All of us know a few people who came to Australia like this and can verify that they are indeed normal people, just like us save a few physical or cultural details.

In order to undermine our willingness to see them this way, the government is trying to make them invisible.  Hence it is towing them back before they reach Australian waters, keeping media and cameras at a distance, refusing to give details of boat numbers, people numbers, nationalities, circumstances - anything that might humanise them.  Calling them "illegals" defines them purely in terms of their relationship to the Law - they are outlaws, outsiders, transgressors.  They are not law abiding citizens like us.

The reason we treat them like this is that none of these laws and policies are about them.  Instead, current policy uses them purely as a medium to send a message to someone else - to those potential asylum seekers who are considering setting out on the same journey, and the illicit business people who profit by selling them passage on dodgy boats.  The message is, of course, "don't bother, you'll be wasting your time".  The harsher the treatment meted out to those who have already made the journey, the louder the message to others not to make it.  If you send the message loudly enough, the boats will stop.  Or so the theory goes.

The trouble is, the message has to be very loud, because the people who need to hear it have their hearing dulled by gunfire.  They are fleeing soldiers, secret police, fanatical insurgents and ruthless dictators.  How can you top that?  Only with naval officers, and indefinite detention in concentration camps located in countries with fragile, unstable governments.  Only with the cries of imprisoned mothers and children, and the sound of rioting.  Only by making what they are heading towards as bad as the thing they are fleeing

Stopping the people smuggling trade is, in itself, not such a bad objective.  People smuggling, unlike arriving in Australia without a visa, is a crime with serious consequences.  Hundreds of people have drowned, probably more than we know about.  The trouble is we are punishing the victims, not the perpetrators.  Success comes at the expense of innocent lives, the re-traumatisation of people already severely traumatised by events in their home countries.  It's just not worth it.  We can only think it is if we forget that these are people.

I still think highly enough of my own compatriots to think that this "solution" is not sustainable.  We are trained from childhood to be compassionate, the support the underdog.  We will only be able to sustain our blindness towards these people for so long.  Our media will find ways to bring us their stories.  As it did prior to the 2007 election, the tide will turn and the voices of compassion will once again become louder than those of objectification.  But what damage will we have done in the meantime?  And how can people's lives be rebuilt after we have traumatised them so needlessly?

We should just stop now.  Every day we keep doing this is a day too long.
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