Friday, February 21, 2014

Humanity and sanity overboard

Refugees 3 (2013) Kodakotype by Pants

Not a day goes by without we Australians waking to discover that our government has ramped up its cruelty to asylum seekers a thumbscrew or two. A predictable protest at an offshore detention centre on Manus Island this week resulted in one person being shot dead and 77 being injured. The protests were triggered when around 1340 asylum seekers were told that they had no chance of being resettled in Australia - ever. This begs the question of why anyone would be so stupid as to say such an egregious and explosive thing to a group of distressed people;  unless a riot was the desired outcome? To be honest, that would not surprise me. It's right up there with bear-baiting on the scale of gratuitous bastardy.

Now it's been revealed that the personal details of around one third of asylum seekers currently being detained by Australia have been accidentally (?) dumped into the public domain. These details could identify vulnerable people, including children, to the governments of countries from which they have escaped persecution. So, the dashed hope of a tolerable life in a safe place somewhere in the world is compounded by the threat of repatriation to a clued-up and very angry country of origin with the apparent collusion of a nation which claims fairness and tolerance as national characteristics? Carelessness or callousness? The Question Why is always saying, 'never rule out complete incompetence.' And I don't, but how convenient an error is that if you really want to terrify people?


Australia is a signatory to both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention Against Torture (CAT). Our officials seem unacquainted with Article 7 of the ICCPR which instructs,

'No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.' 

The definition covers psychological and emotional mistreatment as well as the more obvious types of physical torture. The thing that always baffles me is why, when you have people manageably subdued and demoralised, you would want or need to torment them to the point of total breakdown. Fortunately, The Question Why has just arrived with a highly anticipated glass of Chardonnay.

'Only two reasons I can think of,' says TQW, 'fun or fear.'

'If you want to terrorise people for fun, you don't become a politician or government official, surely. Wouldn't you rather join a criminal bikie gang or buy a shed in the middle of nowhere and fill it with rusty farm tools like that Wolf Creek guy?'

'So that leaves fear. And how does one usually respond to fear?'

'Fight or flight?'

'Well, it's quite difficult to shift a continent this big to a place where no one will ever find it.'

'True. Let's go with fight.' 

'Or there's the third option - ignoring the scary thing in the hope that it will go away.'

'Ah, the Monsters Inc. Strategy - the one we use on climate change. Didn't we try that one back in 2001?'

'Oh yeah, the Tampa affair. Pretending that asylum seekers don't exist only works up to a point. We still have about 10,000 actual people to deal with, no matter what we end up calling them. '

'So it's full-on combat then.'

But why? Surely it would be so much easier to recognise asylum seekers as people needing our help and provide that help as quickly and efficiently as possible. Other countries with far more demand and far less capacity manage to alleviate the distress of displaced people with much greater grace and sincerity than Australia could even contemplate. Take this example of a refugee camp in cash-strapped Turkey where Syrian refugees are treated as equals,

"When I asked the administrator why the camp took the amenities this far, he said: 'We just put ourselves in the Syrians' shoes. We need Internet. We need barbershops. We need workshops. We need art. What we need as Turks, we give them.' He shrugged as though this were totally obvious. 'We're humans.'" (New York Times article by Mac McClelland, 13.2.14)


There's a theory bouncing around our vast land that the globally conspicuous cruelty being meted out to the tiny number of asylum seekers currently in our 'care' is a calibrated deterrence signal, the modern equivalent of heads on pikes, to discourage others who might have it in mind to follow the same route. Further, that the cast-iron veil of secrecy is merely bait for the media, deliberately set to ensure maximum international publicity. Well, obviously it's certainly an incentive. It won't stop people from being displaced, but it might mean they go somewhere else. Provided, of course, there is somewhere else to go. Presumably, the calculation has also assumed a toothlessness on the part of the UN and that a small slap on wrist is a fair price to pay for making sure that asylum seekers get the message that Australia is not somewhere they really want to go.

That's all very well, but we still insist on maintaining a self-image that we're generous, kind people. Not even the Nazis did that - pretend they were actually nice while shipping people off to camps. Imagine what that schizoid disconnect is doing to our national psyche. And again, why? Why not just stand up for racism, be proud of our white supremacist roots? We obviously don't believe it's wrong to discriminate against a particular group of people who also happen to not be white. No one ever questions the motives of the seventy-or-thereabouts-thousand white South Africans who emigrated to Australia for 'a better life' after the ANC election victory in 1994.

And then there's the bogus 'concern' about asylum seekers drowning at sea. If we really cared about that we'd set up immigration centres at the points where fleeing people first arrive so that they don't have to undertake desperate sea journeys. We'd get them sorted and settled quickly so that they could become productive members of our community. And we're apparently worried about the cost of all these extra people? Well, most of them will end up living here anyway. Do we accept this and make the pragmatic and compassionate best choice in a difficult situation? Hell no. We would much rather spend a fortune imprisoning and guarding people in limbo for years; building, staffing and repairing offshore detention centres; deploying naval vessels to guard great expanses of ocean and dealing with the shattered physical and mental health of whole generations when they are finally allowed to settle here after years of constant trauma. So, why do we do that then? 

Novelist Christos Tsiolkas, in this long piece for The Monthly written in 2013, attempts to fathom, 'why Australia hates asylum seekers'. It's a considered view and I hope you'll read it in full. He says that racism is an aspect of our attitude to asylum seekers that we never discuss,

'By not confronting the reality of racism, we can only look at the issue through a distorted lens. At the same time – and this is a point overlooked by the left, another of our failures – reducing the whole debate to the question of racism is equally problematic and unsatisfactory.'

Drawing on his own experience of racism as an immigrant he recounts,

'“Australians are racist,” my parents would say to me as I was growing up. “They are racist and they are amorphoté. That’s the real problem in this country.”

How do I translate this Greek word? Literally, it means to be uneducated but this is inadequate. My parents were not educated people; born to peasant families, they didn’t undergo secondary schooling. What Mum and Dad were referring to was a code of behaviour, a civility that they believed Australians lacked.'

He concludes,

'This is what amorphoté means: it is not about academic education, it is barbarity, pure and simple.'

How did we Australians end up like this - especially since we're so keen to think of ourselves as the exact opposite of barbarous? And yes, a lot of developed countries have problems with racism and display hostility towards asylum seekers but no one does it with quite the ferocity and mania that Australia does. No one fears foreign quite like we do. Why?

The Seat of Pants theory is this. The 'no-room' nonsense, the be-like-us bollocks, the procedural hokum, the Janus-faced faux concern - all a smokescreen. The thing we really don't want the rest of the world to know is that we have no idea how to be decent global citizens. From our shove-it-in-your-pipe resource profligacy to our hysterical 'border protection', our deeply embedded and universal commitment to inequality is our shaming open secret. We are, indeed, amorphoté.

But why? We're an educated, well-travelled population with freedom of expression to die for. And nearly all of us are from immigrant stock. And there's another rub - once new ethnic immigrant groups become established, it isn't long before they too join the stone throwers. How is this possible? Simple answer - insecurity. The unfinished treaty business with the first Australians is making it impossible for any of us to feel truly at home here. White settlement in Australia was based on the lie of terra nullius. In order to validate that, it was necessary to reclassify the indigenous inhabitants as non-people. That self-granted permission to deregister certain groups from the human race at will has never been revoked or even genuinely rethought. So now, we simply reframe asylum seekers as non-people in order to strip them of their human rights. It's a bad habit that goes way, way back.

Since I've lived nearly half my life so far in Europe, I can tell you that while racism is certainly a problem in other places, Australia is in a league of its own on this particular type of racism. It feels so hopeless when there is no anchor, anywhere, for anyone. It's taken me a few years to get close to the beginnings of an understanding of just how and why it's so different. And I will admit to being roundly fooled myself while I was living abroad and only experiencing Australia in small, fun-packed chunks and via brilliantly orchestrated, love-us-because-we're-so-naff PR campaigns.   

Nothing will change until we understand that this is who and what we really are. A little pain now for a decent and honest future - how hard can it be? Very, apparently. Former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating managed to transport us to a place of idyllic imagining for an afternoon back in 1992 when he delivered his now-famous Redfern Speech right smack in the centre of Sydney's Aboriginal community.

'We took the traditional land,' he said. 'We brought the diseases and murders,' he admitted. 'We took the children from their mothers,' he confessed. 

And? 

We Australians clasped the sentiment, if not the actual message, to our collective heart. In a recent poll ranking Unforgettable Speeches of our time, the Redfern Address came in at No. 3. The top spot went to Dr Martin Luther King's I Have a Dream speech - see, we're not racist. In second place was Jesus with The Sermon on the Mount - so, we're all biblical scholars now? I'm thinking you don't even want to know that No. 4 was Churchill's 'fight 'em on the beaches' and No. 5 was Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

Twenty years ago, Paul Keating gave it his best shot. It didn't even hit the barn. That's how thick our barn actually is. In a recent interview he said,

'When they were handing out continents, not many people got one. We did. We got a continent of our own, unbelievably. Twenty million of us. We've got the great event of our time.'

What is wrong with us that we could even think of squandering that?

Barney! More Chardonnay. Now!