The split state

Australia’s binary myth about people seeking asylum
by
June 2021, no. 432

The split state

Australia’s binary myth about people seeking asylum
by
June 2021, no. 432
3 May 2015 at the single female's area in Nauru Regional Processing Centre 3: A beautiful late evening sky with security fence, lighting and tent in the foreground. (photograph by Elahe Zivardar, reproduced with permission)
3 May 2015 at the single female's area in Nauru Regional Processing Centre 3: A beautiful late evening sky with security fence, lighting and tent in the foreground (photograph by Elahe Zivardar, reproduced with permission)

People seeking asylum are off trend. As the black and brown people on boats have stopped arriving on Australia’s shores, so has our interest in them waned. In commemoration, a boat-shaped trophy sits in Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s office, inscribed with the words ‘I Stopped These’. Today, Australians seem preoccupied by the vaccine roll-out and allegations of rape in parliament. With a federal election on the horizon, people seeking asylum and refugees seem passé, a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’.

My ten-month-old daughter knows better than this. ‘Object permanence’ is her developmental recognition that people exist, even if she can’t see them. Celebrating the ‘end’ of the boats, thereby, is analogous to an infantile regression. The passengers have simply been pushed elsewhere; an estimated 14,000 now languish in Indonesian camps, even though many have long been recognised as refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). ‘There’s a growing number of suicides in the shelters,’ journalist Nicole Curby1 told me. ‘What leads them there is a sense of desperation and hopelessness.’ Far from solving the problem, Australia has shoved it upstream. ‘Suffer or die there, not here,’ we seem to have said to people seeking asylum.

Comments (6)

  • Liana, thank you for your kind words. As David Corlett suggests, there are many Australians who feel like you do. If only the formula for growing this sort of decency was easy. There's still much work to be done.
    Posted by Hessom Razavi
    04 June 2021
  • Patrick, you're right. Many people seeking asylum have been pushed back to Indonesia by Australia, where they have no access to apply for protection, no work or education rights, etc. Some have been forced to return to their country of origin, where they face the risk of persecution.
    Posted by Hessom Razavi
    04 June 2021
  • This is a brilliant and excoriating investigation into the depths of the psychic split in Australia's response to refugees. Detailed, discerning, informed, this work is the exact remedy needed to counteract the currently abysmal state of discourse around refugees in this country. The fate of human beings must not be reducible to temporary news fodder and political point-scoring.
    Posted by Dr Liana Joy Christensen
    02 June 2021
  • That's a disturbing distinction to make. In effect, it means that, because of the distance involved, some individuals find themselves sojourning in Indonesia. Under this interpretation, they are therefore denied their protections as a matter of geography.
    Posted by Patrick Hockey
    02 June 2021
  • Michael, thanks for your comment. I disagree with it on two counts: (1) our government treats all boat arrivals alike, whether they have arrived via a third country or not: e.g. direct arrivals from Vietnam or Sri Lanka are treated the same as people who have come via Indonesia or Malaysia. (2) The government's interpretation of Article 31 of the Convention does not require people to have come directly from their home country; rather, it requires that third (transit) countries must also have posed threats to their life or freedom. Since many of the countries in our region are not signatories to the Convention, nor to other international human rights treaties, people passing through them are not considered to be 'safe' by Australia.
    Posted by Hessom Razavi
    01 June 2021
  • You are incorrect to say that "as a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, Australia is prohibited from punishing people seeking asylum, regardless of their mode of arrival". In fact, the prohibition on the imposition of "penalties" on refugees "on account of their illegal entry or presence" in article 31(1) only applies to "refugees who, coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened in the sense of Article 1, enter or are present in [the contracting states'] territory without authorization". This excludes the vast majority of asylum seekers in Australia, who came via a third country (like Indonesia) where they were not subject to "a well-founded fear of being persecuted". You are entitled to criticize Australia's refugee policy, but not to misstate the effect of the 1951 Refugee Convention.
    Posted by Michael Gronow
    31 May 2021

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