Compassionate sadism: Australia’s culture of terrorism

For years, debate about asylum seeker policy has been conducted in straightforward manner. Opponents of mandatory detention of asylum seekers have suggested that the manner in which we hold asylum seekers is cruel, and a violation of their human rights. Traditionally, those who supported our regime of mandatory indefinite detention of asylum seekers framed their position in different manner. They wanted to secure our borders, stop the flood of people who happen to be foreign and so on. They not only advocated indefinite mandatory detention of asylum seekers. They didn’t want asylum seeker claims to be processed in Australia, but overseas, as per the so-called Pacific solution. And they embraced Temporary Protection Visas. That is, someone found to be a genuine refugee now, could a few years later be sent back to the regime we agreed they genuinely feared persecution from.


Lately, the argument about asylum seekers has been re-framed. Everyone claims to care about asylum seekers now.


Those who support mandatory indefinite detention of asylum seekers now claim to do so, because they care about asylum seekers. They care so deeply that they want us to return to Howard’s policies of mandatory indefinite detention, offshore processing of asylum seekers, and temporary protection visas.


This is supposedly compassionate, because if we pursue these harsh policies, asylum seekers will not get on boats to come to Australia anymore. Why? Because asylum seekers only come to Australia because people smugglers make them believe that they will be treated really well when they get here – that Australia, since the naive stupidity of the Rudd Government, has rolled out the red carpet. If we just got stern with asylum seekers, they would stop getting on boats to come to Australia. If they saw that they would not be taken to Australia, but to Nauru, or perhaps Malaysia, then they would not want to come at all.


So the first question to consider is whether this is actually true. In my view, there is little reason to believe that position.


Firstly, as noted by former Secretary of the Department of Immigration, John Menadue, “after years of cruel punishment on Nauru, all but 45 of the 1,637 asylum seekers incarcerated in Nauru who were found to be refugees gained residence in Australia or New Zealand.”


So if we do adopt offshore processing, we will still be accepting asylum seekers into Australia. The process of considering whether the asylum seekers are refugees will take place in Nauru, or somewhere else, but it will still involve considering whether they are genuine refugees, and letting them into Australia eventually. So why would this stop people from seeking asylum in Australia? The theory is that if we make the process of evaluating asylum claims sufficiently cruel and inhumane, people will stop trying to come to Australia.


Put aside for now the cruelty of making innocent people suffer, so that other people will not try to come to Australia. It is hard to credit this as a serious proposal. According to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, “there were 1132 incidents of actual or threatened self-harm over the 12 months ending 30 June 2011”. There were five suicides over seven months. It is predictable that self-harm and suicides will continue. As psychiatrist and Australian of the Year Patrick McGorry explained, our detention centres are “factories for producing mental illness”. If cruelty to asylum seekers were enough to prevent them from getting on boats heading to Australia, one would have thought Australia would have stopped the boats by now.


Besides this, offshore processing does not offer any reason to believe that we will stop people from getting on boats headed to Australia. It is based around people getting on boats. As Julian Burnside noted

people do not get to Nauru unless they first get on a boat, to be intercepted by the Australian Navy as they approach Australian territorial waters. This does nothing to protect them from the perils of the boats. The SIEV-X, which sank with the loss of 353 lives, sank on October 19, 2001 – weeks after Nauru had been commissioned as a place of detention and the Pacific Solution had begun.

So let us review. Those advocating this new type of compassion think that once a boat is headed for Australia, its occupants should be sent to somewhere overseas – Malaysia, Nauru, Manus Island or perhaps somewhere else. Even though this inherently involves people getting on boats, it is believed that, as harsh as our current treatment of asylum seekers is, if we make it even worse, we can stop people trying to get to Australia.


The advocates of the new compassion know how desperate asylum seekers are. Last week, perhaps 90 asylum seekers died in their desperate attempt to get here. At 2:08 am Wednesday they had already called the Australian Maritime Safety Authority saying the boat had “’suffered hull damage … and was taking on water’”. Australia advised them to return to Indonesia.


At 12:41 pm on Thursday, the Australian rescue centre told Indonesia that the boat had phoned again: “ the ship was travelling south at a pathetic two to three knots, ‘’while making telephone calls to [the rescue co-ordination centre] saying they are taking on water’. It was clearly in trouble.”


All that we did was watch, knowing that a boat full of innocent, desperate people was sinking. It seems they were willing to risk their lives, to flee from the horrors of their home countries.


We are supposed to believe that these people, if they knew that their claims would be processed on a Pacific Island, instead of Christmas Island, would have meekly given up, and returned to the tender mercies of, say, the Taliban.

It is hard to credit the new compassion to anything other than the old heartlessness. Yet there is a sense in which it is particularly disturbing.


People who seek asylum in Australia have done nothing wrong. It is not a crime to seek asylum, and Australia has voluntarily taken on obligations under international law to consider claims of people who claim to be refugees.


Advocating cruel measures to be inflicted on these innocent people, to achieve political goals is not just inhumane. It is something that when committed by Muslims is usually called terrorism. In this sense, I think it can properly be said that Australia is embracing a political culture of terrorism.


The disturbing thing is not just that this culture of terrorism is being publicly advocated. It is that it is becoming publicly respectable. Advocating cruelty to innocent people is becoming regarded as no less moral than those who say we should treat asylum seekers humanely.


Claims that Australia is losing control of its borders border on the pathological. As former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser wrote “In 2010-11, 4730 asylum seekers arrived by boat. During the same period, more than 13 million people crossed our borders and arrived in Australia; 4730 out of 13.9 million is not a ‘system vulnerable to abuse’.”


As Burnside and others have suggested, if we were to “process protection claims while people are in Indonesia”, then people would have no reason to get on boats to come to Australia. For those who are concerned about unsafe sea voyages, this would solve that problem.


This is one type of approach we can take to how Australia should treat asylum seekers. It would be humane, treat people decently, and involve accepting perhaps increased numbers of asylum seekers.


Or we can embrace sadism, and try to find new ways to make innocent people suffer. And then we can call it a new form of compassionate humanitarianism, so that we can sleep easier, as we destroy more human lives.

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