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The moral descent of Australia's policy on asylum seekers

By Isobel Blackthorn - posted Thursday, 27 November 2014

Australia is surpassing itself in denying resettlement to asylum seekers who registered with the United Nation's refugee agency in Indonesia after July 1, in a policy that may also be applied to all asylum seekers in transit countries such as Malaysia or Iran; while this year, almost all of Australia's humanitarian intake (a tiny 13,750), will be selected from countries of first asylum. It appears the end strategy of the campaign against people smugglers is now revealed, a campaign implemented upon the election of our current Liberal government, one that has spiralled Australia down to the basement of human depravity.

First, we hovered in the stairwell as the Department of Immigration and Citizenship became the Department of Immigration and Border Protection and the military was brought in to oversee offshore proceedings and Operation Sovereign Borders was declared, a culture of secrecy instituted, the phrase, 'we do not report on operational matters,' trotted out at every turn.

Our descent began when, under the auspices of Operation Sovereign Borders, we turned back the asylum seekers' rickety boats. A few treads lower and we forced asylum seekers on board orange lifeboats and pointed them back at Indonesia.


Lower still, and for those that slipped through border security, DIBP Minister Scott Morrison continued Labor's policy of off-shore processing of asylum seeker boat arrivals on Nauru and Manus Island, in conditions likened to a gulag, the pace of processing fostering in the minds of detainees a psychological horror without end. In August this year, Immigration detention psychiatrist Dr Peter Young stated that treatment of asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru was, 'akin to torture,' and 'deliberately designed to cause harm.' The methods of torture are meant to psychologically cripple, the inhumanity so severe it is a testament to the strength of the captives that they don't take the suicidal step of returning to their homelands.

One may be forgiven for believing the basement of depravity had been reached. Not so. In another turn of the spiral, resettlement of asylum seekers who made it to Australia by boat and now languish off-shore, will occur in Nauru, in Manus, in Cambodia, anywhere but Australia, and the implications have to be that we are white and we are supreme, therefore we will determine the fate of others, and the air in the stairwell suddenly gets colder.

Now we can see the basement. Those asylum seekers deemed to be genuine refugees in Indonesia will no longer gain access to Australia, ostensibly part of the fisticuffs campaign against people smugglers who have been singled out to be the most vile criminals humanity has ever produced. Yet the people smugglers won't care. Some are asylum seekers themselves, as was poignantly depicted in Robin de Crespigny's,The People Smuggler. Others are petty criminals seeking an illicit wage, part of an underworld global network that would traffic bullion, ivory, guns, drugs, anything to turn a profit, and if people stop being the money spinner of the day, they'll turn their hand to some other cargo.

It isn't people smugglers who are being harmed. It is asylum seekers. And they are not collateral caught up in the campaign crossfire. They are the scapegoats in a subtle war. A war that is being waged, not on them, on us. It is an ideological war that is being fought, one in which the victims of war and persecution in their own lands have become the victims of a war playing out in ours.

Under attack is the very fabric of our morality. We are being systematically conditioned into accepting the cruel treatment of others as necessary and inevitable. We are led to believe and so we do believe that all asylum seekers are morally reprehensible. They are illegals, queue jumpers who should be made to wait their turn. If strong measures aren't taken we'll be swamped and, worse, many are a threat to our security. Such myths are promulgated by our government and reinforced in the media, even as they are refuted by organisations such as the Refugee Council of Australia and shown through concrete evidence to be false. [] In an ideological war, in which a dominant set of beliefs is imposed upon citizenry as taken-for-granted reality, it matters not that the humanitarian among us counter the ideology with truth. It matters not that those compassionate and broad-minded among us protest through all legitimate means at our disposal. For the war is hegemonic; the battles all but won.

Welcome to the basement.


In a sickening twist, the hegemonic view is now shored up by a new wave of Islamophobia in the face of the Islamic State, home-grown Islamists questing martyrdom as Iraq and Syria continue to spill across their borders hundreds of thousands of their refugees.

Against the backdrop of ongoing terror threats and the ensuing culture of fear, our collective loss of morality creates its own vacuum that demands to be filled. In the place of compassion, empathy and understanding, qualities that make us truly human, the basest of all emotions have anchored themselves in the collective heart, racial hatred and righteous national pride, born out on our city streets in verbal abuse and physical attacks. How dark it is down here.

Australia has fought its ideological war with as much vim and moral insanity as would be found in a fascist dictatorship. I'm anticipating a leaflet drop over Middle Eastern border camps, warning refugees of the consequences of seeking access to Australia.

The world looks down the stairwell and is appalled. There is talk of crimes against humanity. Yet as other western nations struggle with their own asylum seeker issues, governments and policy makers may well be standing in the stairwell looking down to us for solutions. Admiring the treads and the slow curve of the descent they may well be set to follow our lead. We may become the trend setter in a new low in asylum seeker repression, our leaders beckoning others to create their own basements. For it was always Australia's intention to see refugees corralled in border camps, kept there for the United Nations and Save the Children to deal with, for months, for years, for decades, for eternity as long as those refugees do not reach our borders. After all, so their reasoning goes, there isn't much room down in the basement.

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About the Author

Isobel Blackthorn is the author of the novel, Asylum, and the short-story collection, All Because of You (Available at

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