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Silencing the lambs: Asylum seekers are a metaphor for our times

By Isobel Blackthorn - posted Wednesday, 24 June 2015

I'm a pre-dawn riser. Awake at four o'clock, when the world around me is still, when not even the early bird stirs. The hour renders me remote, isolated from the rest of humanity, the rest of life. And in this space my mind is sharp. No better place to dwell on other sorts of isolation.

It was in the dark hours of one winter Sunday that I began to ponder how asylum seekers held in apparent indefinite captivity in off-shore detention centres might be a metaphor for our times.

I saw asylum seekers as twenty-first century 'lambs.' Not weak, vulnerable, bleaters, but remarkable lambs with the spirit and savvy to get out of whatever hellhole they've escaped from. Lambs then subjected to the live-human import/export trade of people smugglers. Lambs eventually dumped on a shore, at the mercy of local law.


Innocent lambs (mostly), terrified, traumatised, needy.

The lamb is an ancient symbol of a victim to be sacrificed to assure the salvation of someone else. Although I'm sure this is not quite the motive behind the persecution of the Rohingya or the Kurds or any number of ethnicities singled out and blamed for all manner of issues, or ostracised for their faith. For I do not believe that salvation is what the perpetrators of such persecutions have in their hearts and minds. More likely some sort of hatred, hatred fuelled by fear and propaganda. Hatred cultivated or harnessed by those who like to profit from war (see Mary Kaldor's New and Old Wars

My asylum seeker lambs may have thought that they had escaped from the ultimate fate of the scapegoat: death. Only to find when they arrive on a new shore, that their fate is one of further persecution, including various forms of overt and covert torture, abuses of all kinds, and rape, in euphemistically labelled detention centres that many are now naming concentration camps. Reports are so frequent, allegations so dire, it's hard not to be affected.

In seeking asylum my asylum seeker lamb becomes a sort of universal scapegoat, as if there for the punishing of sins she took no part in, sins of which she was the very victim.

I find the metaphor of the sacrificial lamb collapses with regard to asylum seekers in the face of Christian symbology, for my asylum seekers are not the lambs of God, they are not there, as Jesus Christ was there, to take away our sins and make the world a better place. They are a pre-Christian sacrifice, just as the Jews were a pre-Christian sacrifice to the vengeful, exclusive, supremacist 'god' of the Nazis.

My asylum seeker lambs are held in extreme isolation. The camps are located in far-flung regions, or off shore on tiny islands far away, almost entirely out of reach of the rest of us. The camps are remote in another sense too: They are run at the behest of government by corporations (Transfield, G4S, Serco), who go on to outsource whatever services the corporation can't provide. It's a world of contractors and sub-contractors and dubious accountability. (see Antony Loewenstein's Profits of Doom)


Perhaps in this sense, asylum seekers are a metaphor for the isolation, the remoteness, of governance (whether Liberal or Labor) in the twenty-first century.

Stated boldly, in a fashion we are all lambs. Perhaps in some way we are all metaphorically languishing in captivity on a remote island of scarcity far from the land of plenty. Some of us might be homeless, or required to live in overcrowded shacks and share unsanitary facilities. Others may be doomed to a marginal existence, scrambling for whatever charity is thrown their way. A lot of us fight off depression and thoughts of suicide. And daily we may suffer the ignominy of our unheeded requests for justice at local, state and national levels, while we eke out a living in the face of crippling personal debt. We watch as our health, education and social services shrivel, our rights to privacy are compromised, and our demands for accountability brushed aside. And, perhaps now, anyone who has the audacity to act against the national interest can be thrown out and barred from re-entry, (although I wouldn't endorse anyone who seeks to take up arms to fight for any fundamentalist cause). It seems to me that neoliberalism and the rise of the superrich is reducing ordinary nation states to little more than vast, apparently fenceless, detention centres in which citizens are endlessly surveilled, and whistleblowers and journalists are gagged.

The lambs are silenced.

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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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