Two types of refugees and asylum seekers: The worthy and the unworthy

Over the past decade, a disturbing distinction has taken root, in our public discourse, between two categories of refugees and asylum seekers. There are worthy and there are the unworthy. The worthy include those who wait patiently and politely in refugee camps for their turn in legendary queues, and the unworthy are those who have the temerity to actively seek refuge, embarking on perilous journeys in search of new lives.

The goodies move us, and the unworthy irritate, or anger us. They turn up on our doorsteps in their desperation and force us to make hard decisions. They are seen as prey to the base motives of people smugglers. They put their own children at risk when undertaking dangerous sea voyages, and need to be saved from themselves.

This distinction was highlighted in November last year, when The Minister for Immigration, Peter Dutton, was visibly moved by the plight of Syrian refugees on his tour of Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. With a population of 80,000 the camp is one of the world’s largest. He met entire families stripped of livelihood and hope. Their plight appears to have overwhelmed the minister, perhaps even surprised him. He reaffirmed Australia’s intake of 12,000 Syrian refugees and, in a welcome move, indicated we may take more.

At the same time, he reaffirmed Australia’s hardline stance on asylum seekers detained or stranded on Nauru and Manus Island. This hardline extended to detainees on Christmas Island, and camps on the Australian mainland. And to the estimated 30,000 asylum seekers out in the community on various forms of bridging visa, yet to have their fate determined. Stuck in a never-ending limbo.

All were tarred with same brush. Asylum Seekers in the unworthy category are in effect perceived as criminals. To understand how this attitude has evolved we need to revisit recent history. When the Norwegian freighter the Tampa was anchored off Christmas Island in August 2001, with 438 rescued asylum seekers on board, the Prime Minister ordered the Special Australian Forces, to board the boat. As David Marr and Marion Wilkinson write in their book, Dark Victory.

Once the SAS was on board, Canberra would decree anything to do with the Tampa involved ‘operational security’ and declare a ‘no fly zone’ around the ship. No one on board was to be allowed ashore, and civilians on the island – especially doctors, lawyers, and journalists – were not to be allowed out to the ship. No cameraman would get close enough to the Tampa to put a human face on this story. The icon of the scandal was to be a red hulled ship on a blue sea, photographed through heat haze by a very long lens.’

We saw no individual faces. We heard no specific voices. We did not know, for instance, that the Hazaras, the major group among the rescued, had fled the horrors of the Taliban. Instead we received images of a horde of people crammed on the deck of a steel freighter. A horde is a threat. A horde is easily demonised. Asylum seekers coming by boat have, over the years, been characterised as queue jumpers, illegals, and even as people prepared to hurl their children overboard, a false accusation. Similarly, asylum seekers in detention, behind the wire, can also appear as a horde of desperate people.

The concept of compartmentalisation may shed light on the issue. Defined as a defence mechanism that people use to avoid the discomfort and anxiety caused by having conflicting cognitions, emotions and beliefs, compartmentalisation allows contradictory ideas and values to co-exist. This process is made easier if one keeps a distance from the source of discomfort. To my knowledge, no Australian Minister of Immigration has engaged directly with asylum seekers held in detention, or with those stranded in the community.

If Minister Dutton would have toured the Manus Island detention facilities, he would have met people with unique stories, skills and a passionate desire to become Australian citizens. If he sat with them, face-to-face, he would encounter people such as Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish-Iranian journalist who stood up for human rights in his country of origin, and fled in fear of his safety, only to end up in Manus Island, where he has been held since mid 2013.

If he had visited the centre before February 2014, he may have met Boochani’s countryman, 24-year-old Reza Barati who by all accounts was a gentle and kind man, who aspired to study architecture in Australia. Instead he was murdered. If he had sat with asylum seekers on Nauru he may have heard first hand from women who have been sexually abused, and he may have been moved by the plight of children every bit as distressed as those he met in Jordan.

Indefinite detention, and indefinite limbo, kills the spirit, and it engenders a self-fulfilling process. Everyone has a breaking point. People are on edge. They are being drive mad and in some cases to suicide. Finally they may join in riots, or lash out at guards and fellow detainees. In the public mind such outbreaks reinforce the perception that asylum seekers are dangerous.

Seeking asylum is not a crime. It is a human right, recognised as such by refugee conventions to which Australia is a signatory. We do not need conventions to make the point. People have actively sought refuge for millennia. Humans have always been on the move, in flight from war, atrocity, tyranny and persecution. It is an integral part of human history.

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