Friday Filing: The Normalisation of ‘No’ to Asylum Seekers

There was a wonderful story in this morning’s news feed that should have further and wider circulation, especially since it highlights significant developments in Australia’s scientific and technical expertise along with a burgeoning interest in matters spatial. The development of small, easily deployable satellites have the potential to contribute to any number of fields of endeavour, and that they are locally grown is an added bonus that also has potential to contribute to foreign trade. The story can be found on the ABC News website by click here. I encourage you to go and read it, because it is a truly good news story.

The story, however, has been percolating in my mind all day – partly, I suspect, because of the achievement that is being recognised in the story – but there was something else that has been on the very edge of my mind without making itself completely known. It wasn’t until much later in the day, when I wasn’t really looking for the identity of that burning something, that it suddenly clicked and popped front and centre into my consciousness – where it remains stuck in a most disturbing way that is worthy of being addressed in the public sphere.

The source of my disquiet has nothing to do with the technology, or the developments that the technology represents. Rather it has everything to do with the comments attributed to the Minister for Defence Industry, Christopher Pyne, who commented “the data collected from the satellites could assist military spy planes with their work, and help detect asylum seeker boats.” All of which is true, of course, and is just one among many of the potential uses for the new technology. That it should be the one that is on the mind of a member of the current Government is a concern.

Of greater concern to my way of thinking, however, is that there has been little or no challenge to the underlying presumption of the Minister’s statement, i.e. that asylum seekers, and their boats, are clearly seen as being an issue of national defence worthy of the deployment of any and all technologies at the Government’s disposal to eliminate. A quick search of commentary on the internet does not reveal anything, and the lack of anything tends to suggest, to me at least, that there is an increasing ‘normalisation’ of Australia’s asylum seeker ‘problem’ as being something that requires protection, defence and other matters of security rather than the humanitarian issue that it clearly is.

For the sake of clarity, I make the following observations:

  • Seeking asylum is not a criminal offence. I am yet to be advised by anyone who claims otherwise just exactly which provision of which Australian law is violated by those seeking asylum from Australia;
  • Asylum seekers are not ‘illegals’. No human being can ever be considered legal or illegal, only actions are legal or illegal;
  • Australia has an absolute obligation to assist those claiming asylum in a humane and timely manner. This obligation is, first and foremost, a moral one before it is a legal one, but it is most certainly a legal obligation;
  • Failing to fulfill our obligations, either moral or legal, is doing irreparable harm to Australia’s international reputation. The only place it seems to be a positive is with countries and individuals among whom Australia should be wary of belonging;
  • The only true of fixing the asylum seeker ‘problem’ requires not only attending to the immediate issues of those human beings are seeking our assistance in a timely and humane manner, but also contributing to the root causes of those underlying issues that causes people to flee their homes and seek safe haven elsewhere. Of course, that would require the commitment of enormous resources, both financial and diplomatic, to that ongoing cause.

I can’t help but think that members of the current Federal Government (and the current Federal Opposition as well, unfortunately) will be quietly celebrating that this latest announcement has caused no outrage, no upset, because it means they have succeeded in ‘normalising’ the approach to asylum seekers they have been working to achieve for so long, to see asylum seekers painted as a threat that Australia had to be protected against, rather than a humanitarian crisis that Australia must play a part in solving. It is so much easier, if not cheaper, for the asylum seekers to be portrayed as a source of fear than as human beings – yes, human beings! – in need of assistance from other human beings, from us.

To fail to render assistance to other human beings in need, and we have to face the reality that the overwhelming majority of those who seek asylum from Australia are, contrary to the occasional statement from the Australian Government minister responsible, found to be genuine in their claims, is abrogate our moral and legal responsibilities. Our legal responsibilities may come back to haunt us one day (if they haven’t already), but our moral obligations will most definitely come home to roost at some point, when our consciences – individually and collectively – are called to account in one way or another. One can only hope we never find ourselves in a similar position to those brothers and sisters of ours whom we ignore and disparage…because it’s ‘easier’ than offering them our assistance.

I almost missed the point in the Minister’s seemingly innocuous comments about Australian-developed satellite technology. I almost missed the oblique reference to the existential threat to the Australian way of life that is the ‘problem’ of asylum seekers. I almost let myself surrender to the normalisation of this humanitarian issue as something that I needed my government to protect me from. I almost let it all go through to the keeper without a second thought, with challenge, without comment.

But I didn’t.