How Many Must Die For Us To Show Compassion?


The Australian Government’s administrator on Christmas Island, Jon Stanhope, has made a plea to politicians and commentators to stop de-humanising asylum seekers.

Speaking after this week’s sinking of another asylum seeker boat, Stanhope, the former chief minister of the ACT, said that the Australian political debate on refugees needed to show more humanity and understanding.

“I sometimes wish that perhaps some of the debate and some of the commentary and some of the discourse would perhaps look at asylum seekers not as a bulk, anonymous grouping of individuals but as individual human beings that have hopes and aspirations and dreams and feel the same pain and suffer the same grief as each of us,” he told ABC Radio on Wednesday.

The Government has long been accused of de-humanisation of asylum seekers in many different ways. Language is one. Department of Immigration terminology, regularly adopted by Government ministers, labels them as IMAs (Irregular Maritime Arrivals) and, more broadly, politicians use controversial terms such as “illegals” and “queue-jumpers” to describe them.

Government bans on media access to detention centres and warnings to asylum seekers not to speak to the media ensure they are presented to the public as an anonymous group of foreigners.

Stanhope said a good way for government to start the humanising process would be to name publicly those who died at sea.

“We have a one-year old baby in our mortuary, the child of an asylum seeker family,” Stanhope said. “And I wish we named [them]. That's one of the things I've sought to pursue. We don't name the deceased or we don't name them publicly. I wish we did.”

“I wish we humanised them. I wish we gave them that respect in death, that we were prepared to name those that die. I think it would be nice if we did that.”

Stanhope said that the capacity of the morgue on Christmas Island, home to one of Australia’s biggest detention centres, had recently been expanded to cope with the increasing number of asylum-seeker deaths at sea. “We now have mortuary facilities that will cater for 50 bodies. That's a statement in itself. Within the last year we have increased our mortuary capacity from about five to about 50,” he said.

According to Australian Border Protection and Customs officials, four bodies were recovered and 144 people rescued from the latest capsized vessel, which was believed to be carrying approximately 150 passengers and crew.

Media reports said two navy ships were escorting the boat when it capsized in heavy seas at 7pm on Tuesday. The asylum seekers had put out a distress call earlier in the day. Bad weather and heavy seas prevented navy personnel from being able to safely board the vessel or take passengers off. The dead baby boy was on another boat that capsized at the weekend. At least another eight people were reported to have died.

Stanhope said there were between 700-800 asylum seekers arriving every week. He said about 20 boats had arrived in the past two weeks.

“This is the dry [season]but it hasn't stopped raining,” he said. “The seas continue to come up. I must say that many of us, as we looked out to sea today and yesterday, were very conscious of the perils that those on the sea on days like today would be facing. I think at one level, tragically, some of us weren't particularly surprised that another boat had capsized.”

The so-called deterrence policies adopted by the Government have done little to stop the flow of asylum seekers, who continue to flee persecution from countries such as Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Iran in the hope of finding a safe haven in Australia.

A Tamil refugee now living in Melbourne, Kumara Devendrar, survived torture in Sri Lanka and a frightening 19-day boat trip from India. He is now a permanent resident, and recently told SBS news that:

“After I was tied to a pole like a chicken and was kicked and beaten, I didn’t think about anything but escaping with my life. A leaky boat will always be a better option than torture.”

Refugee advocates Lizzie O’Shea and Jessie Taylor echoed this sentiment on the human rights’ website, Right Now. “The boats will never stop as long as their passengers are still fleeing persecution and there is no other safe alternative available for re-settlement,” they wrote.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.