The Price Of Australia's War On Asylum

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So often, since the Tampa, we’ve asked, what next? What will the next asylum outrage be that the Australian government finds it necessary to justify?

Last week, Hamid Kehazaei’s death from septicaemia after a foot infection became the latest answer. Another sacrifice to the idols of “border protection” and “preventing deaths at sea”.

With the same contempt for truth with which he intones those two deadly phrases, Morrison has described as “outstanding” the medical arrangements on Manus that led to Hamid’s death.

The public can judge for itself the plausibility of Morrison’s description, noting that his record for accuracy is already deeply compromised: following Reza Berati’s murder in February, Morrison claimed, falsely, that asylum seekers were not attacked within the confines of the barbed wire compound.

Hamid fled Iran only to become a casualty of a savage and gratuitous war – Australia’s war on asylum. The decisions that led directly to his death – the appalling conditions on Manus, a reported delay in treatment, the very fact that any refugee is sent offshore at all – are the most recent of the raids in this war: raids on common decency, reason, hope, and the bodies and souls of refugees themselves.

In the recent past, we’ve learned of an epidemic of suicide attempts on Christmas Island; 157 people being made the objects of state piracy on the high seas; a 16 year-old severely slashing his arms when told he was being sent back to Nauru; and a Hazara asylum seeker forcibly deported to the sectarian hell of Afghanistan, where we can only imagine the fate awaiting him.

Governments have made sure we never witness the horrors of its war on asylum directly, but we hear of them so often they’ve become normal.

One victim of the war, though, goes easily unnoticed: Australian society. This country is the walking wounded of the government’s campaigns against refugees. The poison of Australia’s asylum policy is slowly seeping through the veins and arteries of this society, just as it made its way through Hamid’s.

Australians aren’t, of course, subject to the same kinds of war-crimes as asylum seekers. We’re not risking death on the murderous and disease-ridden nightmares of Nauru or Manus, where untreated sewage covers the ground. We’re not stitching our own lips together. We’re not being tortured by the corrosive despair of bridging visas, or driven to hunger-strike or to set ourselves on fire by the futility and hopelessness of our situation.

We’re spared all this, but still, our society is collateral damage of the war on asylum.

We bear the scars in the racist attacks that are on the rise –  no wonder, when all we hear from federal politicians is that we have to stop dark-skinned refugees from getting here, whatever the price.

And we bear them in the budget attacks on ordinary people that the government has been emboldened to make.

In brutalizing refugees, governments have established the principle that no matter how weak and in need of help someone is, the state owes them precisely nothing.

And, at the same time as it tries to remove one social protection after another, it will use taxpayers’ money, that should be being spent on schools and hospitals, to write cheques to the companies who run the sickening detention camps like the one where Hamid spent this last year.

All the while, it will try to distract us from these acts with decoy catchwords like “border protection”, “terrorism” and “economic migrants”.

Can people do anything about this? In a war, we have to fight. It’s not enough to just express outrage. There’s only one real option for people who care about what their government is doing to refugees: help build a social movement that can force refugee rights to the centre of the national agenda, and not back down until those rights are honoured.

What that means is not just acting oneself; it means continually encouraging new people to act as well, so that the voices calling for justice for refugees grow so loud and insistent that they’re impossible to ignore.

If that doesn’t happen, one thing is clear: slowly but surely, complacency will poison this society, just as Hamid’s blood was poisoned.

Without a real movement for refugees, we will allow our society to become more violent, unfair and unliveable, just as it already is for the refugee women on Nauru who asked to terminate their pregnancies because they’d rather lose an unborn child than condemn it to the life of affliction and loss that they themselves are living.

Since Reza Berati’s death, the cracks in the government’s facade have been getting wider. Senior figures of the detention regime like Peter Young are defecting.

Religious leaders are getting arrested for sit-ins in politicians’ offices. Doctors, union members, grandmothers, Christians, and ordinary people in places like Sutherland, Bennelong, Balmain, or the Blue Mountains are all starting to lead the fight against Abbott, Morrison and all the corrupted apparatchiks of expediency and Real Politik in Federal Parliament, whichever major party they’re in.

With these developments, perhaps, the heavy and lumbering wheels of change are starting to inch forward. Whether they speed up or slow down depends on what sort of movement Australian civil society can build.

How many more Hamids will needlessly be allowed to die is, quite simply, up to the Australian public. The scandal of history is that it’s ordinary people who make change happen when they decide that things cannot continue as they are.

If we don’t make that decision now, it's certain that Hamid won't be the last casualty of the wanton futility of this war.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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