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Vol 36 No 1


Mark Raper SJ

Andrew Hamilton SJ

Tom Rouse SSC

Sandie Cornish

Sue Harris

Susan Connolly RSJ

Carlo Maria Martini SJ

Pauline Rae SMSM

Michael Trainor



The invisible worm:
Australian treatment of asylum seekers


IN HIS ENCYCLICALS and addresses, Pope John Paul II has progressively ac-cepted and developed the concept of sinful structures. The phrase facilitates discussion of the interlocking of sinful personal decisions and political, economic and cultural institutions. Papal thought on sinful structures, of course, has been heavily qualified, for it has been developed in argument with a position that was seen to diminish the importance of personal responsibility for sin by blaming social ills on systemic factors, particularly those associated with economic inequality.

The conceptual framework of sinful structures is illuminated by the Australian treatment of asylum seekers. In particular, the Australian experience suggests that the mechanical metaphor of structure does not do adequate justice to the ways in which evil ramifies and becomes increasingly complex in society. It does not take into account the incremental implantation of evil over time. An organic metaphor, like cancer, conveys better the ways in which evil policy extends its reach and corrupts what it touches. Augustine’s analysis of sin in the Confessions suggests this organic metaphor.

The Australian treatment of asylum seekers, too, points to distinctive ways in which evil is incorporated into structures and institutions and spreads through societies. These mechanisms also explain why, although it is essential to insist on personal responsibility for evil actions, in practice subjective responsibility for evil action is diminished. Both responsibility and the diminishment of individual imputability for evil action need to be taken into account in action for asylum seekers.

In this article, I would like to describe Australian treatment of asylum seekers as an example of the working of sinful structures, to identify the mechanisms by which evil has ramified, and finally briefly discuss the proper approach to this evil.

A Morally Evil Policy

The current Australian policy towards asylum seekers was articulated in response to the Cambodian asylum seekers who arrived by boat ten years ago. This response tapped into elements of Australian culture: the memory of the dispossession of the first Australians and consequent fear of another dispossession, the White Australia Policy, and the anxiety associated with being a tiny white nation at the edge of a vast Asian continent.

The policy towards asylum seekers was based on the claim that Australia must have absolute control over who was admitted into Australia. This control was generally exercised by requiring visitors and immigrants to hold a valid visa, applied for and obtained before arrival. Those who arrived in Australia without valid papers were to be deported or removed.

Within this framework, those who seek asylum in Australia on the grounds of persecution which they faced in their own countries are seen as a problem. Because Australia has signed the United Nations High Commission Convention on the status of Refugees, it is committed to offer protection to those found to be refugees. But successful on-shore applicants for protection undermine Australia’s absolute right to decide who is to be accepted into Australia.

This principle, that Australia has an absolute right to choose whom it admits to Australia, is morally evil. For it is unreasonable, and denies the moral obligation which any person or society has towards the needy. While it is reasonable and uncontroversial that Australia should have the right to control entry into the Australian community, it is unreasonable and unjustifiable to make that right absolute. For the rights of any individual or community are conditioned by the moral claims made by other human beings and groups.

At a personal and domestic level, it would be immoral to claim an absolute right to exclude people from one’s home. For we are morally bound to offer what assistance we reasonably can to babies left on our doorstep, to passers-by who suffered a heart-attack, or those in danger of death after an accident or assault. Because of our common humanity, the needy can make a claim on us in justice; they do not merely appeal to our charity. To exclude this claim on principle, therefore, is not merely hard-hearted; it is unjust and morally evil. This claim, moreover, is made on nations and not merely on individuals. These principles are commonplace in catholic social teaching.

This moral obligation of societies to those seeking asylum is also arguably enshrined in international customary law. It is certainly embodied in the United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees, which commits its signatories to offer protection to those who are found to be refugees. The UNHCR has also spelled out in a raft of human rights what that protection implies. These rights more or less correspond in practice to the concrete ways in which the implications of human dignity are described in church documents. For people to flourish as human beings, they must be sheltered, clothed, enjoy freedom from fear, freedom to worship, associate and be able to establish their families and live productively.

The Convention on the Status of Refugees, therefore, instantiates the moral obligation of nations to protect those who are in need of protection. In meeting their obligations, nations are protected from false claims by processes for determining who has a genuine claim for asylum.

The Working Out of an Evil Policy

When policy is built on morally evil principles, it will generate evil strategies and regulations. In Australia, the shape of these strategies was controlled by the need to limit the consequences of adherence to a Convention which limits Australia’s absolute control over immigration. The initial response was to deter people from travelling by boat to Australia and there making their claims for protection. Initially, those who arrived without a valid visa were placed in detention. They could remain there for several years while their cases were concluded. The conditions of detention became increasingly stringent as the frustration of detainees and the consequent desire to escape from their conditions met the pressure on the officers guarding them to keep them incarcerated. Policies that looked to their welfare were sacrificed in the interests of control and security.

The logic of deterrence demands that conditions be made ever more severe. For because the threat to their life and freedom makes people commit themselves to dangerous journeys and divide themselves from children and spouses, the prospect of imprisonment proved insufficient to deter. The brutality they might meet in Australia was far outweighed by the brutality with which they were familiar at home. Accordingly, in order to deter more effectively, detention centres were made increasingly uninviting and situated inhospitably, and those whose frustrations overflowed into protest were subjected to harsher penalties. Moreover, asylum seekers who are awarded refugee status have had the benefit of that decision reduced. They receive a visa for only three years, have no access to English, no government resettlement programmes, must support themselves and may not bring out wives or children. Some may never be entitled to do so. Thus, they are second class citizens, and the agony of those whose families remain under threat can be imagined. The desperate responded by sending their children alone, or bringing their whole families. This risk entailed was preferable to living in terror.

Deterrence therefore had a limited effect, and the goal of absolute control of entry into Australia proved elusive. The alternative means to secure this goal was to refuse to allow asylum seekers to land in Australia, and to push away refugee boats. In Australia it became possible to introduce this policy by the coincidence of the attempt by the Captain of the Tampa to disembark refugees in Australian territory, the heightening of xenophobia and insecurity in Australia after the terrorist attack on New York, and an imminent Federal election. Legislation was passed that excised remote Australian possessions from the Australian migration zone, and further narrowed the rights of those landing in Australia. To implement the policy, the navy was used to repel boats which tried to bring asylum seekers to Australian territory, merchant shipping was impeded from picking up refugees in Australian waters, while those who managed to land in excised territories or were taken on board Australian boats were sent to Pacific nations dependent on Australia for aid. These measures were presented as part of a campaign against people smugglers.

The Ramification of Evil

It is the nature of sin to create a twisted web of motivation and corruption, expressing itself both in increasing insensitivity to evil and to the ramification of evil into other areas of life, as Augustine demonstrated incomparably on the personal level in the Confessions. Like a cancer, sin feeds itself and metastasises, further demeaning human dignity. The evil of Australian policy towards asylum seekers is evident in the degradation of those affected by the policy.

The human reality of Government policy is best conveyed by small pictures. A wife and children in Indonesia embark on a leaky boat against the advice of their husband in Australia, with whom they cannot be reunited by government policy. The children are drowned. If the husband who has lost his children at sea goes to their funeral he will not be allowed to return to Australia. Children, held for years in detention for three years, ask, ‘Are we bad people, mum, and is that why they lock us up?’ A government department argues that a disturbed child’s welfare is adequately cared for when he is taken to hospital thrice weekly for rehydration. An asylum seeker, forbidden to work, rings up an Australian friend, and in passing reveals that he has had no food in the house. For him, among the list of anxieties imposed by Government regulation, hunger has a low priority. A Government Minister refers to a child in the water as ‘it’, and to asylum seekers sent on to Nauru as ‘cargo’. This is the human face of evil, the casual acceptance of conditions totally inimical to human flourishing.

The effects of the policy are dire. Those detained are locked into their traumatic memories and fears, with no capacity to take initiative, often fearful for the safety of their families, condemned to a half-human life. It is not surprising that their mental and spiritual suffering is reflected in protest and in self-punishing behaviour.

The human dignity of asylum seekers is diminished at every level. If they are received as refugees, they are permanently separated from the spouses and children whom they love. If they are in boats, they are repulsed by Australian boats; if they find their way on to Australian territory, they are placed in inhospitable conditions. The assault on their human dignity has become increasingly sophisticated as the logic of the policy works itself out through the strategies of deterrence and exclusion.

Australian policy not only damages asylum seekers, but also corrupts those who devise and administer the policy. You can only take responsibility for such a policy by anaesthetising your normal responses to human need, and seeing the victims of policy, not as human beings, but as objects of policy. One of the most distressing consequences of Australian policy has been the effect on idealistic young sailors forced to treat needy asylum seekers as hostile. When human response is coarsened and the human heart is hardened, the corruption extends to other areas of life and to other relationships. The effects have been sufficiently noticed in Australian beginnings as a penal colony and in other nations which have also instituted a regime of concentration camps.

Evil policy affects society in many ways, as well as individuals. It paralyses moral leadership. When we accept that the human dignity of those who make a claim on us is of no account, we shall not find it easy to support an inclusive and reconciling Australian identity in the face of popular xenophobia or prejudice. Respect for the human dignity of other minorities becomes expendable for electoral gain, and any call for compassion to the disadvantaged is seen as quixotic. Moral courage becomes unfashionable, because its grounding in respect for human dignity has become fatally eroded.

The Australian refugee policy also encourages a coarsening of public conversation about moral issues. Appeals to moral principles are dismissed as moralising; appeals to compassion as emotionalism. A brutal policy is supported by a brutal rhetoric of personal attack and sloganeering. It is difficult for those opposed to the policy not to be affected by this dismissive climate, and to avoid responding in kind. Conversation is controlled by power and not by argument.

The Australian policy also corrupts other nations. The so-called Pacific solution encourages and coerces impecunious nations to become part of Australian policy. Their own societies are then marked by the inhospitality thrust on them. When an evil policy is implemented, people commonly become blind to its evil. It is uncomfortable to recognise the extent of evil, especially when you feel helpless to oppose or change it. Custom leads to denial, to minimising of the extent of the evil, and eventually to acceptance. Acceptance is eased by associating the evil with an acceptable goal: the denial of justice to asylum seekers can be presented as the just cause of the eradication of people smugglers. The abuse of asylum seekers is then removed from discussion. This coarsening of moral judgment and of human sensitivity diminishes the culpability of those who devise and administer the policy. While any evil policy relies on human decisions at each level, the level of moral imputability is minimal when compared to the evil which the decisions inflict on its victims and on the community as a whole. The story of those who make the policy work is not the drama of evil people, but a tragedy in which good people are corrupted and diminished unknowingly by the policy which they drive.

The Principles of Malignancy

In administering refugee policy, good people have legalised and authorised brutal actions, have come to defend the mistreatment of innocent people for unreasonable purposes, and have failed to see the immorality of their policy. The mechanism, or better the principle of malignancy, which leads to such an evil growth is to be sought in the imposition of invisibility and the manipulation of language. The asylum seekers are effaced and are then made to wear masks.

An open society is one in which what is done in its name can be known by the members of the society, who can then own responsibility for it. Those who implement evil policies prefer closed societies. Because the consequences for human dignity of bad policy are so destructive, it is important that those responsible for it conceal its reality from the community which they serve. It is also important to insulate those who design and administer it from its human reality. The human faces and the tears of the asylum seekers must be made invisible. This is the logic of effacement.

This logic is notable in the treatment of asylum seekers. By removing detention centres from population centres, and by restricting access to them, particularly by reporters, the faces of asylum seekers became invisible to the wider population. Their invisibility is also safeguarded by forbidding navy personnel from public comment on their operations, and by confidentiality clauses in contracts with firms employed to deal with asylum seekers. In this way, the human reality of asylum seekers is concealed from the general population, and administrators are protected from having to see the human effects of the actions which they initiate.

Simple effacement, however, is not enough. An evil policy that diminishes people will be accepted only if it is seen as justifiable. The mechanism by which the brutal becomes accepted as necessary is the manipulation of language. Having been stripped of their human faces, asylum seekers are then made to wear masks woven of words. They wear the mask of illegality as illegal immigrants, the mask of inequity when described as queue jumpers, of barbarism when accused of throwing their babies overboard. Their Middle Eastern appearance is highlighted to make vague associations with terrorism or with racial and religious prejudices. This is the manipulation of language, for refugees are not illegal, there is in reality no queue and it is a cruel joke to identify with terrorism those who flee from it.

Overturning the Structures of Sin

What then can be done in the face of structures of sin? Pope John Paul’s analysis asserts the importance both of reforming sinful structures and of personal conversion, but gives priority to the slow processes of personal repentance and reconciliation. In the case of Australian policy towards asylum seekers this seems evident. When the cancer spreads, it must first be reduced before being cut out.

If this is the case, the first challenge is to reform language so that the priority of the human person and human dignity are again asserted. The recovery of debased language is a difficult and painstaking thing, as writers in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia discovered. In Australia, it means that the story of asylum seekers must be told truly and that words must be found to make their faces visible. The manipulative use of language must painstakingly be exposed, and the basis for a true history that encourages virtue established.

The second priority is that of public education. This means representing the faces of refugees and their stories faithfully to ordinary people in their local communities. In a developed nation, the temptation is to focus exclusively on the media and to represent the case for refugees to a large audience. While this is important, sinful structures will always work to represent the voice of the powerful and to diminish the face of those marginalised in a society. The answer is personal communication with those to whom the media are directed.

The third priority, and the condition of the other two, is to encourage personal communication. Acquaintance with asylum seekers and the kind of contact in which those who meet look each other in the eyes lead people to review their prejudices. It also provides both the motivation for struggling against the effects of sinful structures and the antidote to their effects of effacement and masking.

Communication with those who make and administer policy is also important. But it rests on the recognition that evil is done by good human beings, whose subjective guilt is reduced by the evil which they serve. They are therefore to be pitied and not to be hated. But they can be rescued from the tragedy which their lives have become only when the asylum seekers are rescued from the tragedy that the policy has made for them.

Andrew Hamilton teaches theology at the United Faculty of theology, is publisher at Jesuit Publications, and has had a long-standing concern for refugees.