Beyond asylum seeker funerals


The Advertiser, Agony of a family lostThe two Sydney funerals for the asylum seekers who died trying to reach Christmas Island was heartrending. That some of their relatives were able to gather to mourn them was some small consolation for them. From ancient times to today so many other asylum seekers have died and have lain unburied.

Ordinarily the best response to such grief would be one of silent compassion. But even in death asylum seekers open a faultline in Australian culture and society. Scott Morrison and Tony Abbott wondered aloud at the expense of bringing people from Christmas Island to an Australian funeral. They later backed down on the timing – but not the substance – of their comments.

Psychologists who work closely with asylum seekers were appalled that bereaved children should be returned to Christmas Island. They again emphasised the harm done by detention.

It would be indecent in a time of grief to speculate about what individual politicians might have meant by what they said. But the larger considerations that affect asylum seekers' lives deserve comment. Three points stand out.

First, despite all the evidence of how destructive life in detention is for children, and despite the decision of the Howard Government not to detain children, large numbers of children remain incarcerated. That is shameful. No Australian should be able to contemplate with equanimity the conscription of children, the enslavement of children, the detaining of children and other forms of child abuse.

Second, it is evident that the system of mandatory detention for adults as well as for children is unreasonable. Professor Pat McGorry's famous description of detention centres as factories for manufacturing mental illness was modest and exact.

Yet detention centres, particularly those set in remote parts of Australia with a harsh climate which are known to be most destructive, have multiplied. They come at a huge cost. Detention is a swelling economic folly. If money is an issue, it would be far more rational economically, as well as more humane, to allow asylum seekers to live in the community while their cases are being processed.

Third, the fact that arrangements involving such barbarity and such economic nonsense continue without public outcry suggests that there is strong political opposition to change. That politicians cannot agree on better arrangements suggests that the resistance to change is located deeply in Australian society.

A recent conversation with a woman whose work had taken her to Christmas Island confirmed thse impressions. She struck me as a decent person. On Christmas Island she had warmed to many of the asylum seekers whom she met. But she returned from the island even more convinced that they should not be admitted into Australia.

Her arguments were that Australia already had too many people, that asylum seekers would overrun the nation, that Australia was broke and could not afford to support them, and that, once admitted, even asylum seekers found not to be refugees would never leave.

She half-apologised for her views, perhaps recognising that they stood in some tension with her habitual generosity of spirit. But she continued to argue firmly against making any concessions to children or to adults.

The most thought-provoking aspect of this conversation was to recognise that even personal contact with asylum seekers and with incarcerated children does not necessarily soften people's views. Even seeing the faces of distressed people and hearing their stories could not shake the power over the imagination exerted by the vision of a threatened, overpopulated and bankrupt nation.

It is easy to see why politicians who wish to move to a more rational and humane policy should find it so difficult, and why those who wish to further mire the murky waters should find encouragement.

If we are concerned at the way Australia treats asylum seekers, this conversation suggests that we must focus on what matters. The funerals of the asylum seekers should be the starting place, and the faces and stories of those who died and who grieve. Their humanity is salient to us.

It is also important to keep meeting arguments such as those proposed by the woman against treating asylum seekers humanely. They may be weak arguments, but they continue to attract adherents.

But the central challenge is to change the way Australians imagine asylum seekers as an obstacle to our comfort and to our wellbeing. As long as our imagination remains untouched, there will be little outrage at the suffering of children or adults. People will avert their eyes, wishing all this was not necessary, but prepared to allow others to pay the price for our comfort.

To change the public imagination is a long task, but it begins by personal conversion. There is no better place to begin than in contemplation of lonely funerals far from home. 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor of Eureka Street

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Tony Abbott, Scott Morrison, asylum seekers, funerals, christmas island



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Existing comments

Andrew, Please God your voice will be heard far and wide. Yes we do appear resistant to change, but perhaps what we need is a Government which will just storm ahead and "just do it!" That is take up your second point and "process" ( such an inhumane word) those seeking safety in our land in local communities. I have listened to many arguments against this but we are a BIG country ,a GENEROUS country, and while we might buck a bit to start with I am pretty sure we will come to our (common) senses and welcome these weary hope seekers. IF WE ARE NOT ABLE TO FIND SUCH GENEROSITY FOR ALL WE MUST At LEAST LET THE CHILDREN COME! I challenge any family to look at their children, reverse the situation and still say "keep them locked up and out of our country.' Simplistic? Maybe.Easy? Certainly not. But we can do it if we have the will. I was saddened by the "content" of what Scott Morrison and Tony Abbott said in response to the relatives being brought to bury their dead. I had thought better of Tony Abbott at least. Maybe to make amends he can now fight to implement the Howard Government policy and free the children

Anna C | 17 February 2011  

It is the people smugglers that should be targeted.

Trent | 17 February 2011  

Thanks Andrew, this is a terrible dilemma for us all. Asylum seekers have the right to a good life which most of us in Australia experience. The political football that is asylum detention centres,needs to be booted out of the park. It's time that we started showing some genuine compassion, starting with the child in the media storm of the last few days.

peter Igoe-Taylor | 17 February 2011  

Thank you Andy for opening our minds to our own perhaps unconscious prejudices. We all in- advertently betray these from time to time in various ways.Hopefully your words will inspire us to look a little more closely at the messages and opinions we let slip. Hopefully we can more overtly project the positive images we aspire to if we make a conscious effort and influence others to take a more generous perspective of our brothers and sisters, recognising we are all on this puzzling planet together.

Anne | 17 February 2011  

Where are all the people responsible for all the death and tragedy? People trying to sell Australia as a “soft spot” and people trying to sell the dangerous boat arrival option as an easy way to enter Australia are directly responsible. I am sure many people are of good will and do not understand the danger of crossing the sea in rickety and disposable boats. The Government has to stop the trade in tragedy and take far stronger action against people smuggling industry.

Beat Odermatt | 17 February 2011  

Even in my own community of friends I cannot believe the prejudice towards asylum seekers.

For some reason we have developed an attitude of what is best for "me" without any rational consideration of the other.

The distress of individuals at those funerals was profound, as was the distress of mothers in East timor passing their babies through razor wire to safety,and we still say "No"

We have been hoodwinked by conservative politics on both ends of the spectrum and I find it impossible to understand.

GAJ | 17 February 2011  

Well said, Andrew. And sending little orphaned children back to places like Auschwitz,Dachau, Belsen, or the Christmas Island Concentration Camp, when they could be with relatives instead, is unconscionable. These are not the actions of a Christian community.

Peter Downie | 17 February 2011  

Is it fair to separate children from their parents? If we allow chuldren, then we must allow parents to be with their children. It is an ethical dilemma. As one who is working toward family reunion for several tragic cases, I am appalled that the Department will not allow these family members urgent access to their families in Australia, even in cases of terminal illness and extreme suffering. The beaurocracy and red tape get so distressingly difficult to deal with, while the media and public attention is focussed on the plight of the boat people. I agree with Trent. Stop the people smugglers, who are making a fortune on preying on these people, and give true asylum seekers more easy access to legal entrance to our country.

Monica McKenzie | 17 February 2011  

I think there is a fundermental flaw in your analysis and that is that you lump legal and illegal asylum seekers into the one group and yet the vast magority of Australians who themselves have asylum seeker or immigrant backgrounds have no problem with the majority of people who come after long periods of processing in refugee camps around the world . What gets questioned is why the people with enough money to jump the queue should get priority .

The South Sudanese without the money wait in Egypt while these people buy there way in .lets have a discussion about the total picture not just the part on TV .

john crew | 17 February 2011  

Thank you Andrew for your central challenge - "to change the way Australians imagine asylum seekers..."

Let's stay with imagination. How do Australians imagine the average German citizen coped with the enormity of persecution, internment and killing of their fellow Germans just for being Jewish? I imagine two methods of coping - firstly, redefinition of Jewish citizens as aliens; secondly, the cultured urbanity with which the public servants who sought to justify their "removal" explained the necessity of the process. They did not rant like Hitler or bully like the street thugs. They defended their actions with cool calm argument. ... Sound familiar?

Andrew's example of the woman who "warmed to many" of the refugees she encountered on Christmas Island, yet returned with a firm conviction that we should not accept them into our country nor treat them more humanely than the present practice of internment also provides opportunity for imagining.

I imagine that, even though she warmed to many, she still saw the refugees as aliens, not part of us and never able to be part of us.

In this shrunken world and expanded Australia, how can many of us still regard anybody from any other nation as alien?

Ian Fraser | 17 February 2011  

Open Letter to the Prime Minister of Australia.

Dear Prime Minister,

Psychologists and psychiatrists warn of the psychological harm of returning
to Christmas Island the children of the asylum seekers who attended the
Sydney funerals of their family members.

I ask you to assure me that these children will not be returned to Christmas
Island and that they will instead be released into community care.

This is one of those issues where politics takes a backward step and human
decency and compassion come to the fore. If a Australian government cannot
resolve such a clearcut issue then that issue will haunt us for years to come and
will provide a clear measure of the moral fabric of this government.


John Edwards

John Edwards | 17 February 2011  

The comments of Morrison and Abbott on the day of the funeral were very revealing, both about themselves and about their assessment that this was what Australians wanted to hear. But it was tragic that our Minister for Immigration wasn't willing to bend just slightly for the orphaned child. Twenty years ago, we could not have imagined that Australia would come to this.

Our political leaders are guilty of lack of imagination, lack of political will, lack of genuine leadership. We must do better than this! Surely we are not so morally bankrupt and emotionally crippled that we can't find a way to respond better than this.

The level of discussion on the whole subject of refugees and asylum seekers has been very disappointing, both from the media and from politicians. Thank you, Andy, for your comments, wise and helpful as always. I just wish we could cut through this blindness and deep-seated prejudice to reveal the people who are suffering as a result of our short-sighted policies.

Jo | 17 February 2011  

While I'm completely supportive of Andrew's remarks, I disagree that the issue of asylum detention arrangements in Australia "..continue without outcry which suggets that there is strong political opposition to change." Rather, the outcry that there is is not sufficiently strident nor constant nor rising in clamour.More passion is needed.

Why aren't our church, community and other leaders publicly challenging all political parties to debate this critical matter? Would cardinal Pell, for example, be sufficiently moved to personally challenge our political leadership (and opposition)to change course?

Presently, we are all mesmerised by seeing the lockstep unison that joins our political leaders at graveside farewells for the troops...bravery demands such acknowledgment but don't let's see the soldiers' hope for change also buried with them.

I am drawn to Andrew's final paragraph:

"To change the public imagination is a long task, but it begins by personal conversion. There is no better place to begin than in contemplation of lonely funerals far from home."

For me, it's the funerals of the dead Diggers at home...those who died in Afghanisatan... that should be the tolling bell...reminding us all these brave men died defending the rights of a helpless people confronted by a cruel and merciless enemy bent on enslavement...such people who are driven to become asylum seekers.

Brian Haill - Melbourne | 17 February 2011  

If nothing else, Hamilton's article confirms that the only free press lies in the digital pages of Eureka Street and (also) New Matilda. The Coalition, aided and abetted by News Corp, will always target the vulnerable, African refugees, asylum seekers, lost children and non-white (remember Menzies' 75% white that followed Caldwell's shameful White Australia Policy?). While Fraser had briefly returned the Australia of the 70s to sanity (viz a viz Vietnamese refugees etc.), the Coalition under Abbott/Morrison is returning us to the bad old days of xenophobia (clearly supported by the majority of Australians judging by the latest poll).

The criterion upon which the Coalition based its asylum seekers intake is dangerously similar to the Nuremberg Laws of the 30s. Australia, please wake up!

Alex Njoo | 17 February 2011  

The arguments for compassion and generosity of spirit are very well put. In fact, I sense that this is a very important article in terms of pinpointing a key moral crossroad in our history (well...another one...there have been a succession of them in relation to refugees, haven't there).

The Christmas Island visitor was an effective means of illustrating entrenched attitudes in the face of reality and unfortunately some politicians hone in on and play to this sort of thinking.
The amount of money the government puts into keeping public servants on CI is huge -- fares for school children, leave fares, endless subsidies of all kinds etc. Good to see this government found compassion fares BUT you are so right linking this with the profound national shame of incarcerating children.
Thanks Andrew.

Jane M | 17 February 2011  

We need to find a way to show that those who do not look like us or speak like us are not less human. Perhaps some paintings of a dark, swarthy, Arabic Jesus would help.

Gail Poynter | 17 February 2011  

Please eschew for once the pious platitudes and situation ethics and give us your real solution. Either we let in everybody and anybody who wants to come, no matter how they get here, or we don't. If we don't, then we must put up some barriers, some constraints. Some would call them laws.

What then do you suggest we do - in real, actual, practical as well as humanitarian terms, with those who ignore these barriers and constraints, that is who break these laws?

John Sabine | 17 February 2011  

A close friend and I were discussing your article and my attention was drawn to the fact that there is a dearth of statement from our Christian Religious Leaders.

It would be reassuring to know if any statements were indeed made.

Vernon V Yen | 17 February 2011  

John Crew, You use the word "illegal". Many people, including leading politicians, continue to use this word inaccurately. People who arrive by boat, or plan, with or without a visa, and then seek asylum, are not doing anything illegal. Under international and Australian law an asylum seeker has a right to seek asylum. There are some people who are in Australia illegally, and they are those who overstay their visas, without seeking asylum. They are just staying on hoping to get away with it. Many of them are from Britain.

Janet | 17 February 2011  

It can be very simple. Anybody using the services of people smuggler will have the application rejected. If all potential “refugees” know that using the dangerous path of illegal sea entry is not an option to enter Australia, the dangerous trade will stop. Even if countries like Australia take all the people wishing to come from countries like Afghanistan, it will not stop the massive corruption and hatred within their countries. Countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore etc. have shown that every country has an option to improve its destiny.

The sad story is that we have in Australia people trying to pretend to be “caring” encouraging the dangerous path across treacherous seas and then beat their chests because these people die. I think it is hypocrisy of the worst kind and in this case a number of church groups are as guilty as the people smugglers

Beat Odermatt | 17 February 2011  

The problem is that no one has come up with a compassionate way to treat refugees which does not encourage boat people and (as Andrew points out) the Australian public has shown an unwillingness to simply open the doors. What is the right balance? I am not sure that there is an answer but cruelty to the vulnerable is certainly not acceptable.

Peter Anderson | 17 February 2011  

Irrelevant to this article: There is an increase in asylum seekers worldwide and there are larger issues to tackle. There are refugee centres offshore where people can apply. People smuggling is illegal. Relevant to this article: Do we understand for a moment why this topic sends Australia into a frenzy? Why we even HAVE a debate about if and when a 9 year old should be locked up, even after having been made an orphan, when he has family who want him? Crucial to understand: When did we become so afraid of others? Was it 9/11? Was it Howard, US TV? Lack of leadership? Because Australians were once proud of their bravery, openness, and lack of cynicism. We were the end of the world, and we knew it. We came from convicts, settlers and refugees. We built a country with values we were proud of. Now we run around screaming "the sky is falling" every time someone who is no a UK overstayed comes here. And for the record, asylum seekers do not take places off the Sudanese, Kevin Andrews stopped them coming. Check the arrivals data at It is very clear.

Naomi A | 17 February 2011  

I think we need to ask ourselves "what is our point of difference" as an humane society with regard to our reception and processing of those people who survive the horror trip. Is not their humanity as valid as ours? And yes, those who wait in line in 'legitimate' refugee retention centres - how do we ensure their hearing for a just outcome? Perhaps for every person/family who arrives 'illegally' and to whom we grant asylum, we grant asylum to one person/family who 'plays by the rules'? It boggles my mind to read of people of any age, who have spent almost their entire lives in these 'holding camps' because of the miss-use of power and authority namely egocentricity, including theology, . The need for 'personal conversion' seems to be a universal one - then people wouldn't need to flee to foreigners for any reason.

hilary | 17 February 2011  

Andrew, Please eschew for once the pious platitudes and situation ethics and give us your real solution. Either we let in everybody and anybody who wants to come, no matter how they get here, or we don't. If we don't, then we must put up some barriers, some constraints. Some would call them laws. What then do you suggest we do - in real, actual, practical as well as humanitarian terms, with those who ignore these barriers and constraints, that is who break these laws?

John Sabine | 17 February 2011  

Yes, of course, Andrew's article is, as always, outstanding and real. We have been subjected so much to the propaganda about 'illegals', human traffickers, SIEVs, etc, that we lose sight of the fact that these are people just as we are, and the issues are human issues. Regardless of the collective efforts to manage, the world produces many more refugees at any time than we are ever able to handle. Ironically, we can manage international flow of capital, but people need to be stamped, authorised, identified, controlled, detained, or deported. Detention centres, much like concentration camps, are places of suffering where people pick up mental heath problems. In Europe, movements are easier and refugee and asylums seekers arrive in much greater numbers than here in Australia. Yet, Europeans try to cope. Australia is a peaceful and opulent country, despite the problems that we think we face; we could and should contribute more towards resolving the refugee problems. We don't because of our insecurity and selfishness. It does not need to be this way. Perhaps those in the silent minority ought to express their feelings and show that care and compassion are not dead.

Eveline Goy | 17 February 2011  

Andrew I think there is a fundamental flaw in your analysis and that is that you lump legal and illegal asylum seekers into the one group and yet the vast majority of Australians who themselves have asylum seeker or immigrant backgrounds have no problem with the majority of people who come after long periods of processing in refugee camps around the world . What gets questioned is why the people with enough money to jump the queue should get priority . The South Sudanese without the money wait in Egypt while these people buy there way in .lets have a discussion about the total picture not just the part on TV . John

john crew | 17 February 2011  

Magnanimous article. Thanks. Those among us who vote for the Liberal Party had better convince Tony Abbott. His: 'WE WILL STOP THE BOATS' is far from helpfull.

Joyce | 17 February 2011  

We only need to go back a few hundred years to discover that Australia’s population was largely fashioned with unwanted convicts from Britain.

Asylum seekers are people too – just like the people who first settled our country.
Ian Fraser is right to say that we need to change the way we think about refugees.
I think the problem is that we are so very comfortable in our culture that we just can’t imagine what it is like to be in their shoes, and what’s more – it seems we don’t want to know. The attitude of our politicians is disgraceful and inhuman.
I challenge one of the TV networks to go inside Christmas Island and make a Children’s Cooking Show featuring the detainees! Then we may be able to imagine some new order for these people. The ratings would make it worth while.

Trish Martin | 17 February 2011  

Thank you for the comments. To carry on the conversation, I shall simply reply to the challenge of John Sabine, who asks me to 'eschew for once the pious platitudes and situation ethics and give us your real solution... What then do you suggest we do - in real, actual, practical as well as humanitarian terms...?'

My starting point is that any policy that I or anyone else should propose must be ethically justifiable. That it is to say that it must respect the human dignity of those whom it affects as far as that is within the resources of a society to do. I regard that principle as absolute, and not as relative to political situations. Therefore, I refuse to set ethical policies in opposition to real or practical policies, or to accept a balance that involves systematic disrespect for asylum seekers.

From my pastoral work in detention centres over a number of years I know that detention does involve grave disrespect for the dignity of asylum seekers, as witnessed in the physical and mental decline of people detained for substantial periods of time. I hope I do not have to argue that it an abuse of human dignity to detain children.

I believe that a real and practical policy for Australia is to follow the provisions of the UNHCR Declaration on the status of refugees which commits Australia to offer protection to refugees who make a claim on it, and to adjudge their claims by strict criteria. Australia is a signatory to this Convention, which forbids nations to discriminate against applicants on the basis of the way in which they came.

After holding refugees for a short time to establish their identity etc, Australia should release them into the community, as many other nations do. It should spend some of the money wasted on detention to help community groups to support the asylum seekers, and focus on the quick and fair processing of asylum seeker claims. Those who are found not to be refugees should be prepared for return to their own countries. By definition, they would be refugees if it were not safe for them to return. Consideration should also be given to humanitarian consideration for some people who do not qualify as refugees, but have pressing needs that make a claim on our hospitality.

And of course in any real and practical policy, Australia will need to take an active role in addressing with other nations the wars and oppression that lead people to flee their nations, and also to enable them to be received humanely in the neighbouring nations to which they first go.

This policy is just, humane, practical and real. The fact that it is not a quick fix and that it may not enjoy support from a majority of Australians does not make it less real or practical. And it is soundly based ethically. That is a sine qua non.

Andy Hamilton | 17 February 2011  

What an astonishing complaint. 11,200 people come here each day on average yet the only time we are full is when faced wih an average of 18 asylum seekers per day.

Marilyn Shepherd | 18 February 2011  

The Department does not specifically capture and collate data regarding
representations made to irregular maritime arrivals (IMAs) by people smugglers
about the prospects of obtaining permanent residence or citizenship in Australia.

However, based on the comments gathered from the entry interviews of 5209 IMAs
in the 2009-10 financial year, 85 (or approximately 1.6%) IMAs claimed their people smuggler provided country information about Australia, such as:
• Australia would accept them as refugees;
• the person would be able to live in Australia permanently;
• Australia is a safe and humanitarian country, free of discrimination.

Of those 85 IMAs however, only six specifically claimed their people smuggler told them they would get residency or citizenship in Australia

Marilyn Shepherd | 18 February 2011  

Thanks again. Some of the responses perpetuate errors constantly corrected by lawyers like Julian Burnside and refugee advocates, particularly the reference to 'illegal' asylum seekers. This slipshod phrase has been deliberately used by Coalition apologists for years.

I note also that some of those who didn't like your article use the phrase "These people" several times...a telling choice of words.? Morrison and Abbott should be ashamed of themselves. But they won't be, if they think that's the way to get elected.

Ann | 18 February 2011  

well said, andy. we need to all examine our doubts, fears and prejudices towards our fellow brothers and sisters of the muslim faith. we are all people of "the book". we urgently need more interfaith work, learning and people to people connections in our schools. we need to challenge children who are growing up with the ideas of tony abbott and scott morrison. we need to reflect on the journeys of our own ancestors. what generation of asylum seeker are we? who were the people smugglers many of our great grandparents paid to leave ireland or eastern europe or .... in search of a better life.

debbie clarke | 18 February 2011  

It crosses my mind that our indigenous population must wish they'd had their navy organised when Cook crossed the horizon.

hilary | 18 February 2011  

What appalled me was the TV and newspaper photo coverage. It seemed to me that these images would only harden the hearts of those opposed to asylum seekers of alien traditions. I wonder how the editors chose the images shown. These people are surely entitled to privacy at such a tragic family burial, not have it turned into a media scrum!

JENNY RAPER | 18 February 2011  

The Gillard Government is totally responsible for those deaths. And history will condemn the Government for those deaths. And we all know why. Any other discussion is irrelevant. What should be discussed is how do we get rid of the Gillard Government once and for all to stop further deaths occurring.

Peter Flood | 19 February 2011  

The issue of asylum seekers has been politicised so thoroughly and shamefully that it impossible now for there to be a "fair trial", to use a legal metaphor. If there is such heat, then it perhaps reflects real underlying fears, but fear of what. If it is only fear of the "other" then we have dealt with that often and successfully as a nation of immigrants. If it is of "queue jumpers" then we see how easy it is to tap into this simple jingoistic Australian virtue of a fair go. (Do the right thing and join the queue). It must be deeper. Is it the fear of change-change in the way the world is, or was, on such a scale that we all are lost. Spare a thought for those unable to keep up with the rush and chaos that is modernity in a globalised free- for- all.

Graham Warren | 20 February 2011  

I applaud Andrew's solution written in the comments. I am very interested to know how a boat could get so close to our shores without being detected. Herein lies an enormous problem, and a responsibility for our Govt. I feel those so inclined may have to stir our politicians placancy, by letters of outrage to our papers(hoping they will print them ) by phone calls to our leaders ,by emails to same,and by large public demonstrations. We have seen recently what peaceful demonstrations may achieve As`to our Church and it's leaders Where are they?. Surely they need to be heard. It is as if our church was officially dead as regards to Social Justice In our Parish , the word 'assylum seekers is rarely spoken. It is as if this horror is not even happening, and we go blithely on our way. Is this reminicent of bygone days in Europe? Would a priest or a member of the laity(if allowed)dare to speak publicly at our Mass, and condemn the suffering we are perpetuating on innocent people?. What is the matter with our Church ? I wonder why we are losing the young??

bernadette Introna | 20 February 2011  

Peter Flood that is so contemptible it makes me choke, two wars we started on lies have slaughtered hundreds of thousands and you claim that a few dying in what was an accident is somehow someone's fault.

Marilyn Shepherd | 20 February 2011  

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