Australia's morality drifts with asylum seeker bodies


'Refugee week' by Chris Johnston. The shapes of two refugee bodies adrift in the sea suggest the shape of AustraliaSometimes events take on a significance beyond their historical context. They come to define an issue. That was the case with Gallipoli and the Eureka Stockade. It may also prove to be the case with the bodies left in the water after an asylum seeker boat sank, the delay by the Australian authorities to take responsibility for their recovery, and the eventual decision to search for them.

There were no doubt pressing economic, logistical and legal reasons for the initial hesitation. Watching out for the living may have been given precedence. But unburied bodies have a powerful significance. Families who do not have the opportunity to bury their dead relatives speak of how the inability sharpens the agony of their loss.

Australians have recently shared the grief of Daniel Morcombe's family and seen the importance for them of finding his remains.

In many cultures, too, there is a compelling religious obligation to bury the dead because their next life depends on it. So we can only imagine the torment of the relatives of those lost at sea if they knew that the bodies of those whom they loved might have been recovered for burial, but the attempt was not made.

In texts foundational for Western democracy, too, the burial of bodies has a central place. Sophocles, Athenian dramatist and general, explores Antigone's burial of her rebel brother in defiance of the king's order to leave him unburied. Reasons of state to do with public order conflicted with the claims of humanity and moral order. The conflict led to tragic results for all the protagonists. Many playwrights, including Jean Anouilh at the time of the Vichy government of France, have returned to the story.

The symbolism of the asylum seekers' unburied bodies goes to the heart of the conflict between reasons of state and compassion so evident in Australian discussion of asylum seekers. They are worth setting out unpolemically.

The reasons of state can be expressed in the unchanging determination of Australian Governments to ensure that Australia decides whom it accepts into the community. They have always wished to set its refugee policy within this order. The practices and rhetoric of successive governments have been designed to vindicate this order in face of the threat seen in on-shore asylum seekers.

The practices of mandatory detention, denial of work rights, introduction of temporary detention, excision of Australia from the immigration zone and opening of detention centres outside Australia are some of the devices used to deter people from coming by boat to make claims on Australia.

These measures have been associated with such prejudicial descriptions of asylum seekers as queue jumpers and illegals, with the focus on people smugglers rather than the asylum seekers themselves.

In the political debate, too, the more radical proposals canvassed have to do with restoring order. They include pushing back boats, withdrawing from the refugee convention, sending back asylum seekers to camps from which they fled, making summary decisions about their cases, and denying them permanent residence in Australia.

From this perspective unburied bodies are a small thing. But Antigone's resolute gesture of simple compassion for her brother and insistence on fidelity to a moral tradition offered a different perspective. It called into question an order that violated human dignity. This protest is part of the Western democratic and also Judeo-Christian inheritance. It motivates those who defend asylum seekers.

It leads critics of the Australian Government policy to explore what respect for the humanity of asylum seekers demands of society. They argue that those who flee from fear of death and persecution make a just claim on us for protection by the fact of being human beings. They argue that these claims should be fairly assessed.

They argue that it is lacking in respect to treat innocent people badly by condemning them to prolonged detention with its proven harm to mental health in order to discourage others. Respect means allowing them to live decently while their cases are being heard. It is not compatible with pushing away boats.

From this perspective unburied bodies matter because persons matter. And the order the state upholds is credible only if it is based on respect for the humanity of all the human beings whom it touches, including asylum seekers.

The ambivalence of the Australian authorities to the bodies of asylum seekers left floating on the sea is a graphic symbol of the tension between the narrowly defined order that Australia wants to impose and the moral tradition it has inherited. The latter is enshrined in the United Nations Convention to which Australia is a signatory.

The decision to search for and collect the bodies was a welcome acknowledgment of the claims of humanity. These need also guide and moderate the reasons of state. The drama of Antigone shows what can be at stake for a society in the resolution of such conflict.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

This week is Refugee Week.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Refugee Week



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Existing comments

As far as the general situation vis a vis asylum seekers goes I think this country is between a rock and a hard place. The recent deaths at sea remind me very much of Robert Lowell's poem "For Warren Winslow Dead At Sea": the issue it arose from and is but a constituent part is complicated and has many facets. I do not blindly follow the approach of Tony Kevin elsewhere in ES to it. As I stated previously on a comment on one of his articles, I find Greg Sheridan's recent writing on the matter in the Australian a useful corrective. The deaths and any ill treatment or trauma suffered by detainees are bad. Emphatically so. However, I think the general issue of asylum seekers; the situations which gave rise to them; the people smuggling racket and racketeers (no Scarlet Pimpernels here but exploiters) and other aspects lead me to see it as an uncharted sea where one needs to steer by one's own moral compass with extreme caution.
Edward F | 15 June 2013

Thank you. Trouble is most of our media are such ingrained racists they don't see human beings There are no smugglers because it is a legal right to come here and a legal right to pay for transport yet not one journalist in this country will even consider that fact or point out the smuggling protocol which actively and specifically excludes those seeking asylum under the convention and forbids all forms of punishment for whom people pay to be safe. Monday nights 4 Corners will show the heroic people smugglers helping North Koreans escape even while we are demonising Pakistani's and others who help Afghans escape as the scum of the earth. The language is the same as the language used against the jews and this nation refuses to pull back from that sort of insanity which leads to fishermen being told to leave sinking asylum seekers in the sea and refuses to recover the bodies. Most of the reason those on SIEVX cannot recover is that they have no bodies. I had a friend die in 1974 and don't know where is body is. It is terrible and I still see him in the crowd.
Marilyn | 15 June 2013

It is a matter about bodies, isn't it! Not only the dead ones which we will never see on our TV screens, but also the bodies of these refugees which have the hope of a life in them, the ones that walk and talk amid their saviours, the Australian people. But we, their saviours are not seeing these refugees because they are being industrialised to meet some profit margin of a multi-national company and then, when the the Public Service has had their share of pen pushing at $120 per hour, they melt away into some suburbs of our major cities. And they are still bodies. I can remember the Vietnamese boat people refugees coming to Goulburn, Goulburn of all places, in the middle of Winter. But they came, they conquered our hearts and the heart of the city and, even though they chose to move on after about two years, they left behind a changed place and people. The bodies had become people, and they had discovered we had bodies too. Politics should never be allowed to dispose of bodies but propose to us all how we might see them. I'm certain Australians, as they always have and always will, will choose only to see the bodies as Australians, new, but part of us.
Fr Mick Mac Andrew | 17 June 2013

Thanks Andrew for your putting into words what I have wished to say for so long. Rightly wrongly, the two significant Jesus issues for me are 'priestly sexual abuse in Jesus church' and 'Asylum Seekers in the context of His flight into Egypt'. Of course we all want an ordered migration policy today, but rarely has it been so in human history or in Australia. This is personal for our family with the transportation of Nicholas Delaney my wife's forebear convicted to death for shooting three police at the Irish Vinegar Hill uprising then commuted to transportation for the term of his natural life as Governor Macquarie wanted surveyors for his road over the Blue Mountains and then his marrying a 16 year old Elizabeth Bailey, an Irish lass transported for stealing lace handkerchiefs. Arthur Calwell made a massive policy change accepting 'New Australians'; and boat refugees have already made massive contributions to our country as Trung Pham my Vietnamese-Now Australian surgeon for my 'bladder neck incision'. Let's welcome them. Michael Parer
Michael Parer | 17 June 2013

As an Augustinian priest working on mission in Bangkok with urban refugees, I see firsthand these people's lives as they flee their homes in fear and wait in desperation for a new start somewhere safe. They seem to be destined to be forever victims in our world where they are being punished for what crime. As an Australian, I feel shame as I see what our political leadership continues to do in our name in responding to these people and their plight, making them their political footballs.
John Murray | 17 June 2013

I just wonder how many more people have to die because of the greed of the people smuggling industry? As long “well meaning” churches and welfare organisations pretend to care by giving moral support to this modern slave trade, more people will die.
Beat Odermatt | 17 June 2013

Edward F- what's your point? We've gotta do something!!! Marilyn and other respondees - you're right! It's about coming to the aid of human beings emerging from unimaginable fear and suffering,..adrift, vulnerable, stateless. Whether it is recovering bodies from the sea or giving enough support to 'bodies' to continue to live while on temporary visas, the current treatment and attitudes to detainees and other asylum seekers by the two major political parties are denials of human rights. Why don't they get together, assemble all involved, including aide bodies etc;test the myths by listening to the real stories and address the issue in all its aspects -with the charter of human rights as a point of departure - not the ignorant xenophobic cliches of "Queue-jumping'; and "stop the boats". And do this fast before more deaths at sea, detention suicides or increased onshore homelessness.
POD | 17 June 2013

Thank you, Andrew, for raising your voice in support of the helpless and voiceless. I heartily endorse your views. WJO
William Ousley | 17 June 2013

The Australlian Government contributes to the deaths at sea by destroying the boats that make it to Australlia or to excised "Australia". If the crews were allowed to take the boats back home to be used again, the owners would be more willing to make sure they were seaworthy (and the refugees would not have to pay so much).
Gavan Breen | 17 June 2013

There is a very big difference between people smuggling when it is done for money & greed & people smuggling done for altruism. Australians understand that difference.
angela | 17 June 2013

It's impossible to believe that asylum seekers who are smart enough to get themselves from countries like Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Sri Lanka to Indonesia,and then courageously take unseaworthy boats to Australia, are totally unaware of the terrible dangers they face. These people, like any asylum seekers, have the right to make the journey, because they want better lives for themselves and their families,.And what about our Sri Lankan Tamil Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ who struggled for freedom unsuccessflully in their country, and now constitute the majority of those being returned unceremoniously to Sri Lanka by our government, to once again suffer the hardships of an impoverished minority.It's about time our Catholic moralist clergy started standing up for them.
Claude Rigney | 17 June 2013

Morality may properly be defined as the extent to which an action is right or wrong. Antigone's story highlights the individual's right to defy the state over a matter of conscience. The asylum seeker drama is a case of people fleeing from persecution - these are not powerful people with choices, and not to be compared to those in positions of power with strong voices. If Australia had chosen the 'moral' path of government and opposition working together to solve a complex problem, instead of choosing to value political might, then perhaps such actions of having to fish bodies out of water could be avoided, now and in the future.
Pam | 17 June 2013

"Edward F- what's your point? We've gotta do something!" Indeed, and we need to know what we are doing POD. Ever read the newspapers or the articles I've referred to?
Edward F | 17 June 2013

Where to begin? What does it mean to talk about Australia's morality? The morality of the authorised personnel at the coalface, or on the high seas, who must decide if a course of action fits in with departmental guidelines or Government policy? Remember the search for truth at the time of the "children overboard" affair? All the way up and down the chain of command on land there was fudging.of the facts - despite the Captain on the spot declaring unambiguously "No children were thrown overboard" Truth may well be the first casualty of war but war is not the only arena in which politicians and their service chiefs & departmental heads fudge the facts. And why do they do this? To hang on to power and prestige. In the context of the world wide refugee problem Australia's situation is miniscule but internal political forces have turned it into an international security catastrophe which they debate with slogans and little humanity. The parliament cannot articulate what the right thing to do in any particular refugee situation is because their is no agreed morality.
Uncle Pat | 17 June 2013

Unfortunately no Australian political party will be elected if it isn't tough on boat people. If we abrogated the UN treaty on refugees for 3-5 years, set up application offices in our overseas posts, formed a proper queue, let the applicants support themselves wherever they could while they waited, have a reasonable quota of say 50-60,000 per year.Hey presto there is a queue ,with reasonable access, no queue jumping & red necks with one less slogan.
G & A Long | 17 June 2013

Yes Andrew, and even in war there is pause to bury ones dead. But I can remember as a child the numerous newsreel shots of dead and decomposing bodies of our enemies in WWII. Propaganda. Some seem to think that all this is some kind of deterrent. What a sick reasoning. But to give them their due, the appeal to the lowest levels of beasts works. And it works because if you talk to many of the Oz voters you see it accords with their views and fears. Each one of us needs to take on the thankless and excluding task of confronting inhumane and cruel views about others, suffering, fleeing others, trying to escape from countries we have made inhabitable. The politicians are mostly pragmatic and live in moral vacuums. They could say they are being democratic by enforcing the wills and fears of the mob. When we can convince our next door neighbor and the guy in the pub maybe the pollies will listen. Then the problem is how to meet ingrained, Conservative, shock-jock and Murdoch press fueled prejudice and irrationality with rational persuasive reason. Wish I knew how.
Michael D. Breen | 18 June 2013

we moralise. The Nazis and the Jews. But the hidden historical stuff; the Jews whose boats were turned away from Britain, from the US.. it is not very convenient for us to be compassionate. We run the risk of "lowering our standards( of living).. My parents were refugees in Germany.. and simply say.. "no-one likes refugees" ( bar the exceptions)... old stories..
Barbara Mann | 18 June 2013

Andrew, Thank you especially for these wise and inspiring thoughts: "And the order the state upholds is credible only if it is based on respect for the humanity of all the human beings whom it touches, including asylum seekers. The ambivalence of the Australian authorities to the bodies of asylum seekers left floating on the sea is a graphic symbol of the tension between the narrowly defined order that Australia wants to impose and the moral tradition it has inherited.'' You have distilled in these few words exactly where I come from in my insistent research into why asylum-seekers sometimes die in waters north of Australia , whom our government agencies might have saved had they better managed their responses to distress-at-sea emergencies. A narrowly defined institutional ''order' dominated by a border protection value system sometimes trumps a whole Australian moral system enshrined in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. And you are right about the recovery of the bodies - it does matter to try to find them, and to be seen to try. .
tony kevin | 19 June 2013

Thank you for giving us a reflection that challenges the danger of these events getting lost in the next media sensational grab bit
terry Meagher | 19 June 2013

There may be another reason why the government chose not to order the trieval of the bodies at sea. No community has claimed relatives from this boat. This is very unusual . When a boat goes down grieving family Ask questions. No one has come forward. It may be that the people who drowned have no established community here. It may be that this boat had people from African countries on board. The government wants to hide the fact that hundreds of Sudanese, Somalis, Congolese are coming by boat because even though recognised by UNHCR in Jakarta, Australia discriminates by refusing to resettle Africans and Rohingyans
Pamela | 21 June 2013


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