Best of 2013: Invisible Icarus and asylum seekers


'Icarus and Asylum Seekers' by Chris Johnston. A reimagining of 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus' by Bruegel, featuring Tony Abbott as the ignorant ploughman, Julia Gillard as the sea captain sailing her ship swiftly away, and a sinking asylum seeker boat in place of Icarus plunging into the water.Most of us organise our lives according to priorities. We get caught up in routines. The degree to which these impinge on our ability to respond to what is occurring outside our immediate areas of concern is a vexed question. Brueghel, in his mid-16th century painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, examined this.

The dominant figure in Brueghel's landscape is a ploughman on the side of a cliff. With his back to the sea, he negotiates the wooden plough drawn by his horse. If he heard Icarus falling from the heavens into the sea it didn't interrupt his routine. The crew of a ship close enough to rescue the drowning boy instead takes advantage of a favourable breeze and sails away. The shepherd daydreams, the angler continues fishing. To all intents and purposes Icarus is invisible to those in his immediate vicinity.

Since the 1990s consecutive Australian Federal Governments have had a penchant to render asylum seekers invisible to the general public. Our political leaders, working on the assumption that out of sight will mean out of mind, have prevented the media from having access to camps on the mainland or on Manus Island and Nauru. Kevin Rudd brought this to new lows with his 'PNG Solution', a policy which has now been adopted by Tony Abbott.

It's difficult to relate to stories of personal human suffering while we accept or embrace policies which deliberately exclude us from witnessing or hearing about them. While asylum seekers remain an anonymous group, rather than individual men, women and children with names and life stories, they and their sufferings remain invisible.

For a moment in mid-2013 the possibility of asylum seekers becoming visible seemed a reality. On 17 JulyChristmas Island Administrator, Joh Stanhope, called for the name of a baby boy, who drowned when an asylum seeker boat capsized, to be made public by the Australian Government. This was never done, and his body, along with the bodies of others from the same boat, remained nameless in the morgue. Were his parents among the drowned? Or were they rescued and left to grieve?

When we know people's names, backgrounds, history, when we see them and hear them, we can relate to them as individuals. We can like or dislike them, agree or disagree, sympathise with or criticise them, but we can no longer treat them as part of an anonymous mass that can be shifted here or there according to political expediency.

Ironically the recent limit imposed by the Abbott Government on the reporting of the number of boats and asylum seekers who arrive on Christmas Island, and the number of people who drown on the way there, has misfired.

In the vacuum created, an ABC journalist interviewed a would-be asylum seeker who survived the most recent boat disaster and we saw him and his fellow survivors on our TV screens. Newspaper reports included an interview with a woman whose husband and children, with the exception of one 11-year-old son, drowned. We saw their faces, heard their voices, and we want to know more about them, what will happen to them now, along with the whys and wherefores of this disaster.

Any further news blackouts may also be stymied by the residents of Christmas Island who have vowed to tell the media about boat arrivals. This is in keeping with the humanitarian approach by the island's residents, who do see the asylum seekers up close. On 15 December 2010 they threw life jackets from the cliff top to those flung into the sea when their boat was wrecked on rocks at Flying Fish Cove, and were dismayed when their rescue attempts could not prevent 48 people drowning. These residents are the antithesis of the figures in Brueghel's painting.

A majority of Australians still support government policies on asylum seekers. Most of them are concerned about deaths at sea or issues of border security. That other concerns may be involved was illustrated when newly elected Liberal politician, Fiona Scott, said in a pre-election interview that she was in favour of stopping the boats because asylum seekers caused traffic jams on the M4 in her electorate.

The bizarre policies to 'stop the boats' include Abbott's pre-election commitments to turn back boats, to buy unseaworthy boats from fishermen and to pay individual Indonesians to report on people smugglers. It is with some relief that we now see these proposals 'outed', in the recent visit by our Prime Minister to Indonesia, as no more than pre-election rhetoric for a domestic audience. Abbott had his priorities pre-election and he had other priorities in his discussions with the President of Indonesia.

What remains to be seen is to what extent the Government's new attempts to render asylum seekers 'invisible' with news blackouts, will succeed or fail when there are competing moves to make their predicament visible in an age of access to the media that Brueghel could not have foreseen.

Maureen O'Brien headshotMaureen O'Brien did research and writing for the Penguin reference book, Chronicle of Australia. Recently she has had articles published in The Swag, the quarterly magazine of the National Council of Priests of Australia. Article originally published 6 October 2013.

Original artwork by Chris Johnston.

Topic tags: Maureen O'Brien, asylum seekers, Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott, Brueghel



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Existing comments

It is so true that when we cannot see people it is easy to dismiss them. What a clever but disgusting ploy by our government. History will judge this policy as worse than the White Australia Policy.
Patricia C Martin | 07 January 2014

I wonder if there is a "solution" to the asylum seeker problem but making these people invisible is not going to stop people from fleeing the murder and mayhem in their home countries. More genuine care and concern needs to be applied to this human problem. Politicians don't seem to be able to deal with it , so perhaps it could be handed to NGOS for help.
David | 07 January 2014

Our Government is doing a good job trying to stop the trade in human beings. It is up to the people in their own countries to overcome tribal hatred, corruption and religious hatred. When we see overweight “refugees” trying to force their way into Australia, public sympathy for the people smuggling industry evaporates. Most Australians want to give real refugees a home but object being blackmailed by well organised gangs. We see how these gangs have infiltrated welfare organisations and churches, feeding on the goodwill of well meaning people.
Beat Odermatt | 10 January 2014

Thanks Maureen for a beautiful and insightful article! Any fair-minded Australian should feel ashamed, as I do, at Australia's treatment of asylum seekers by both major parties in recent years. Anyone who supports sending asylum seekers offshore to Nauru or Manus Island for processing, or locking them up for a long time in detention camps, should reflect on 'The Golden Rule' - 'Treat others as you would like them to treat you.' Also referring to asylum seekers as ILLEGAL is not only false but part of a campaign to demonise those who come here in leaky boats. Almost all of these asylum seekers are later found to be genuine refugees. What a shame that all our major political parties have pursued the race to the bottom of the moral barrel in efforts to capture the votes of the ignorant or mean-spirited sections of our population that are either unaware of the plight of so many desperate people or have hearts of stone. It's time to vote the Abbot government out and look for a minor party or independents with a sense of decency and humanity! Australia's tradition of fairness has been trashed by all major parties on this one issue!
Grant Allen | 12 January 2014


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