Bleeding hearts alone won't save asylum seekers


Heart made from plates of ironLast month, Guardian Australia published a letter of concern prepared by 15 doctors working at the Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centres. Its forensic description of indignity and neglect bring new meaning to the expression, 'the devil is in the detail'.

Inappropriate transfers, prolonged delays, immunisation and prescription errors, substandard antenatal and paediatric care, medication and equipment shortages, patient identification errors, haphazard handling of test results. The totality of these conditions would shut down any medical facility on the mainland.

Yet the doctors' report was met with muted outcry, confirming the Faustian compact that Australians have made in exchange for guarantees of security and order. 'Sovereignty'.

In the end these seem to have more weight than ethics or decency. If this weren't true, there would be political repercussions from evidence that 'generally accepted medical standards' do not uniformly apply in this country. Instead, a recent survey conducted by UMR Research found that 48 per cent of a nationally representative sample (weighted against census data) approve of the present treatment of asylum seekers, while 60 per cent think that the Government should increase the severity.

The subtext is that any entitlement to humane treatment is forfeited if one had attempted to enter the country by boat from Indonesia. Against such priorities, no appeal to compassion, statement of fact or context will work, no matter how persistently they are made. We need to reckon with this if the goal is to change the status quo.

As long as the majority are convinced that norms of Western civility — queues, procedures and authority — outweigh humanitarian obligations, then appealing solely to their sense of humanity has limited effectiveness. Those who campaign for more humane treatment of asylum seekers cannot keep assuming that the elements of the debate that matter to them most are the most persuasive.

The hardest thing to accept may be that the socioeconomic anxieties for which immigration serves as proxy, as well as the insecurity and resentment generated by state impotence and political opportunism, do not necessarily make for 'bad' people.

Framing resistance against seaborne asylum seekers as racist and xenophobic is a simplistic and useless construction of the debate, even if it is a credible and personally satisfying one. It cedes the issue to spectres. It leaves no room for persuasion, which in turn does not serve vulnerable people inside detention centres. After all, we cannot expect to restrain the current momentum against asylum seekers without critical mass.

If we really mean to change the status quo, then we need to confront how the harsh language and treatment of asylum seekers has become normalised. How can it be that it is the compassionate alternatives that are perceived to be inappropriate and wrong?

It is easy to see how a cycle of repetition and validation of negative views of asylum seekers, perpetuated by both sides of politics, has been instrumental in this. But it does not completely explain a fundamental failure to persuade Australians that such views do not justify callous treatment of human beings. To lay the entire blame on politicians is to confer on them a level of sophistication that they do not deserve.

The reality is that people are fickle; they are swayed by the most persuasive voices of the time. It is what makes progress even possible. In this regard, clearly asylum seeker advocates are yet to deploy the most persuasive voices. It is an area rife with opportunity, perhaps even the final resort.

This is not to diminish the passionate efforts of many advocates, NGOs and professionals who continue to uphold the dignity and rights of detainees. The Christmas Island doctors, for instance, are only the latest in a long line of whistle-blowers who have exposed the conditions endured by immigration detainees.

But these are not the most persuasive voices — not for those who most need to be persuaded. A cursory glance at the demographics of resistance suggests that the involvement of sport and entertainment figures may be what is required. This is how we counter the normalisation of cruelty: by making it uncool.

This is not a flippant proposition. Everything that ought to be said has been said, but not enough people are listening. It is time that we move beyond the message and look for the right messengers.


Fatima Measham headshotFatima Measham is a Melbourne-based social commentator who contributes regularly to Eureka Street. Her work has also appeared in The Drum, ABC Religion & Ethics, and National Times. She tweets as @foomeister .

Heart image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, Christmas Island, asylum seekers



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Existing comments

Asylum seeker policy is about protecting our comforts, not their safety right?

Chris Baulman | 24 January 2014  

Shane Warne introduced an episode of ABC's Australian Story about a boy from Afghanistan who came to Australia seeking asylum.

David Reid | 24 January 2014  

Fatima - you make a good point about making vilification and anxieties about the 'Other' uncool. There is a hardened brigade of trolls manning the comments sections of our media, inflaming the ugliest irrational fears that plague people about asylum seekers. And it is a rhetoric that the government itself instigated and is perpetuating. But I disagree with your assessment that the government is in someway innocent of the inhumane treatment. It is successive governments, their policies and implementation which have created and enabled this degradation. Anything less than the strongest condemnation smacks of sycophancy.

M Underhill | 24 January 2014  

Great article. There needs to be more discussion about this in left wing circles. It's definitely the way forward. Keep the good work coming!

Gavin Ackerly | 25 January 2014  

I agree with this article. Australians should be proactive, not just rely on Government to fix a so called annoying problem. We all need to recognise that we are all part of the 'human race' and we are all equal. So put out a helping hand and make a difference, don't rely on politicians.

Ronda Colliver | 25 January 2014  

When there is prolonged and persistent lack of empathy for those who are 'different' or 'in distress' it usually means threat is perceived in some way. We are a large island continent, sparsely populated, perched on the edge of a populous and needy Asia. Making Australia confident about accepting asylum seekers, instead of looking inward to our own concerns, will take a government willing to go against popular opinion and take a chance. Perhaps sport and entertainment figures can make a difference, if their hearts are bleeding for the cause.

Pam | 26 January 2014  

Excellent analysis. The problems of our response to asylum seekers are many sided. But leadership and framing have helped push us into brutality. If people could see that they and asylum seekers could both do well in the years ahead, attitudes might change.

Robert Smith | 28 January 2014  

An excellent article Fatima. One of the problems with many opponents of the Government's policy on asylum seekers is that they are most at home in fairly rarefied intellectual and social circles. They do not, or are unable to, address the majority constituency. I think they sometimes underestimate it.

Edward F | 28 January 2014  

Have Australians sunk so low that they will listen only to sports or entertainment people .would have thought doctors, lawyers dare I say clergy does not matter which denomination people would listen does not say much for the people of Australia . If they only will listen to sports players and actors and pop culture. As if they had the words of the oracle how about read g chicken entrails sorry but am disgusted that humans are being treated in an a dispicable manner and even doctors are being ignored what is happening not impressed

Irena | 28 January 2014  

As a typical 'bleeding-hearter' I find Fatima's exploration of this issue refreshing. I'm sick of feeling helpless in face of poor mistreatment of people who deserve better. Her idea that we must change 'fickle' public opinion is a welcome change of tactic. What about getting Adam Goodes, the deservedly man of the moment on board with this issue. I reckon most people would make him Governor General if they could but maybe he's got enough on his plate with indigenous issues?

john bartlett | 28 January 2014  

I'm Australian born. My last four years have been in Damascus,Syria. I'm based in Istanbul.Im a solo aid worker. It's hard to motivate the Australian community to give. We just can't relate to war and collective loss. March 15th commences the 4th year of unbelievable suffering. I say to friends. You have 2 hours. Live in NZ. In a tent. in the snow. Leave your life. Half your family is missing or killed. By the way they speak a different language and don't want you. Be happy. I bought in Istanbul and house and educate Syrians and Palistinians. In March I will have a dinner and charge $100 for six people to come. All goes to medical and education. Check smallprojectsistanbul FB and join a grass roots support group..that's me and you not waiting for Politicians. After Rewanda we said it won't happen . It is. Good article. Come here. Stay. Meet people before they leave on a hazardous boat trip. It will change your heart and head. Could do with a good journalist.

Karyn Thomas | 28 January 2014  

Thank you Fatima for excellent analysis of the situation. To go with your call for the help of sports and pop stars, c.f. "The real challenge is to persuade our fellow Australians that each person matters, not because of the choices they make or the qualities they possess, but because they are human, and that a society is measured by the quality of its relationships...... The challenge is for those skilled in telling stories to use their skills in print, blog, You tube clip and audio pod to saturate new and old media with the stories and photographs of those who are currently considered as "other". It is through life-stories that we recognise that the other is like me" - John Francis Collins, Sep 12, 2013 comment at And "Statistics have never changed the hearts of people. Stories do. If we could find a way to bring the real ‘boat people’ out of the darkness of detention into the visibility of the community, there could be opportunities for them to tell us their stories. Then, maybe, the conscience of the nation might be re-discovered" - Clare Condon SGS, June 18, 2013, at One such "story" is the award winning 52 min documentary "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" , at

Fr John Wotherspoon o.m.i. | 28 January 2014  

Stories certainly help, Fr John but real life experience is the strongest form of persuasion. The series 'Go Back where you Came From' touched many hardeded souls. Today, thousands of students travel on immersion programs to experience life from the perspective of poverty and disadvantage. These young people are our future. Could their passion persuade the cynical majority?

Anne Doyle | 28 January 2014  

It was I believe Aneurin Bevan who said something close to: "politicians know that the working class is inherently bigoted; socialists try to lift their people up to make a decent society; fascists just exploit their weaknesses". Labour and the Greens let us and our civilisations down although there were at times flickers of decency, but right-wing Liberals are shamefully behaving to populist type.

Eugene | 28 January 2014  

Sorry Eugene, but the Greens, unlike the ALP & the Libs, have consistently taken the Christian, principled stand on refugees. So when we talk about laying the blame on politicians, we should mention the honourable exceptions - the Greens.

Russell | 29 January 2014  

Insightful view. Explains why nothing happens. Sad, but reason and compassion can often take second prize to presentation.

Tony Kerin | 03 February 2014  

Fatima’s comment that the involvement of sporting figures to counter “the normalisation of cruelty: by making it uncool” is worth some thought. Today in the United Arab Emirates Afghanistan’s Under-19 National Cricket Team will take on Australia’s under-19 players. These young Afghans are similar in age and background to many of the “unaccompanied minors” who have “transgressed Australia’s sovereignty” and attempted to enter Australia via Indonesia. Today’s match is probably a missed opportunity in terms of countering cruelty. A much bigger opportunity, however, is on the way in just under one year from now. Afghanistan’s National Cricket Team has qualified for the World Cup 2015 and will be in Australia for the competition next year. The story of the success of cricket in Afghanistan against all odds over the past 12 years is legendary. Despite 30 years of war, violence and poverty, Afghanistan has developed more quickly in international cricket than any nation in the history of the game. The presence of the Afghan team in Australia in 2015 will attract wide national and international media interest. It could offer a unique opportunity for Australia’s cricketing heroes to be involved in countering the normalization of cruelty.

Anthony | 17 February 2014  

If what the doctors say is true, in fact it is no different to what is happening in Australian where people are dying waiting for medical attention in a hospital. Australians should be demonstrating in the streets. One thing that puzzles me is why don't these people stay home and change their society which seems to hate itself and each other. Running away wont change things. The fear is that the hate will be, and has, transferred itself to the new host country worldwide. The one they went to for refuge and peace!! Yes, people fear what their children will endure in the future.

mary anne | 20 February 2014  

politicians' only policy objective is to get and retain power at any cost and refugees are a very easy target to this end

lou baker | 21 February 2014  

I accept what you say, Fatima. Otherwise 'good' people hold refugee views that are to me obnoxious. Can you spell out the means to rectify. What place does email, social media, letters to the editor have in making an impact?

allan jackson | 24 February 2014  

How can it be that it is the compassionate alternatives that are perceived to be inappropriate and wrong? Because they killed an average of 1 person every third day over the life of the last government....1100 died...

Paul Rogerson | 19 March 2014  

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