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Bleeding hearts alone won't save asylum seekers

  • 28 January 2014

Last 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.