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Devil in the detail of asylum seeker directive


Flames reflected in waterIn books and films the enormity of a complex and fraught situation is often conveyed by a detail that is quite tiny in the larger picture. For example, the severity of a famine is evoked by a woman fastidiously picking up and brushing clean a few rice grains that have fallen to the ground. In the detail we recognise the larger reality and the values of those implicated in it.

In the clamour of Australia's treatment of people who come to Australia to seek protection from persecution, with its discordant notes of suffering, humiliation, death, heated rhetoric and managerial complexity, a minor and almost unnoticed Government direction struck such a revelatory chord.

Direction 62 issued by the minister before Christmas affects people who came to Australia by boat, have been found to be refugees and have protection visas. It provides that any applications they may have made to bring family members to Australia must remain at the bottom of the pile. Given the many applications that await scrutiny, the consequence of this direction is that people who came to Australia by boat cannot be reunited with their family in Australia. The money, sometimes in the thousands of dollars, they may have spent in applying to sponsor family members will not be returned to them.

The brevity of the direction belies its enormous effects on the people affected by it. They had set their hearts on being reunited with their families. Their hope sustained them through the long years of detention before they gained protection. Most fled their own countries because they feared for their lives. They had good reason also to fear for the security of their families whom they left behind. Indeed the hope that they could together make a new life in Australia often fuelled their flight. In detention their fear for their families was mixed with guilt at leaving them and with helplessness at being unable to support or help them. When they received protection they directed all their energies to sponsor their families.

To give one example, a young man from Sri Lanka who had to flee for his life from both rebel and government forces, left his wife and two young children behind. One was born after he left. Living in a region with a heavy army presence she lives in fear and in poor living conditions. Her health has also been poor and she needs medical care. While in detention he feared putting her life at risk if he contacted her directly, but was deeply depressed by his separation and inability to help her. Once given protection he immediately put all his efforts into having his family come to Australia. After being told of the direction he has locked himself in his room.

It is easy to imagine the devastation of spirit experienced by those whose hopes are so crushed. It is harder to read the minds of those who devised and signed the direction. They could not have thought of a more exquisite form of torture. One hesitates to think that this attracted them to Direction 62. But it is equally difficult to think of other compelling reasons. If people are not deterred from coming to Australia by the certain prospect of being sent to Nauru or PNG with no opportunity to settle in Australia (that is, if they avoid interception and return to Indonesia by the Australian Armed Forces), this measure is not likely to discourage them.

The measure is also a costly indulgence for Australia. Because it increases the pressure on the mental health of already vulnerable people who have been accepted into Australian society, society will carry the costs of their medical care and of the lost contribution that they could have made to their new country.

To discriminate against and alienate new members of society, too, has heavy costs. It encourages divisions within society that will express themselves in resentment and hostility.

There are also costs when a government targets groups of the population it rules. The convention that the government should be a model litigant was a wise one: it expressed the importance for public order of the government being seen as a model of good behaviour. When it behaves vindictively it encourages disorder.

At a time of widespread lack of trust in all governments, too, this measure leaves the Government open to a charge of hypocrisy. It expresses support for families and family values. But when it suits its purposes it treats with contempt the most intimate family ties of the most vulnerable people.

There are large arguments against Direction 62. But the most compelling lies in the humanity officers of government and people granted protection share.

Andrew Hamilton headshotAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Flaming water image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, asylum seekers



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Existing comments

Gillard already did that in response to the three non-experts, these people seem to think waging war on women and children is a great idea so good they keep on doing it.

Marilyn | 12 February 2014  

Thank you Andrew. Please keep writing and pursuing this kind of issue.

anne benjamin | 13 February 2014  

Thanks for putting this so crisply. Both parties have dived to the bottom of the swamp. It's a complex problem and many countries have bigger asylum seeker demand than we do. But why do we have to be so vicious?

Robert F Smith | 13 February 2014  

The inhumanity shown by Catholic leaders of this government are horrendous why bother calling oneself Catholic/Christian when your actions speak of complete indifference to others especially boat people who are found to be genuine refugees at least give them back their money you greedy lot .not impressed with the actions of these ministers in government who cannot see because they refuse to see.

Irena | 13 February 2014  

The parliament really must stop the practice of saying the Lord's Prayer. It's hypocritical to make this show of Christian principles then treat asylum seekers in such an unprincipled way.

Brian Finlayson | 13 February 2014  

I am sure it would be heartbreaking being away from families. It is also heartbreaking to know how many refugees still remain in refugee camps all around the world without a hope of finding a host country. These people have no access to money to pay for people smuggling and their families are also at risk . What's about “discrimination” against all the people having tried to come here and trusting UNHCR and missing out because of people having found a “short cut”. The Government is doing the right thing by taking away as many incentives for the people smuggling industry as possible. It is so easy to talk about “fairness” towards one section of our global community and then allow discrimination against the rest.

Beat Odermatt | 13 February 2014  

Thank you Andrew. I am finding it harder and harder to identify as a proud Australian. The issues are complex and politics is a pragmatic activity, I get that. What I don't understand is how the Prime Minister and other ministers who publically identify as Catholics either promote or fail to stop actions that are manifestly at odds with the faith they claim to profess. One cannot claim to be a Catholic at home and act in a manner inconsistent with that claim at work. Government is an important work of service, nothing more, nothing less. There are no special rules for politicians just because they have a difficult job. One does not put Catholicism on like a coat and take it off when one thinks one needs to. Those who publically profess that they are Catholic are open to be judged in the light of their own self-chosen and publically professed set of beliefs and values. I am not sure which scenario is worse, either Abbott did not understand the implications of Direction 62 or that he did. Either scenario is disturbing.

John Francis Collins | 13 February 2014  

Thank you; so correct. Nasty, deliberately unkind policies must be bad policies. What of ultimate judgement, Tony?

Eugene | 13 February 2014  

You have left me wondering why the young Sri Lankan was running from both the government and the Tamil rebels. Not faithful to either, perhaps?

john frawley | 13 February 2014  

A Catholic Prime Minister and Pentecostal Minister for Immigration who require, encourage or permit such a regulation are horrifying models for Christianity. The belief that the end does not justify the means is shared by both Catholic and Protestant traditions - so this 'exquisite form of torture' cannot be justified by their slogan "stop the boats". And please don't remind me that our Ministers must fulfill their duties without reference to their religious affiliations in this secular nation. Splitting up vulnerable families to score points from a heartless electorate forms no part of the enlightened humanism that gave us a secular society.

Ian Fraser | 13 February 2014  

Australia seems to have lost it's honor Andrew. As a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention its treatment of refugees is dishonorable, shameful and hypocritical. It is also counter to Australia's signature and commitment on that Convention. Makes me embarrassed to say my nationality. Geez.

Lizzie Love | 13 February 2014  

Andrew, another insightful article. Please keep us informed of these issues that shape our individual and collective lives as australians. So many issues here; the plight of refugees, duplicity of governments, mental health issues , separations in marriage , consequences for children of separations be it from a person on a protection visa in Australia adrift from family or as result of estrangements happening daily among our citizens. Sometimes we can feel jaded . How must those tireless workers for refugees feel. (grass roots catholics and compassionate australians are doing things to help individual refugees. )We can be inspired by them and help their work if possible Keep feeding us the truth eureka street., so we can pray , think and act justly.

Celia of Richmond | 13 February 2014  

Beat, the people we deny entry too are the very people you claim to care about, the wives and kids of refugees here. .

Marilyn | 13 February 2014  

Great stuff as usual, Andrew. I do not quite understand many of the comments,"...if you call yourself a Christian you ought to behave like one" stuff. Eh excuse me? Where have you been for 2000 years? By their fruits not their labels will you know them. What the article highlights is the corruption done to and by those who make and implement the policy. Inhumane, cruel treatment of others damages the core of the perpetrator.

Michael D. Breen | 13 February 2014  

Thank you, John, for asking how a young Sri Lankan man could have to flee from both sides in the civil war. It is quite simple. All he had to be was Tamil and young enough to fight. If he refused to join the Sri Lankan army that had murdered his relatives he would be considered part of the rebel army. And he is still considered so. If he joined the rebel army that murdered some of his friends, he would be considered part of the Government army. A very good priest I know had to flee Sri Lanka because three forces in the civil war wanted to kill him. He used to give food and treated the wounds of anyone who came to the church. He believed in being faithful to God.

Andy Hamilton | 13 February 2014  

Thank you, Andrew, for explaining. Now I have learnt and that can only be a good thing. Isn't it amazing how the bastards of the world can use the genuine caring human beings such as your friend the priest who was truly Christ-like in his actons. Please forgive the un-Christian language but it is the best description I can find!

john frawley | 13 February 2014  

Call it what you like, our treatment towards refugees, particularly those from non-Christian, non-white countries, is simply appalling and beyond civilised descriptions. We all should grieve for our country and people. And I was always taught that Christianity is about charity. Shame on us all!

Alex Njoo | 13 February 2014  

Thank you, Beat Odermatt, Out of 17 Comments, you have the courage to express your view which millions of Australians voted for Tony Abbott

Ron Cini | 13 February 2014  

I could have sworn we had an election on this issue only about 4 months ago. The people have spoken!!!

Andrew | 14 February 2014  

The late Fred Daly, a Minister under Whitlam, was very cynical about any politician who labelled him or herself a Christian. I think it is a given these days that politics is about realpolitik and nothing else. You have raised a matter which is often not spoken of Andy, or if so only in passing, which is the mental health of those like the Sri Lankan Tamil refugee whose plight you discussed. Indeed the mental health of all those involved in any way with border protection or its furthest ramifications, such as those effected by Direction 62, is going to be a major long term problem. This brings up a far bigger issue and that is what sort of (hopefully cosmopolitan, cohesive and supportive) society are our politicians are attempting to build. This is something we all need to think long and hard on.

Edward F | 14 February 2014  

Andrew you write "I could have sworn we had an election on this issue only about 4 months ago. The people have spoken!!!" Another time when the people spoke!!! In his desire to set Jesus free, Pilate addressed them again, but they shouted back, 'Crucify him! Crucify him!' And for the third time he spoke to them, 'But what harm has this man done? I have found no case against him that deserves death, so I shall have him flogged and then let him go.' But they kept on shouting at the top of their voices, demanding that he should be crucified. And their shouts kept growing louder. Pilate then gave his verdict: their demand was to be granted.

John Francis Collins | 14 February 2014  

Thank you Andrew for your informative article. I have noticed recently that a further step has been taken to dehumanise the asylum seekers. Firstly they were referred to as illegals, now they are called "transferees". What next?

Don Reid | 19 February 2014  

Regulation 62 is one aspect of government strategy, regarding asylum seeker family re-unions. Once the Abbott government "stops the boats", which it surely will with its harsh current policy, family re-unions for those here on protection visas, will quickly and quietly begin to re-commence. "And when from bondage we're liberated, our former sufferings will fade from mind".

Claude Rigney | 22 February 2014  

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