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The inhumane logic of Australia’s refugee deterrence policy

  • 24 June 2021
  Anyone who was touched by the picture of Tharnicaa and Kopika Murugappan on Christmas Island before she was taken to hospital will be delighted that Tharnicaa is now out of hospital and that the family are together in Perth, with parents Nadesalingam Murugappan and Kokilapathmapriya Nadesalingam and Kopika being issued three month bridging visas. Many have been less pleased by the minatory tone of government ministers — the reports of Tharnicaa’s illness may have been exaggerated and she will remain in community detention, that the family have no guarantee of returning to their friends in Biloela and must continue to live in uncertainty and anxiety.

The contrast between the tenderness of the children and the impersonal power of the government was marked. To me it recalled the story of Perpetua’s third century death at the hands of the Roman authorities. She and other young Christian women were hauled before the crowd, scourged by gladiators, and then set upon by wild animals. Perpetua was gored by a wild cow, and then killed by a gladiator. The contrast between the courage and powerlessness of Perpetua and the grizzled implacability of the Roman justice system is echoed in the case of the Murugappan family.

In both stories an outside observer cannot but ask how it came to this. What made the Roman authorities and Australian ministers see their actions as a normal part of their daily business? What made Perpetua and the Murugappan family endure humiliation, isolation and the threat of death rather than recanting their claims of conscience and of need?

At stake in the difference between the parties were different understandings of humanity. Underlying the claims made by Perpetua and the family is the understanding that each human being is unique, precious, with an inalienable dignity. They command a respect that forbids us from them as means to our other ends. That understanding might make someone be prepared to accept execution rather than violate their conscience. It is also enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights to which Australia was a signatory. Behind the story of the Murugappan family is the progressive abandonment of respect for human dignity by Australian governments of both sides in its refugee policy, and the inevitable ethical corruption that has accompanied it. By corruption I mean the lack of empathy and the weakness of will that make bad actions seem unexceptionable.

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