Australia has crossed a moral Rubicon in its treatment of asylum seekers by returning Sri Lankans to a country where they could be tortured or even killed. It is time to turn traitor.
During World War II, several delegations of exiled European scientists went to various American congressmen and senators to warn them of the dangers of a German atom bomb and the need for a program in the United States. They found it hard to get a hearing for many reasons, not least because the politicians — many of whom had no great quarrel with Nazism — could not believe that people would be so “traitorous” to their country as to want to help it to be bombed. The willingness to actively turn against your own country, as opposed to merely criticising government actions from within, is not something to be taken lightly.
But there are times when that decisive shift seems necessary, and that point may have been reached with the return of a shipload of Sri Lankan asylum seekers to the place from whence they had departed, and the consequent establishment of this as potential standard practice from now on. If that is to be the case, Australia’s relationship to the world has changed, and so should ours to Australia.
Put simply, a new focus of high-profile refugee advocates now has to be not the argument within Australia, but one outside it, in high-profile venues — all the way up to the United Nations and the newly (somewhat) liberalised Vatican — to denounce and censure Australia and begin the process whereby real international sanctions could be applied to our country. This shift is not related to the incidents of self-harm or suicide attempts on Christmas and Manus islands, even though these demonstrate what we have always argued about the use of detention as a deterrent to asylum seeking — that such places inevitably descend into brutalised psychological torture camps. However appalling, that did not give a trigger to turn the attention to Australia from the outside.
The “refoulment” — a euphemism — of the Sri Lankans is another matter entirely, because it now means that we have decisively abandoned the most basic principles of the Refugee Convention and demolished any moral limit that would prevent us from handing people back to their possible torturers, and eventually, murderers. It’s a measure of how crazily lawless and amoral we have become — and how easily that is being normalised within Australia — that people are being picked up in international waters by the Royal Australian Navy merely on the basis that they might be coming to Australia. This is an expression of the demented exceptionalism Australia has adopted — that we license to ourselves any measures to preserve some pristine notion of the country, while the rest of the world copes with refugee flows vastly in excess of anything we could imagine. When a white Australian tourist is arrested in some country with shady police, we scream blue murder about international norms. Now we are the shady police. The hypocrisy is total.
“Sometimes it is not only permissible to act against your country, but absolutely essential to do so.”
Internally, the more wanton and amoral the Abbott government becomes — the waters ably prepared for them by the Rudd/Gillard government — the more hardened, irrational and plainly neurotic a section of the Australian public becomes about this. Externally, the Sri Lankan return — to a place where it is a felony crime merely to leave in the way they did — marks a point at which we have become simply outlaws, corrosive not merely to our own political culture, but to the practices and principles for the treatment of refugees, as established by the Refugee Convention, a document that we not only signed, but had a hand in drafting.
This breach of international practice gives a chance for Australians to turn the heat on Australia from without, in the highest forums they can get a hearing in, to attempt to get some material international action and sanction towards us. Attention can then also be drawn to the psychological torture factories we have created as a deliberate part of refugee policy. Australians from within will scream traitor, but there are times when that risk must be taken. Not to preserve the honour of Australia, not principally to shame the majority of the population into better action — if anything, it may make things worse — but simply because when the country has abandoned any notion of morality, the demands of loyalty are broken, and the demands of morality take precedence.
And no, this is not a breach of Godwin’s law — I am not comparing the Abbott government’s actions to Hitler. But the general approbation by history of the German and Italian scientists who did help build the US atomic bomb shows that we all recognise this moral demand — sometimes it is not only permissible to act against your country, but absolutely essential to do so. For leaders of Australian refugee advocates that time has come.