Andrew Bolt calls this latest boat docked off Merak in Indonesia “Rudd’s Tampa”.

Part of the reason why it’s not is because we’ve seldom seen images like this of boat people. We’re never up this close. And we haven’t heard soundbites from children before, or very articulate teachers like Alex.

Back in the Howard years, asylum seekers were kept well away from the camera. And children were definitely not seen or heard.

As David Manne, principal solicitor for the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre, told Crikey:

“What we’ve seen and heard provides extremely compelling evidence of what these people are going through.

In the past, in the last decade, the Howard government went to extraordinary lengths to keep asylum seekers out of sight, out of mind, and out of rights.

There were very concerted strategies to do, with government instructions or directions to Australian authorities, including the military, to ensure that asylum seekers’ identities and voices were obscured.

… This was one of the key, potent propaganda tools to perpetrate this policy, which at its heart sought to deface and and then dehumanise these vulnerable people so that their faces coudn’t be seen and their stories couldn’t be heard.”

The images of today’s asylum seekers are not as tightly controlled, but being that they’re far away on Christmas Island, the Australian public never really get the chance to get up close and personal.

“At the heart of remote detention policy in this country is keeping asylum seekers out of sight and out of mind,” says Manne. “Because what’s also clear is, and our history tells us this, once the public is able to hear the stories and see the faces of these people, it touches people’s hearts and minds.”

Manne cites the example of rural communities and their role in advocating for refugee rights:

“One of the really important dynamics during the last decade of degeneration in the response to refugees was that one of the most important voices that opposed this was in rural and regional Australia. Many of those people who arrived by boat from 1999 to 2001 from Afghanistan and Iraq ended up living in rural and regional communities and became neighbours, became co-workers, co-parents with kids at school, and friends … These people became part of the Australian community and some of those communities became some of the most important voices in calling for a more humane and compassionate approach to refugees.”

A media scrum has descended on the boat in the dock at Merak, and the asylum seekers are speaking in soundbites. Not only that, these people have names. And cute children. They have clipped accents, they sound educated, they sound smart, they sound desperate, they sound like us.

It’s a little harder to work the “humane but hard-line approach to border security” angle, to try to outdo the Opposition leader in the hard-arse stakes in fact, when there are images of a small crying child pleading for help immediately preceding your soundbite.

This is Brindha:

“We are your children. Please think of us. Please. Please take us to your country. It’s OK if it’s not to Australia. It is better if any other country takes us.”

Somehow the tight-lipped demeanour doesn’t go down so well when Alex, the English teacher, has just politely congratulated you on your compassion in the past, and politely asks you to continue to extend that compassion.

Alex has left behind his pregnant wife in Jaffna. He said this to the media scrum:

“If you had no place, if you had no country of your own, what would you do? And how long would you stay in a boat before you were able to enter a country that will give you asylum?”

We are not animals. We are not dogs. We are not stray dogs. We are people without a country to live in.”

At this stage we don’t know the details of these people’s asylum claims, but nonetheless, if this continues, and these people are still docked when our Prime Minister makes it to Indonesia on Monday, how is Rudd going to play this?

“On current figures, current estimates, a refugee in Indonesia will on average take nine years to be resettled to a safe country,” says Manne. “Picture this: on average a nine-year wait, living at best in substandard conditions in a camp, periodically subject to imprisonment, and constantly at risk of being deported back to the scene of persecution. Living in a country that has not signed the refugee convention, can’t and won’t provide sanctuary to refugees and has a poor human rights record.”

Says Manne:

“This is a policy which has shifted from the Pacific Solution to the South-East Asian solution where Australia plays a central role in encouraging other countries like Indonesia to stop people coming here to seek safety … it seeks to get those countries to intercept people and then warehouse them in those countries and then Australia bankrolls the warehousing operations and exerts significant control over those warehousing operations.”

Alex was asked whether his group’s refusal to take their place in the refugee camps of Indonesia was unfair to the other asylum seekers who’d been waiting years.

He said: “I know it’s unfair. It’s very unfair. But the whole situation is so unfair, having no country of your own.”

Hard to argue with that. But now that Alex and Brindha are in our sights, will the public learn to care?

Peter Fray

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