Peter Dutton

Sam (not his real name) is a seven month old baby whose parents are seeking asylum in Australia, having arrived by boat some years ago. But to the Department of Home Affairs, Sam is a “client” with an application ID and a file number. And in the Kafkaesque world of that department, Sam is treated as though he were an adult.

Earlier this month Sam received a letter from the department. It was written by “Bill” — officers in this department rarely reveal their surname when they send bad news to migrants. “Bill” works in the “Community Status Resolution” branch of the department. The letter was not addressed to his parents, which would have been sensible since, as adults, they can read, write and comprehend. It was addressed to Sam. No need to read that again, you understood it: the letter from the department was addressed to a seven month old child. 

The “Dear Sam” letter tells him that the application he personally made for a bridging visa is not valid because “it did not meet section 46A of the Migration Act” because he was an “unauthorised maritime arrival” and therefore “an unlawful non-citizen”. This would be news to Sam, given that he was only born seven months ago and could not be an “unauthorised maritime arrival”.

But because of this label, he was advised to “depart Australia or contact the department for advice and assistance on resolving [his] status as soon as possible.”

The letter goes on to tell Sam that the department “value your compliments, complaints and suggestions”. Oh, and if Sam wishes, he is invited to jump onto the department’s website and provide that feedback online. A copy of the letter was sent to Sam’s parents’ migration agent but the letter is not addressed to that person and the letter does not refer to Sam and his parents as clients of the agent. In fact the letter is written as though Sam dropped from the sky and landed among us. His parents are not mentioned anywhere in the letter.

Sam is not the only newborn to receive threatening and incomprehensible letters from the Department of Home Affairs. Any child born in Australia to parents who came here by boat and who have not finalised their migration status, gets what is clearly a stock-standard letter where the role of the writer is simply to insert the name of the child and the date of birth.

The practice of writing letters to babies is Kafkaesque in the true sense of that word. That is, a “surreal world in which all your control patterns, all your plans, the whole way in which you have configured your own behavior, begins to fall to pieces, when you find yourself against a force that does not lend itself to the way you perceive the world,” as Frederick R Karl, the author of a magisterial biography of Kafka, defined what is an oft used and much abused label.

The “Dear Sam” letter says much about the mindset of the Department of Home Affairs. It dehumanises every individual within its scope. That a person is seven months old or seventy does not matter. If they fit within a bureaucratic category then the same information is communicated to them, irrespective of the fact that the author must surely know it is in the realm of the truly absurd to be writing a letter to a seven month old child directly.

But it is also cruel. One can imagine the reaction of parents and other family members reading a letter addressed to their much loved and cherished new born child which reduces them to a “file number”, labels their child as unauthorised and tells that child they must leave Australia.

Greg Barns is a barrister and a spokesman on human rights and criminal justice issues for the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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