Getting acclimatised to horror

6475318-3x2-700x467PHOTO: For a country that values its commitment to human rights as does Australia, the silence in the face of Rohingya suffering is a humiliating moment. (AFP: Christophe Archambault)

Isn’t it wonderful that popular culture provides us with glossy rituals of glamour and celebrity to distract us from the realities of our lives and the lives of others. Like Eurovision. Go Guy Sebastian! – Catchy little song he’s got. But I’d rather sleep than sit through that pap.

Still, it’s easier to shut my ears and eyes to Eurovision and not be affected by it. Whereas hearing the latest spin on those asylum seekers languishing in South Asian waters is something I can’t disengage from.  Julie Bishop has been told by Indonesian officials that the Bangladeshis on those boats are all illegal labourers, or ‘economic migrants’ and not refugees at all. I dare say there will be much debate and speculation about the validity of the claim. Whatever the outcome, I’m deeply troubled.

I awoke this morning thinking that we will no doubt also describe all environmental refugees who leave their land as a result of climate change, ‘economic.’ A sure justification for sending them back. As sea levels rise, and floods and droughts decimate the world’s poorest nations, what are people to do? Sit down and die? That would go against our basic survival instinct.

So now I wonder. Is a stage being set? Has it occurred to anyone else that the harsh attitudes to asylum seekers the world over is less to do with not wanting to home war’s collateral overspill and more to do with the looming horrors of climate change? One that invokes a pointed hardening of attitudes of the citizens of recipient nations. Are we being systematically conditioned into accepting as banal things which should turn our stomachs and see us taking to the streets enraged?

A stage set so that countries like Bangladesh will end up being their own ‘internment camps,’ as their peoples flee only to be dumped back on shore. No gas required. Death assured.

And with those deaths will die our conscience.

No applause.

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Asylum seekers: confronting the double face

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There are two faces to Australia’s asylum seeker policy. There is the outward face, all smiles and hooded eyes, that espouses ‘stop the boats’ mantras to indoctrinate the masses. We are to be persuaded of the necessity for harsh, inhumane treatment of asylum seekers journeying by boat. We are to disregard these peoples’ basic human rights and apportion blame for all their suffering on the shoulders of the smugglers. We are thus exonerated from guilt. We need look no further, for our government is right, opportunism is to be condemned. It is only us who gets a fair go.

The outward face is a veil, a mask. It has been constructed to hide what lies within.

The inward face wears a bland expression. Eyes stare in blank denial, mouth set firm. This is the face of systematic brutality, a daily occurrence in detention centres both on and off shore. Not a day goes by without advocates passing on testimony of the violations of normal respect and decency, and of the systematic cruelty, degradation and psychological torture. Not a day goes by bereft of the despair of those incarcerated and their supporters. It makes for harrowing reading. Through these reports, and through such books as Antony Loewenstein’s Profits of Doom I have come to understand the cool, calculated methods used by corporations (Serco, G4S, Transfield) running these ‘facilities,’ the clinical way they go about their business, all manner of unspeakable decisions justified by the profit bottom line. Bloodsucking corporations filled with a cohort of Adolf Eichmanns.

For there is but a whisker of difference between the orders that are issued, and the manner in which they are carried out, in detention centres and in the Holocaust camps.

“I go down to the jetty, where several dozen DIAC, Serco, police and Customs officials, as well as interpreters and ambulance staff, await the arrival of the refugees. A number of CI residents and tourists are there too, and are mostly middle-aged or older. The ones I talk to all express opposition to refugees. They are “illegals” who might come and “take over”, like “what’s happening in parts of Europe”. One person says, “They should be pushed back to Indonesia, where they will be safe. Why are they coming to Australia? What if terrorists are on the boats? We have poverty here and people living in bad conditions on CI, but they come and are treated better than Australians”. I mention Serco and ask whether anyone cares that a private company is making money from greater numbers of refugee arrivals. One older man says he feels uncomfortable about it, while a tourist isn’t aware of the fact.”- Profits of Doom
“Curtin is surrounded by scrubby desert as far as the eye can see. I can’t imagine a more isolated place to be detained. Demountables are scattered beside the road near the car park and high barbed-wire fences surround the detention compound. We can see new houses being constructed nearby, and a freshly laid concrete pathway leads to the main entrance. The last years have seen the construction at the centre of gymnasiums, religious rooms and classrooms…Serco posters and signs advertising the company are ubiquitous in the reception area. They display the smiling faces of happy staff and multicultural imagery that includes a Muslim imam. A colour brochure emblazoned with four grinning faces from various racial backgrounds sits on a small table near some lockers.‘Bringing service to life’ is the company’s motto. The pamphlet says that Serco ‘promotes the inherent dignity of people in detention in line with the Australian government’s new immigration detention values’. A number of other pieces of Serco literature are scattered around reception. ‘Visitor Conditions of Entry’ states that there are three visiting periods every day, including between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m., but also says that arrival after 5 p.m. will not be permitted. There are dozens of rules and regulations on the sheet, including: ‘Respect the privacy and dignity of all people in the centre’. It’s a noble goal, but one that staff routinely breach, detainees later tell me.” Profits of Doom
“….We unloaded the motor. It was a heavy Russian benzine engine, at least 200 horsepower. we installed the engine on a concrete foundation and set up the connection between the exhaust and the tube. I then tested the motor. It did not work. I was able to repair the ignition and the valves, and the motor finally started running. The chemist, who I knew from Belzec, entered the gas chamber with measuring instruments to test the concentration of the gas. Following this, a gassing experiment was carried out. If my memory serves me right, about thirty to forty women were gassed in one gas chamber. The Jewish women were forced to undress in an open place close to the gas chamber, and were driven into the gas chamber by the above mentioned SS members and the Ukrainian auxiliaries. when the women were shut up in the gas chamber I and Bolender set the motor in motion. The motor functioned first in neutral. Both of us stood by the motor and switched from “Neutral” (Freiauspuff) to “Cell” (Zelle), so that the gas was conveyed to the chamber. At the suggestion of the chemist, I fixed the motor on a definite speed so that it was unnecessary henceforth to press on the gas. About ten minutes later the thirty to forty women were dead.” – Testimony of SS Scharfuhrer Erich Fuchs, in the Sobibor-Bolender trial, Dusseldorf
“Before the Jews undressed, Oberscharfuehrer Michel made a speech to them. On these occasions, he used to wear a white coat to give the impression that he was a physician. Michel announced to the Jews that they would be sent to work, but before this they would have to take baths and undergo disinfection so as to prevent the spread of diseases… After undressing, the Jews were taken through the so-called Schlauch. They were led to the gas chambers not by the Germans but by the Ukrainians…After the Jews entered the gas chambers, the Ukrainians closed the doors. The motor which supplied the gas was switched on by a Ukrainian named Emil and by a German driver called Erich Bauer from Berlin. After the gassing, the door were opened and the corpses removed….” Testimony of SS-Oberscharfuehrer Kurt Bolender, In the Belzec-Oberhauser trial

The inward face is ugly. It portrays the clinical indifference of the psychopath. There is no empathy and no conscience in the eyes. It is as if we are witnessing the emergence of a plethora of death camps, a many headed Hydra, one that has learned from past mistakes and chosen psychological over physical death of inmates as the path of preference. There is profit, as long as they stay alive.

And a sort of psychological death is the reality especially for children and long-term detainees who must suffer the ordinary mundane tortures of life on Nauru, Manus or Christmas Island, or Curtin, Villawood or any other gulag. Such tortures do not extract blood, do not cause extreme physical pain. Instead, the methods are not dissimilar to those enacted by a perpetrator of domestic violence. They are designed to drive a person mad.

Asylum seekers are not a problem: they’re people

dystopia

With thousands of asylum seekers and refugees in the Straits of Malacca, crammed into boats without food and water, rejected by country after country and towed back out to sea, the desperation of vast numbers of people scrambling to reach safer shores could not be starker. They may be fleeing terror. They may be fleeing destitution. And we must strive to understand the circumstances of such flights in their entirety before we dare to point an accusatory finger.

The blame game will only succeed for so long. A hugely successful propaganda technique is to isolate the ‘fall guy’ and blame to the hilt. When it comes to asylum seekers, we are told to blame the people smugglers. While I dare say such traffickers are not my kind of folk, because I prefer to spend time with people with scruples, they are, like many agents and go betweens, providing an essential service, and making a profit out of the fee.

In  The last time they turned back the boats, Jeff Sparrow draws a parallel between the rejection of the Bangladeshi and Rohingya refugees and the Jews on St Louis, and our ‘casual indifference’ to such atrocity. Such indifference is cultivated in part through a manipulative play on our fears, of terrorism, and of ‘opening the floodgates to job stealers.’ Thus a nation may stand firm against ‘marauding outsiders’, control its borders with impunity, its citizenry hardened into callous yet bogus self-preservationist attitudes.

What is alarming about today’s situation is that we are able to turn our hate-fueled eyes in the direction of any and all outsiders, wherever they come from. And the causes of asylum seeking are ignored.

Yet unless we examine those causes, we will be complicit in an evil as great if not greater than the Holocaust. People take flight when fight is not possible. When villages have been razed, towns ethnically cleansed, when the women are raped and the men slaughtered. When there is nothing left to eat or drink. People flee because they are desperate. The decimation of the Middle East, the ongoing violence and oppression across North Africa, Myanmar, the civil war in Ukraine, are but a few examples.

We are also on a precipice. Climate change is already spawning refugees. Bangladesh, home of 156 million people, is slowly sliding under the sea, village by village.

And let’s not forget there are huge sums to be made out of refugees. (And of course war) Who cares about human suffering when profits can be gleaned running detention centres? In fact, refugees make more money than prisoners, so bring it on. The more suffering the better. This sort of statement is not seen on Serco’s home page, or G4S’s, but it should be, and if these corporations told the truth about themselves it would be.

Serco, a corporation run by the super-rich. A corporation that profits out of the poor. That sucks from the teat of the tax payer’s bottle confident the bottle will never run dry.

In essence, asylum seekers exist because the super-rich exist. Because such people are expendable. The reality is that we are all expendable. The insanity of the situation we are living in is that of a parasite determined to kill its host.

Australia is a world leader in a universal cruelty. When St Louis  was looking for a home, the locus of evil was Germany. Now we have multiple loci as country after country seeks to guard and close its borders. I have no idea how this will end. I suspect that there will be much horror ahead before it does.

Asylum – the story behind the story

Asylum is my first novel. It began life as a story with a number of enticing elements bound together in truth. Like protagonist Yvette Grimm, I was an English-born visa overstayer and I really did invest my hopes in a palm reader’s prophecy that I would meet the father of my children before I was thirty!

Asylum Cover 2

In about six months I produced a first draft. I was pleased with the achievement, producing 80,000 words of fiction is no easy thing, yet the story seemed to meander on, reaching a conclusion that felt flat. So I set aside the draft, reasonably happy never to look at it again.

Yet the title nagged me. ‘Asylum,’ with its double meaning, seemed well worth exploring, but how?

Months later a friend and blogger, Colin Penter,  posted on facebook a link to a book. It was Profits of Doom by Antony Loewenstein. I borrowed a copy from the library and read it from cover to cover in two days. Profits of Doom led me to explore the plight of asylum seekers and I soon found a plethora of online commentary, and much activism around the country. I began to wonder how I could contribute.

It was a gnawing sense of injustice that caused me to return to that draft of Asylum. I axed over half the text, ripping into the narrative scene upon scene until the barest bones were left. I set about making visa overstayer Yvette Grimm an artist because I wanted her to be as different from me as possible and I can only paint walls. I managed to work Profits of Doom into a scene. Things were progressing well but towards the end the narrative still lacked intensity.

That was when a friend, Georgia Matthey, came round for dinner and after I had outlined how things were in the fictional land of Asylum, she began to describe a recent event in her life. Seeing the potential straight away, I grabbed paper and pen and wrote down her vignette and with her permission used it to shape the climax of Asylum.

I could now call Asylum a manuscript and I needed a reader. I was thrilled when writer, feminist and activist Jasmina Brankovich put up her hand. I had to wait weeks for her feedback and when she told me she loved it I knew I could publish with some confidence.

At first I serialised the story in weekly parts on my blog but demand grew for a whole book, so I took the indie path and with the help of Cohesion Press converted Asylum into epub and Kindle editions.

Asylum explores the theme of seeking asylum, Yvette juxtaposing her experiences with those of asylum seekers being held in detention. It is my sincerest wish that Asylum both entertains and contributes to the larger dialogue on the treatment of asylum seekers in Australia.

You can read my non-fiction writing on asylum seekers in On Line Opinion or here on my blog.

Welcome to Australia

I woke this morning at about five o’clock to the sound of cock crows and magpie chortles, knowing that my third piece, Welcome to Australia, would appear in On Line Opinion  today.

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It’s a controversial piece and in the pre-dawn darkness I feared some would misread it and accuse me of being anti-Australian. Then I thought that if they did, it would only serve to strengthen one of the themes.

My thoughts wandered on to all the different sorts of people who are against our treatment of asylum seekers. From human rights lawyers such as Julian Burnside, to doctors, actors, musicians, writers, teachers, religious groups and social advocates, Liberal voters, Labor voters, Greens voters, all sorts of people motivated by all sorts of factors.

The bottom line for all of us is that we care.

Why do I care? What motivates me? Before the break of dawn I recalled my relatively late entry into the asylum-seeker cause. It was entirely the result of investigative journalist Antony Loewenstein’s book, Profits of Doom. A fast-paced read taking the reader from Curtin to Christmas Island, then on to PNG and beyond. Of concern to Loewenstein is the role that transnational corporations such as Serco and G4S and Transfield play in the detention of asylum seekers. He calls them vulture capitalists. I think that’s an apt description.

And such corporations don’t restrict themselves to running detention centres. They run our railways, our hospitals, our courts, our prisons, our defence services, anything in fact that governments outsource. Even, if our government has its way, Medicare.

I can only conclude that asylum seekers held in indefinite detention are profiting these vulture corps in exactly the same way as we profit the very same corporations the moment we hop on a train. Corporations who also profit from our taxes, which our governments hand over in payment for their services.

Asylum seekers are the ultimate victims of this system. Like prisoners, the longer they are there, and the more of them there are, the greater the corporate profit.

Yet there is no separation here. We are all victims of the same system.

I think that is why I am so passionate about the mandatory detention of asylum seekers. They are lambs, sacrificed in the name of a dollar god.

Abbott’s barrow of inhumanity

I realise I have a number of Liberal supporters in my friendship network. I am not Liberal in a political sense, but I understand and respect those who are. If I didn’t, then I couldn’t in the next breath champion social democracy. A pluralistic society includes a wide range of views/beliefs/party affiliations and so on.

Blake

Having said that, I cannot condone our current leadership. Yes, all politicians are apt to be very one-sided, to push their own barrows and in so doing make all the other barrows seem full of falsehoods and bad policies.

Abbott, however, is beyond the pale.

And he’s back to his old self. His attack on the Human Rights Commissioner yesterday took my breath away. All aggressive accusations, his defence packed with lies and omissions. He was vitriolic and entirely inappropriate. His reaction was so strong it echoed reactions of despots.

In People of the Lie, Scott Peck said the defining attributes of an evil person are the capacity to lie, and an unwavering belief in those own lies, and to deny, as if in righteous innocence, those lies. Out of that denial, comes the attack/defend dynamic.

I think Abbott displays these attributes. I find him verbally abusive, in much the same way as a perpetrator of domestic violence.

Malcolm Fraser is with me on the same page, and I have included his press release in full here:

““Enough is enough”

The government had the Australian Human Rights Commission’s report on children in detention on 11 November last year. They have tabled it on the last possible day. It is now clear that the attacks made on the Commission, especially by senior ministers, has been designed to make it easier for the government to ignore the Commission’s report.

The government’s response is a disgrace. It is based on a lie. They claim to have saved lives by stopping the boats and that the trauma inflicted on children by detaining them, is a small price to pay. They deliberately chose an inhumane way of stopping the boats.

If the Australian Government worked with our regional neighbours and the UNHCR, to process people humanely in offshore processing centres in Malaysia or Indonesia, then there would be no market for people smugglers. Refugees would be flown to their final destination. This is not supposition or hearsay. This was the policy model adopted during the exodus of refugees fleeing Indochina following the Vietnam War. It would work again.

The real question for the government is why did they choose to do this, despite the trauma and harm done to hundreds of children, when there was a decent and proven way of achieving a much better result.

The attack on the integrity of the Human Rights Commission and its President is only to be expected of this government, who uses bullying as their default tactic. The attack is consistent with the way the government has approached legal decisions that have gone against it. This government has also refused to listen to our highest Court, undermining the rule of law and ignoring International Law.

The only conclusion we can really draw is that the inhumanity inflicted on these children is part of a policy of deterrence, which the government has pursued relentlessly. Australians needs to understand that this government has chosen an inhumane path when a compassionate path was available to it.”

Rt Hon Malcolm Fraser AC CH

I’m not a politician. I’ve explored the issue of asylum seekers here on my blog, in articles such as The moral descent of Australia’s policy on asylum seekers. in which I assert that the asylum seeker strategy amounts to, “an ideological war…, one in which the victims of war and persecution in their own lands have become the victims of a war playing out in ours.

Under attack is the very fabric of our morality. We are being systematically conditioned into accepting the cruel treatment of others as necessary and inevitable…”

 

 

 

What does it take to care about asylum?

The only horror most of us are prepared to watch is via our movie screens. If we took the time to put ourselves in an asylum seeker’s shoes with one droplet of empathy and a tiny bit of imagination, we’d be mimicking Edvard Munch’s The Scream.

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Meanwhile, asylum seekers are taking extreme measures to protest their incarceration. A hunger strike is no small thing.

Yesterday I received word from a friend on the ground. She said the temporary protection visas, the ever-present threat of being rendered stateless or deported back to certain torture and death was so horrendous, case workers and volunteers were in despair.

How much resilience can we expect of people?

For how long do we expect such cruelty to go on?

Every day I read harrowing reports from those in detention centres. I read as well the anguish and desperation in the hearts of those front-line volunteers who visit asylum seekers regularly.

I hear too, the frustration voiced by so many that we as a society are not doing enough. We are failing in the eyes of the world, and we are failing in the eyes of our own people.

Stand up Australia! Pledge support! Do something, anything to let the asylum seekers and their supporters know you care.

Why? Why bother? Because doing nothing makes us little better than those who turned their backs on the concentration camps and pretended they were not there.