‘I am standing on the threshold of another trembling world. May God have mercy on my soul.’
With that diary entry in 1981, IRA prisoner Bobby Sands launched his famous hunger strike in a British prison. But the words might equally have come from Omid Sorousheh, the Iranian asylum seeker, near death in Nauru after 45 days without food.
Has Omid kept a record of his ordeal? We don’t know, since Nauru remains largely off limit to journalists. Last week, the Age’s Michael Gordon hiked to the perimeter fence, where he witnessed scores of asylum seekers raising their arms as if manacled and chanting ‘We want freedom’ and ‘Don’t kill refugees’. But he didn’t manage to speak to Omid – and neither has anyone else from the press.
In other words, while British government detained Sands in the notorious Maze ultramax prison, the public remained far better informed about his protest than Australians are about Nauru where, according to the Refugee Action Coalition, Omid is paralysed and no longer taking fluids.
The writer Hannah Arendt once noted how the treatment received by the oppressed in the 1930s had been largely determined by their oppressors.
‘Those whom the persecutor had singled out as scum of the earth—Jews, Trotskyites, etc.—actually were received as scum of the earth everywhere,’ she wrote. ‘[T]hose whom persecution had called undesirable became the indesirables of Europe.’
That’s precisely what we see today. Omid fled the dictatorship in Iran. He’s no longer suffering at the hands of the Iranians. He’s dying in an internment camp run by Australians, as if the clerical regime had outsourced its policies here.
For Arendt, the refugee – that symptomatic figure from both the thirties and today – posed a radical test for nations that called themselves civilised. Yet, she said, the supposedly inalienable ‘Rights of Man’ seemed to collapse when those who espoused them found themselves confronted by people with no other political claims on which to fall back.
‘It seems’, wrote Arendt, ‘that a man who is nothing but a man has lost the very qualities which make it possible for other people to treat him as a fellow-man.’
Or, as the philosopher Giorgio Agamben put it in his gloss on Arendt, ‘When the rights of man are no longer the rights of the citizen, then he is truly sacred, in the sense that this term had in archaic Roman law: destined to die.’
The Irish nationalists traced their hunger strikes back to the pre-Christian tradition of Troscadh or Cealachan where a wronged person would fast outside the home of the transgressor, relying on strong indigenous traditions of hospitality to force justice.
Australians claim to be hospitable, too. But charity only applies to people – and Arendt’s argument implies that refugees are no longer understood in that category.
Certainly, in most discussions now, asylum seekers feature not as wronged parties entitled to redress but simply as a problem, a burden unfairly foisted upon innocent Australians. Hence the increasingly punitive response. Refugees have fled unimaginable suffering. But they are not received as victims. They are seen, on the contrary, as oppressors – and it is white Australians who are being persecuted.
The cruel measures imposed duly become their own justification.
Writing about the slaves of the eighteenth century, Montesquieu famously concluded that ‘it is impossible for us to assume that these people are men because if we assumed they were men one would begin to believe that we ourselves were not Christians’. Australians might be led by an atheist but the same principle applies. If we allow ourselves to think about the evil places to which the so-called ‘refugee debate’ has taken us, we might begin doubting our core self-beliefs. Better, then, to all agree: the refugees deserve to languish in camps on Nauru.
There’s an old joke from the Irish struggle that captures the sentiment precisely. A British soldier has bayoneted a rebel, and as the Irishman slowly dies, the Brit kicks him again and again. In his last moments, the rebel gasps, ‘Why do you hate us so much?’
The soldier looks down and says: ‘You bastards – we will never forgive you for what we’ve done to you.’
Sands died and so did nine of his comrades. But their unimaginable suffering spurred a major political crisis for the British government. In his agony, Sands became, for millions, recognisable not merely as an Irish figure but a universal one, a representative of oppression struggling against injustice.
Omid’s not alone standing on the threshold of another world. Australia’s reached the edge of something very dark with refugee policy. But it’s not too late to turn back. Omid does not have to die; we don’t have to go down this path. There’s still time. But it is quickly running out.