A pound of flesh: the penalty for seeking refuge

Across the road from my apartment window is a large office building. Square-shaped, drab, and filled with multiple levels of monotonously arrayed cubicles, it looks like a purposively built testament to the alienating condition of modernity. This visual dystopia is what greets me every morning, its early bird personnel a reminder that apart from the anxious, overworked, caffeine-fuelled worker bees that comprise Melbourne’s inhabitants, there’s little human contact to be had.

Come night time, discomfiting apparitions change the picture. As darkness descends – long after the last official employee has clocked out – the unofficial workers fill the hallways to do the dirty work that no one else will. Cleaning, tidying, and refurbishing the working space so as to make it fit for their ‘real’ counterparts, this reserve army of labour consists of those uncounted in the fantasies of affluence and dignified employment.

I often stay up late, trying and always failing to catch up on reading and study, only looking up every now and then to watch the workers across the road. It’s my own way of standing in solidarity, a pathetic gesture if ever there was one.

On one such an occasion, I came across a tragic news article: having just finished a three-hour cleaning shift, a worker in one of Sydney’s shipping yards walked out of the premises and then doused himself in petrol and set himself alight.

Given the nature of this incident – as in, given that this is the near death of one who is already unaccounted for in the voter stocktake of liberal democracy – coverage was negligible. But a few details have surfaced so far. The young man was originally from Sri Lanka. He was of Tamil background (part of the island’s minority that has been systematically marginalised and brutally suppressed), and had sought asylum in Australia since 2012.

Last week he was informed that his application for a permanent visa had been rejected, and that he would be sent back to the terrors he had fled.

The response of Scott Morrison, the Immigration Minister, was truly ghastly. It was not enough that, like many others seeking asylum, Janarthanan had placed himself at the mercy of an alien country; had endured a system infamously bureaucratic and fickle; and had been on tenterhooks for an infinite 18 months, during which every week was, we can imagine, an agonising medley of suspense, helplessness, and uncertainty. As the year and a half walk to the gallows came to its conclusion, with the victim in hospital with burns to over 70 per cent of his body, the minister could summon only enough magnanimity to pronounce it a ‘deeply distressing incident’.

By way of explanation, or rather exoneration, the spokesperson for the minister confirmed that the decision regarding the visa application had earlier been approved on appeal to the Refugee Review Tribunal. Specifically, Janarthanan ‘was found not to be owed protection’.

What does it mean to decide, procedurally and through legal mechanisms, that the most vulnerable in our societies are not owed protection? And what does it mean to then state, immediately after the horrifying deed was done, that ‘the government’s focus is to ensure for the proper care and support of this young man”?

Here we have a peculiar instance where the law is being followed to the letter, so to speak. Where Janarthanan, and a multitude of asylum seekers, are concerned, the law is mysteriously unwilling to bend to the compelling force of exigent circumstance. Instead, official procedure stubbornly goes by the books, insisting as it does on ‘impartiality’. This is what Ghassan Hage has described lucidly as ‘Racism as excessive legalism’, emphasising the structural aspect of racism in the law. The latter is also what makes it possible for the Attorney General in this country to claim in public and with all seriousness that ‘people have the right to be bigots’. What he meant by ‘people’, of course, is anyone like himself: white, middle-class men who are so privileged that their sole insecurity is that of being called out for the bigots that they are. The framing of rights in this way reveals the inherent class-based stratification in the regime of protections (Jeff Sparrow’s article in Overland lays this bare).

There is an added dimension to this particular incident, and government’s curious way of responding to it (‘whatever fate befalls him over there is more conscionable than his death in his/our hands’). The attempted suicide and the response (or lack thereof) it provoked speaks to the perverse logic of debt.

According to this logic, Janarthanan was not exercising his internationally sanctioned right to claim asylum due to life-threatening circumstances. That, after all, would only be possible if he was considered within the logic that determines the nation-state’s protection of each individual citizen. Instead, the asylum seeker is regarded as nothing more or less than a foreign and alien life-form that must explain and justify its existence and entry into ‘our’ world: a life-form that, by its very presence, owes a debt to us.

To put this differently, we can think of those who we treat as guests. The guest is one who, by virtue of her unfamiliarity, we would treat with privilege and hospitality.  This extends to the point where, should this guest break a certain rule or law, we would subject the transgression to a completely different and more lenient and flexible set of rules – the presumption being that the guest is unfamiliar with our way of doing things.

Such treatment is premised on an unconditional hospitality that requires of the guest no explanation of origin or motive.

Flip this on its head, and you have the asylum seeker: hospitality and sanctuary are not owed to them, whether they claim it or not. In fact, it is they who are immediately in debt, and they who must prove that we owe them something back in exchange (this is why it is a daily occurrence for the migrant or the refugee to be challenged by the ‘where are you from originally?’).

This obscene logic, possible only within capitalist governance, reduces the asylum seeker to a bare life that can make no claims to rights or protections, except by the whimsical mercy of those in power. In this case, the excessiveness and ‘impartiality’ of the law ends up amounting to the absence of the law: those claiming sanctuary can no longer appeal to legal and universal principles, but must instead rely on the mercy of a calculative, bureaucratic, yet ultimately arbitrary machine that has no ethical impulse.

Before self-immolating, Janarthanan wrote a letter expressing the wish to die in Australia than in Sri Lanka. The gangsters who rule this country – who try to deter other ‘aliens’ by making the most grotesque examples of the most vulnerable, who enforce their will and collect their pounds of flesh, and who claim to ‘ensure for our proper care and support’ – may not have received the message but we might make something of it. In a single act, Janarthanan undertook to exercise sovereignty over his own body, making his presence felt without any prompting by the authorities and the laws that had come to dominate his existence.

The message was inextricable from the medium. Unfortunately, the medium also betrayed the message: defiance will be mistakenly understood as desperation and weakness, and a country that dares not mourn the Aborigine will barely shed a tear for the refugee.

Faisal Al-Asaad

Faisal Al-Asaad is an Iraq-born writer, researcher, and educator based in Tāmaki Makaurau, Aotearoa. He is primarily interested in critical theories of race, settler colonialism, and racial capitalism.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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