If reports are to be believed and the Australian government really has handed refugees back to the Sri Lankan army, this is a new low. But the situation did not come from nowhere.

For many years, we have been in breach of our international obligations. Department officials have been ‘screening out’ people for a long time. This process means that, if a person doesn’t say the right buzz words in an initial interview, or fails to explicitly claim they have a well-founded fear of persecution and are seeking asylum, they are returned to their country of origin. Though it seems increasingly common practice now (according to the little information we have), screening out may not be lawful. The problem is that it is almost impossible to test its legality – and the government knows it.

Of course, even if a person clears that hurdle, and is ‘screened in’, they win the prize of entering indefinite detention, with no prospect of a visa for Australia, ultimately to be resettled in PNG in some yet-to-be established system. This offshore processing system, despite being paid for and managed by Australia, is said to be a matter for those other countries.

With the events of the last week, the government has shown that it is prepared to screen people while at sea. They are implementing a sham legal process as far away from courts and lawyers as possible. Screened-out people will be given straight back to those from whom they have fled. What army of petty minded lawyers in the AG’s department came up with this scheme? Who could possibly think this is what is required to comply with the Refugee Convention? Who is so blind to see this as anything other than what it is: bastardry?

The thin end of the wedge was mandatory detention, which has been jamming its way into our public discourse ever since, creating space for bigotry and the politics of fear. This recent episode is the logical outcome of policy that sees law as something to be managed by technocrats, and innocent people as a means to a political end.

In a time of darkness, it is worth reflecting on history. The Refugee Convention originated from the plight of the MS St Louis, a German transatlantic liner that set sail from Hamburg, Germany, for Havana, Cuba in 1939. The St Louis carried 938 passengers, almost all of whom were Jews fleeing from the Third Reich. Famously, the Cuban government failed to provide refuge to any but a very small selection of passengers. The boat sailed onto the US, where, again, the cries for help went unanswered. After the US government’s refusal to grant refuge, the St Louis was forced to sail back to Europe.
The refugees dispersed around Europe. Ultimately, 532 passengers were trapped on the continent when Germany conquered Western Europe. Of these, 278 survived the Holocaust – and 254 died.

If the current reports are true, the historical equivalent of the Australia government’s conduct would be a decision to hand the refugees from the MS St Louis over to the Nazis – as well as equipping the Third Reich with the boats to ensure the passage of innocent people into the hands of their persecutors.

This entry, from the Holocaust Encyclopaedia, is a disturbing echo of what has just come to pass:

The voyage of the St. Louis attracted a great deal of media attention. Even before the ship sailed from Hamburg, right-wing Cuban newspapers deplored its impending arrival and demanded that the Cuban government cease admitting Jewish refugees. Indeed, the passengers became victims of bitter infighting within the Cuban government.

The point is that deliberate indifference to the plight of refugees from figures of authority is just as timeless as the movement of refugees themselves.

While successive governments have tried to stop the flow of refugees, we have paid a hefty price, morally, socially and economically. We spend billions of dollars on cruelty to prop a system of borders that have always been porous and will continue to be.

The fact that our government responds to reality with hostility towards human suffering gives a telling insight into their policy settings generally. Abbott & Co see the state as playing no role in ameliorating the suffering of people – refugees, the disabled, the sick and poor. They are content to leave us to float in a sea of despair; they are not responsible, they say.

A fake border emergency is like fake budget emergency: a pretext for the socialisation of costs and the privatisation of benefits.

What we’re seeing is where we arrive when we adopt a policy to deter refugees by making matters worse for them than in the country that persecutes them. What is next? Will we deter them by force?

Australian refugee policy has never been about saving lives at sea, and all the Ruddites who peddled such a line (as Marles does today) must share responsibility for the degradation that is taking place. Enslaving some people to ‘disincentivise’ others from saving themselves is a perverse moral calculus.

Australia is now a signatory to the Refugee Convention in name only. There is only the thinnest pretence of civilisation concealing our treatment of the persecuted.

Lizzie O'Shea

Lizzie O’Shea is a lawyer. Her book Future Histories (Verso 2019) is about the politics and history of technology.

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  1. We as Australians should be utterly ashamed at ourselves. This is our fault, because we sit around and do nothing. We let these bastards in and we know we are powerless to stop them from wrecking what was once a great nation. This will tarnish our history forever.

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