A man has been tortured – all is going to plan

A man has been tortured. Not just any man, though: an asylum seeker from Afghanistan, who came to Christmas Island by boat, and spent six months in detention there before being transferred to Australia. A man denied refugee status first in 2012 by the Labor government, and then finally and definitively this year, by Scott Morrison’s office. A man who became ‘the first Hazara to be forcibly deported back to the country he was fleeing.’

After three weeks back in Afghanistan, he was kidnapped and tortured by members of the Taliban.

This story broke, in all its tragic detail, on 4 October. It featured on the front page of the Saturday Paper, accompanied by an image of the man after he’d escaped, with the Taliban’s chain still looped around one ankle.

For all the sharp and harrowing details of this man’s story, for all its front-page prominence in the Saturday Paper, for all the outrage it has generated online, this is not a revelation. It does not lift the lid on the cruelty of the Abbott government, or Morrison’s refugee policy. It provides more particulars, but otherwise tells us only what we already knew: that the government is jeopardising peoples’ lives by returning them to situations in which they face imminent (and increased) danger.

On the contrary, the story confirms the Abbott government in the path that it has been proudly pursuing since coming into office. This is not the blowback of an ill-advised policy of refoulement; this is the means to success for a policy of deterrence through intimidation.

Tony Abbott said that he would stop the boats. Through stories like this, he will do so. As the article makes clear, some people in asylum-seeker countries of origin still do not believe that Australia would deport refugees. Abbott won’t stop the boats with his own boats, but he will stop them by piling miseries on people who try to come to Australia by boat.

The calculus is simple: stay in Afghanistan to face the threat of persecution, or flee to Australia, spending large amounts of time and money only to be passed through a brutal system of detention, before winding up back in Afghanistan to face a greater threat of persecution. It’s not just that deportation lands you back where you started: deportation marks you, makes you an easier target than before you left.

This is effective deterrence. A coldly utilitarian logic that will destroy exactly as many lives as it takes to dissuade every single potential asylum seeker from attempting to reach Australia by boat (by plane is a different story). It is the same logic that makes Reza Barati’s death and a Manus Island mob a handy propaganda tool for the Australian government. The same logic that sees Scott Morrison prepared to spend millions of dollars to dump some asylum seekers in Cambodia, a country currently home to less than a hundred refugees and asylum seekers.

Decrying the cruelty of the policy will not undermine it. Cruelty is the means to the completion and success of this policy. A little cruelty is judged fine as long as it counteracts the supposedly greater cruelty of the people smugglers. A little cruelty is also fine when inflicted on those that are said to bring it upon themselves: queue-jumpers, economic migrants, potential criminals or bludgers or terrorists.

The Abbott government is banking on word of its cruelty getting out – or, at least, enough word about enough cruelty getting out to make clear that the costs outweigh the potential benefits of trying to reach Australia by boat. This is the Abbott government’s own calculus: that the benefits of being the party that stopped the boats outweigh the negative press of being a bunch of heartless bastards. It’s calculated the perfect amount of cruelty: just enough to strike fear into potential asylum seekers and prevent them from boarding boats, but not enough to make a decisive number of Australians lose all faith in their elected leaders, and boot them out of government as unceremoniously as possible.

We have to show them that they’ve got the calculation completely wrong, and that the threshold for tolerable cruelty is a lot lower than they think. A man has been tortured, and that’s already too many people and too much cruelty. But his story is not unique: men and women have been tortured in Sri Lanka, too. And that also feeds Abbott and Morrison’s logic: wherever asylum seekers ends up – whether in Afghanistan or Sri Lanka or Manus or Cambodia or any place but here – they are supposed to face greater cruelty than they would have faced by never setting out for Australia in the first place.

Philip Johnson

Philip Johnson is a doctoral student in Political Science at the City University of New York and editor for the Guantánamo Public Memory Project. He is from Sydney but currently lives in Brooklyn. He tweets at @phillegitimate.

More by Philip Johnson ›

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  1. Thanks for writing this. Where are ‘the disappeared’ without their advocates? Exiled. Excised. Invisible. Voiceless. We must not become normalised to human rights abuses just because they are multiplying around us.

  2. This is a very passionate and heart-felt piece. Thank you. Sadly, tragically, this practice (including the policy) may be the most extreme example of the Abbott government’s right-wing, neo-liberal ideology. Read heartless, read divisive, read watch out the rest of Australia. And yes, how do we change the politics surrounding this entire debate.

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