So another asylum seeker was found dead on Manus Island earlier this week, outside the camp. Hamed Shamshiripour was his name. The government is calling it a suicide but his fellow captives dispute that. He’s the fifth asylum seeker to die on Manus; more have died than have been resettled.
I don’t write or post as much as I used to about asylum seekers, which is basically saying I don’t speak up as much, and it’s not easy to explain why, even to myself. Events in the US started taking more of my attention last year, but that’s not the whole story. There’s a point at which you reach compassion fatigue. The horrors are so frequent and so endless that it’s like how you can keep track of it all, how can you maintain the grief and outrage? You start to wonder if there’s something wrong with you, how come you can’t chill. And if you do speak up about it a lot, after a while people look at you funny.
I remember a few years ago when someone at work called me a refugee activist. I’d posted a few times about going to visit asylum seekers at Villawood with my church minister. By the way, that place is awful. It’s not like one of the offshore gulags, mind you; when you step in, the staff are friendly and it just seems like a modern correctional facility. But when you think about what goes on there, it’s dystopian. I could hardly stand to be there for two hours, and always felt shattered afterwards. I could hardly stand to look my friends in the face and hear about how depressed and hopeless they were. Several of them were raising kids there.
Anyway, I’m an activist because I’ve visited Villawood a few times? Because I speak up? I’m political because I care? Is that how it is? I thought of the real activists I know.
Later I decided it was better to own it and become an activist, or at least as much as I can manage as a dad, because someone has to be. So here I am. (I can picture the tabloid headline: WHERE WAS HE RADICALISED?)
Here’s what I mean about fatigue. The government has been trying to force the asylum seekers on Manus to resettle there. One of the poorest places on earth, where there are no jobs, where these men are not welcome in the community, where they’ve regularly been attacked in the streets, and where they could be lynched for being gay. These men have refused to leave the camp because they know they have every right to be resettled in Australia, and for the past few weeks they’ve courageously protested every day. The government has actually shut off power and water in the camp to try and strongarm them into leaving. Giving them a choice to either endure filth and thirst, or risk disease from unclean water. The choice is between that and being unprotected and destitute on Manus. Our government is doing this.
I’ve seen these headlines almost every day lately, and shuddered to myself, but thought, how can I find the words to say something, again?
That’s a strategy on the part of our so-called leaders. They know most Australians either don’t care or are afraid to care, and for the minority that do, they can grind us down while they do nothing and spew lies.
Congratulations Peter Dutton, you evil potatohead ghoul, you’ve succeeded in grinding me down. I mean I’ll never give up, but at least partially, for now, you’ve succeeded. Is this how it was at other times in history, I wonder – is this how it was if you cared about the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War? After a while, because no-one was listening, you sorta gave up?
As for Ben Doherty, the journalist who covers asylum seeker issues for the Guardian, I have no idea how the guy stays sane. His 9–5 job is looking into the abyss of what we’re doing to these people.
It’s worth recapping, just to remind ourselves of the total insanity of it. These people have come here seeking asylum because of war, torture and ethnic cleansing in their homelands. They’ve had their towns bombed, their homes destroyed, seen their relatives raped, tortured or executed, or been tortured themselves; one of my Sri Lankan friends in Villawood showed me his scars. They’ve left their families and homes, risked everything on journeys of tens of thousands of kilometres that we can’t even begin to imagine, and come here with nothing at all.
And when they arrive they’re incarcerated like criminals – or worse: criminals have rights, they have sentences and appeals. These people are treated more like prisoners of war, with no rights, no appeal, no limit to how long they can be locked up. Even though they’ve done nothing wrong, even though international law says they have every right to seek asylum, even though they have kids with them, they’re put in camps – concentration camps, that’s the only sensible word for these places. Offshore hellholes in the tropics with no adequate health facilities, bad food, limited clean water, where corrupt guards beat and rape. Where a newborn might be living in a tent with no air conditioning and no clean water for baby formula. Where a person might die of an infection from a cut on their leg. Places so miserable that swallowing razor blades or setting yourself on fire seems like a better alternative. This is all as illegal and immoral as it gets – human rights groups say it’s literally torture. Our government is torturing innocent people. But everyone pretends it’s OK, like it’s just what we have to do. Labor has as much blood on their hands as the Liberals. Gillard and Rudd opened the offshore camps; they get to be celebrities and collect speaking fees and sip champagne while children are mentally, physically and sexually abused.
I remember when I first moved here from the United States in 2009 and read about mandatory detention, I thought I was missing something. Wait a minute, are you kidding, they put refugees … in prison? But why? They’ve done nothing wrong! It took me a long time to get my head around it. The contrast with that and what Australia was supposed to be was so massive I couldn’t make sense of it. I was that naive. (At that time I wasn’t aware that the US was doing it too, and in fact President Obama greatly accelerated the policy of mandatory detention along with deporting almost three million people, but that’s another story.)
But then everyone gets sucked into this mentality like it’s normal. The biggest thing refugee activists have to fight is that mentality. They end up negotiating common humanity like it’s some dangerous new idea. You can oppose the torture of refugees with all your heart but the mentality that this shit is normal blankets everything in public life like acid snow, and you have to fight to keep your head above it. Like let’s all go to the beach or a sausage sizzle or whatever and pretend this is the lucky country while innocent people in detention are setting themselves on fire. It is not normal.
There should be half a million of us blocking the Harbour Bridge, and saying we won’t go home until they evacuate the camps and bring the refugees here. That’s the only rational and sane thing we should all be doing right now. But you have to spend years battling the fatigue and the funny looks just to a get a few thousand people to Town Hall, while these people steadily lose hope. And it’s like, how many more refugees have to die?
Images via Refugee Action Coalition and protesters on Manus Island.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
Subscribe | Renew | Donate November 9–16 to support progressive literary culture for another year – and for the chance to win magnificent prizes!