When weighing up asylum systems, Australia's found wanting
On a May episode of the ABC's QandA program, audience member Matt Graham stumped the panel with this cracker of a question:
It's come to light this week that animals being transported via boat from Australia to Indonesia, are subject to inhumane treatment. Now, meanwhile we've quite literally got boats coming past the other direction and … we can only really describe [the situation the people on board are fleeing] as inhumane as well. Now, in the view of the panel, which story is more likely to generate compassion from the wider Australian public?
This question was asked following the Four Corners story that sparked the live cattle export controversy, precipitating huge public outcry and immediate action by the Federal Government to suspend the practice.
But on Thursday last week, after Sarah Ferguson's report on the suffering taking place in Australia's immigration detention centres which aired the previous Monday, Law Professor Sarah Joseph tweeted this sorry observation:
#4corners story on cruelty to humans, followed by a suicide, hasn't provoked same outcry & response as its story on cows.
The notable lack of uproar about the conditions in Australia's detention centres, as showcased on last week's edition of Four Corners, seems to confirm Q&A panelist and News Limited columnist Joe Hildebrand's somewhat flabbergasted response to Mr Graham's question back in May. He pondered whether:
There might be some people who would be terribly moved by the plight of … Australian cows [leaving Australia] and might be less moved by the plight of refugees coming into Australia because they're not Australian refugees…
Seriously, Australia, WTF?
Unless Australia is prepared to shred the Refugees Convention and turn its back on the international community, people will still get on boats to come reach the country's shores. We've seen again this week the reality – however tragic – of a world where persecution and conflict exist in stark relief against pockets of stability and protection. As Aussie novelist Richard Flanagan wrote in December in the UK's Guardian newspaper: "The wretched of the Earth, forced to choose between despair and hope, will continue to choose hope." Fellow Aussies, it's time for us get real on refugees. Let's put a stop to our grotesque and unthinking incarceration of asylum seekers. We must demand responsible, ethical asylum seeker policy: the lives of the people to whom we own a duty of care depend on it.
Brynn O'Brien is a lawyer working on human rights, global work and migration issues.