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Cruelties unconfined: Humanising refugees and the Biloela Tamil family

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The Tamil family from Biloela have humanised the plight of refugees being treated inhumanely by our Government (Screenshot via YouTube)

It's been easier for the Government to punish refugees until now, when a family has put human faces to their struggle, writes Dr Binoy Kampmark.

THE LATEST REFUGEE DRAMA to be added to the annals of “Fortress Australia” centres on the plight of a Sri Lankan family who have been subjected to the coldest of institutional reactions. Most Australians will struggle with the names, but they have found their way into popular circulation through abbreviated form. 

Nadesalingam Murugappan is known as Nades and Kokilapathmapriya Nadesalingam is known by the name of Priya. They have two children: four-year-old Kopika and two-year-old Tharnicaa, both born in Australia.

Their credentials as refugees have been impeccable from a political and ethical perspective, though the local judicial authorities in Australia right up to the High Court have thought otherwise. In Australia, judges tend to be inclined to accept the assessments of bureaucrats when it comes to such matters as asylum determinations. More the pity. 

While the legal battle has been ongoing, the family contributions to a rural town have been heralded. They have been, in the crude language of the economic citizen, “productive” in their community of Biloela in Queensland. Then came the guards from Border Force and Serco, the reading of the deportation notice and the transfer to Christmas Island. The move generated a local and and national campaign to keep the family here.

Behind the refusal to permit the family to stay lies a dogmatic form of ministerial stubbornness, an obstinacy that is being tested. It suggests that one of the most powerful figures in Australia today is Peter Dutton, the Home Affairs Minister who seems to have sidelined Immigration Minister David Coleman

But more to the point is a certain unnerving of officials tasked with rendering asylum seekers and anyone classed as a refugee invisible. In legal cases, they are mere letters and numbers, anonymised by paperwork, folders and files — in their pleas, they are the invisible, to be kept behind the veil of law and its grindings.

This particular family changed the dynamic of Australian reaction to refugees. At the very least, the family has humanised a process intended to be impersonal.  Their faces are splashed across channels and social media; their grief is the subject of regular commentary. Their names are being mentioned in glowing terms on such networks as radio station 2GB by the otherwise less-than-sympathetic Alan Jones, one hardly known for its softness on the issue of asylum seekers. 

“I was asking [the Prime Minister] for a bit of practical Christianity.” 

Former Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, another conservative who has not always been sweet on refugees, decided to make an exception in this case:

“The people of Biloela seem to be pretty enthused about keeping this family there. I think we should be listening to them.” 

Besides, they were not choking the roads of Melbourne or Sydney — these were good people doing their bit for regional Queensland.

Shadow Home Affairs Minister Kristina Keneally has suggested, perhaps correctly, that Dutton has attempted to move the family to Christmas Island “to get them out of sight of a sympathetic Australian public”.

Efforts have been made by the Prime Minister to revert the narrative to its glacial formulation: these people did not follow Australian regulations and must be treated accordingly. The language is inverted — a good conscience is deployed against humans in the name of a higher, abstract notion: impenetrable borders, absolute considerations.

Scott Morrison said:

“I do understand the real feeling about this and the desire for there to be an exception but I know what the consequences are of allowing those exceptions.”

Such attitudes suggest a degree of what Robert Manne has termed “absolutism”, something current Australian politicians share with their White Australia progenitors.

As he described it in 2016, this is:

‘...the almost 100-year conviction that not a single person of non-European stock would ever be permitted to settle in Australia.’

While it can be argued that exceptions will be made, say, for white South African farmers, the issue has more to do with ‘the so-called Australian immigration culture of control’.

Another inversion has also taken place. The seemingly impervious wall of secrecy covering the issue of boat arrivals has been tactically breached. The Government’s mouthpiece, The Australian, suddenly came into rich material on vessels that had been turned back — from Sri Lanka, no less. When Morrison was Immigration Minister, he was the chief engineer of the idea that “on-water matters” could never be discussed.

Now, he is very happy to do so, provided they are sanitised through appropriate media channels and politicised for effect:

“The Government releases information as it believes it’s important to do so. We followed a practice that we have in the past and I think that keeps the issue of the ever-present threat of illegal arrivals to Australia foremost in the public’s mind.”

As per the usual mania, Morrison draws upon his old friends of populist inspiration, the people smugglers, who “are watching everything that happens in Australia”.

So does The Australian, claiming with sweet viciousness that Murugappan and Nadarasa:

‘...arrived unlawfully by boat in 2012 and 2013 respectively, having taken advantage of the Rudd and Gillard Governments’ border debacle which saw an influx of 50,000 unauthorised individuals and 800 boats.’ 

The language of “illegals” persists, despite being erroneous in the spirit of the U.N. Refugee Convention. As is known by those with more than a smattering of knowledge in this field, seeking asylum by whatever means of transport, is a right hardly extinguishable by arbitrary local laws.

In the words of that veteran of refugee advocacy, Julian Burnside:

What is strikingly inconsistent about such matters is that populism – the original, shallow basis for implementing a policy deeming all who arrive by boat to Australia eternally damned to removal and barring – has not quite gone the way the Morrison Government expected. It is an unruly, intemperate steed.

The general hard centre of Australian politics since the Howard years has accepted a generously applied policy of deportations and offshore processing. This, however, was premised on dehumanising the people concerned, rendering them faceless. To do so enabled cruelties to be perpetrated. In the words of the French philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas, ‘the face is what forbids us to kill’.  Oh, but to see it, all intimate, all anguished.   

What matters now is whether ministerial discretion will be exercised, even as the injunction applications continue to be granted. (The latest is the order by Federal Court Justice Mordecai Bromberg permitting the family to remain in Australia for another 12 days, allowing more time for the Immigration Minister to provide evidence that the youngest of the two children has no right to protection.) 

Discretion is the sort of thing that can be exercised flippantly, casually and the manner befitting soft corruption. Dutton has already shown that he is prone to be swayed on tinkering with paperwork. He has also shown that discretion can be applied an ample number of times. According to Keneally, some three instances of that discretion is applied every week — 4,000 in all, including that seedy case of the au pairs. But to do so would admit defeat, and concede that Fortress Australia may, eventually, be breached by that most powerful of images: the human face.

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. You can follow Dr Kampmark on Twitter @BKampmark.

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