We Australians might like to think our policies on asylum seekers are based on humanitarian concerns, but to the rest of the world, I think we may appear to be a bit racist.
…O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us…
~ Robert Burns, poet laureate of Scotland (1759-1796)
Robert Burns was talking about a head louse but those few lines got me thinking about the way Australia is perceived by the rest of the world these days. And, d’ya know, I think we look a bit racist.
Our already vicious policies towards asylum seekers are set to get harsher still. We are, after all, competing with tyrants and murderers to see who can treat vulnerable people with the most cruelty.
Asylum seekers are caught between their escape from the world’s worst and an Australia trying to convince them we can be just as bad, so don’t come here.
We might dress it up as a humanitarian concern for people who risk and lose their lives at sea, but I’m not sure we’re fooling anyone.
I think we look a bit more like a very wealthy nation refusing to shoulder its share of an international burden because of xenophobic fears about non-white people.
It’s not like we don’t have a bit of form on ths one (White Australia Policy, anyone?) – form which the international community may not have forgotten as quickly as we’d like to think.
In 2010 Robin Williams described us as “English rednecks” and, two years on, we don’t seem to have any shortage of people willing to prove him right.
November alone has seen international coverage of a bigot on a Melbourne bus hurling racist, sexist abuse and threats at a young French woman and a lunching ex-cricketer who – oblivious to the fact the world, South Africa included, has moved on in recent times – made a racist remark during the first Australia v South Africa Test.
Neither is a good look, but they’re worse when stood alongside our policies on refugees.
Our seat on the UN Security Council hasn’t had time to get warm but it shines a spotlight on Australia and our response to our international obligations like never before.
So is this the best time for our government and the opposition to be openly competing with the bad guys overseas to see who can be the most repellent?
The only good thing to say is that we’re not quite winning that one yet, because the boats are still coming. But it doesn’t look like we’re giving up the attempt any time soon.
To see ourselves as others see us requires us first of all to see others as ourselves.
That’s why human stories are so important in the news coverage of big events. Wars and other tragedies can appear as remote as a far-off game of chess without the context provided by the testimony of ordinary people.
We need to see their faces and hear their stories and, when it comes to asylum seekers, we need to understand why, no matter how foul we can be, they still want to come here.
Sitting somewhere on an Indonesian shore right now is Barat Ali Batoor, a photojournalist from Afghanistan who has given us a rare opportunity to see the other side of the asylum seekers’ tragedy, right down to a sinking boat.
He wasn’t covering the story, he was the story.
Batoor’s work, particularly his photo essay on the Afghan child prostitutes known as ‘dancing boys,’ made him enemies within both the Taliban and the Kabul government. When he ran he took his camera with him and documented his journey from persecution to… well, to further persecution in Australia, if he’s lucky.
He’s already braved one failed boat trip to Australia which claimed the lives of some of his companions. He survived and so did the pictures retrieved from his damaged camera.
They document, in rare detail, the human stories of a group of refugees, as well as the moments their boat sank, and you can see them in a remarkable photo essay at the Global Mail.
You can also watch this report by Mark Davis for SBS’ Dateline.
Now Batoor sits and waits for his asylum seeker application to be processed because Australia is still preferable to wartorn Afghanistan – for which, really, we should be pleased.
While I was reading Batoor’s story, certain comments kept popping unbidden into my head, so insidious a part of our national conversation have they become.
These comments, about queue jumpers and economic migrants as just two examples, are expressed often by politicians, the commentariat and ordinary Aussies and so I knew just where to insert them.
Roughly anywhere that indicated Batoor and his companions weren’t destitute, psychologically broken and sitting helplessly and hopelessly at the back of a fictional queue.
These comments stand between the reality of the human tragedy breaking on our shores and our willingness to empathise and help.
They also affect our ability to see ourselves as others see us.
As we blunder our way through another round of demonisation and persecution of refugees, it might be useful to remember that the world is watching and making its own judgments.
We might like to think our policies reflect our compassionate regard for “genuine asylum seekers,” as the discourse goes, but our message sounds more like the only refugees we’ll accept are the ones who are already as broken as possible.
If you’ve still got the heart, the hope and the resources to try and get here, we’ll make sure you’re broken before we let you in.
Meanwhile, somewhere on an Indonesian shore, a photojournalist is doing his job and documenting what it’s like to be caught between two competing sets of bad guys, the Taliban and us.
The picture of ourselves his work throws back at us ain’t pretty.
And it just might look a bit racist, if you didn’t really know us…
Barat Ali Batoor has been accepted for resettlement in Australia. Here’s a report from the Straits Times, 3 May 2013