Review: Michelle Fosteron Writings on Asylum Seekers

Between bad and worse: A Country Too Far: Writings on Asylum Seekers

2014 marks the sixtieth anniversary of Australia’s ratification of the Refugee Convention –  the ratification that brought the Convention into force in international law. Australia was involved in drafting the Convention at the end of World War II, and was also involved in settling – with great success – large numbers of displaced refugees from Europe in the ensuing years. As Tom Keneally explains in his contribution to A Country Too Far: Writings on Asylum Seekers, 170 000 displaced persons came to Australia between 1947 and 1952 alone. By 2010, the Refugee Council estimates that 750 000 asylum seekers and refugees had received permanent protection in Australia.

When we consider this impressive figure, as well as the world class programmes, resources and facilities in place for enabling the successful transition of refugees into Australian society and our best practice refugee status determination system, which has produced internationally accepted guidelines for interpreting the Refugee Convention, we have much to be proud of as Australians. This generosity has not only contributed to Australia’s status as a responsible international citizen; there is strong evidence that it has been overwhelmingly positive for the country. The Department of Immigration’s own research ‘shows that refugees and other humanitarian entrants make an important contribution to Australia in many areas including social engagement, workforce participation, business ownership and volunteering within the community.’ Research commissioned by the Department in 2011 found that ‘most refugee families, especially those in the second generation, are able to adjust effectively over time and eventually match and in many cases exceed Australian-born levels of economic and social contribution’.

Yet here we are in 2014 engaged in a frantic ‘race to the bottom’, as Raimond Gaita puts it, whereby asylum seekers who arrive by boat – over 90% of whom have historically been found to be genuine refugees – are being ‘screened out’ of any asylum process and sent home immediately, or transferred to countries in which their basic human rights are not respected and they are not even physically safe. Those who are permitted to remain in Australian territory face indefinite detention, or release into the community with no work rights and an uncertain fate. And this is not a recent phenomenon. Over the last twenty years we have witnessed governments of both persuasions attempt to find a ‘solution’ to this ‘problem’, as though the reality of refugee flows – a global phenomenon that is centuries old – can be neatly contained and controlled in our isolated pocket of the world.

One of the key objectives of the drafters of the Refugee Convention was to ensure that the spectre of boat pushbacks that had occurred before and during World War II, and which resulted in Jewish refugees being returned to extermination in Europe, as Anna Funder documents in her excellent contribution to A Country Too Far, would not be seen in the post-war era. Yet ‘stopping the boats’ – a policy that has extended to ‘pushing back the boats’ – has become possibly the most successful mantra in Australian political history.

The Refugee Convention rests on the basic principles of international co-operation, burden sharing and humanitarianism – ideals which underpinned the post-war era. Australia’s approach for more than fifteen years is more accurately described as burden shifting. This attempt to ‘contract out’ our international obligations was born in response to the infamous Tampa incident in 2001, and initially took the form of offshore processing centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea. The Pacific Solution Mark One was characterised by an asylum process clearly inferior to that available in Australia. It lacked many basic safeguards, there was a lack of access to legal representation, and asylum seekers were placed in indefinite detention on isolated islands with limited and inadequate facilities. It was regarded by many as a blight on our history, including the incoming Rudd government in 2007. Consistent with its stated aims of reversing many of the legacies of the Howard era and introducing a policy framework designed to bring Australia into line with its international commitments under the Refugee Convention, the Rudd Labor government closed the offshore detention centres in both Nauru and Papua New Guinea in 2008, with the then Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Senator Chris Evans, stating that the ‘Pacific Solution was not about maintaining integrity or public confidence in Australia’s arrangements. It was about the cynical politics of punishing refugees for domestic political purposes.’

Notwithstanding such strong and hopeful sentiments, the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government failed to withstand political pressure and began to search for its own offshore ‘solution’ to the ‘asylum problem’. After exploring both East Timor and Malaysia as potential options (the Malaysia deal was scuttled by the High Court), the Labor government ultimately managed to re-open centres in Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. This policy has remained in place under the Abbott Coalition government. Following the recent death of one asylum seeker and severe violence suffered by almost 80 others on Manus Island, it has been suggested that Cambodia may become the next country in the continuing roundabout of responsibility shifting that has become the hallmark of Australian refugee policy.

While these developments are well known to the Australian public, far less is understood about the legislative sleights of hand that have been required to effect this situation. The ‘tides of legislation’, in Judith Rodriguez’s phrase, that have been required to permit such contortions of the rule of law – both international and domestic – are little understood but important to document. The first step was to ‘excise’ certain islands from the ‘migration zone’ in order to remove the right of asylum seekers to apply for protection under Australian law as of right. This was initially confined to just three islands, but eventually 4891 islands were excised during the Howard years. This legal fiction was completed in 2013 by the outgoing Labor government when it excised the mainland as well. The excision applies only to those arriving by boat, leaving out of the debate the significant numbers of asylum seekers arriving by air. And it means that for asylum seekers arriving by boat anywhere in Australia, the Immigration Minister has ultimate discretion whether to assess claims on-shore or to exile genuine asylum seekers to countries that cannot plausibly fulfil our international obligations.

While governments have in the past clung to the justification that they are in compliance with international law in implementing such arrangements, any such pretence was arguably abandoned in 2013 when amendments to the Migration Act deleted the provisions which had ensured that transfer could only take place if consistent with international legal obligations. It substituted a single criterion for determining transfer: the national interest as determined by the Minister for Immigration. The conferral of ultimate discretion on the Minister and the hasty removal of asylum seekers to other jurisdictions makes it difficult, if not impossible, for Australian courts to review executive action in this area. What this means for a democracy in which the rule of law is supposed to prevail is cause for concern for all Australians.

Perhaps worst of all, these policies have been implemented in an attempt to gain political popularity. The number of asylum seekers arriving by boat has historically been very low in Australia compared to the global challenge. As a proportion of Australia’s overall migration programme, the numbers are insignificant. Yet, as Jiva – a Sri Lankan refugee – observes in Fiona McGregor’s contribution to A Country to Far, refugees ‘occupy a big space in people’s imagination’. The debate around this issue has become so toxic and politically charged, that one does despair – as does Funder and other contributors to this volume – as to whether we can ever navigate our way out of this deadlock, given that the only alternative polices put forward by the major parties are designed to be harsher, more cruel and more damaging than what has gone before. ‘In the short term our politicians have given us choices between bad and worse policies,’ observes Gaita. ‘We have little reason to think things will get better.’


This is the context in which A Country Too Far has been published and it helps to explain why it is so profoundly important. It deftly and eloquently touches on so many of the key tensions and issues in this debate. Its 29 contributions from some of Australia’s most prominent writers embrace a wide array of literary techniques, including poetry, short stories, essays, memoirs and personal reflections. Collectively, they confront the reader with the reality of the asylum seeker journey: from the decision to leave home, to the often frightening and harrowing nature of the escape and flight, to the ongoing effects of past trauma and persecution, to the lived experience of subjection under deliberately cruel policies at the end of the journey in Australia. The book’s greatest achievement is to humanise what is fundamentally a humanitarian problem. It encourages understanding and empathy for the plight of asylum seekers and challenges us as Australian citizens to confront the truth about what is being done in our name and with our resources.

In a thought-provoking essay, Gaita challenges us to develop a conceptual framework and a language for understanding ‘the ethical character of affliction when it is the result of evil done to those who suffer it’ and ‘what it means for their humanity to have been violated’. Other contributors highlight an even more immediate challenge: to find a language to describe and communicate basic facts about current policy. While many in the community who have met, advised, assisted, advocated for, or in a myriad of other ways encountered asylum seekers have experienced the ‘impotent rage’ in response to government policy that is so vividly depicted in Rosie Scott’s contribution, many others in the community appear indifferent.

What explains this indifference to or, worse, explicit support for clearly cruel and harsh policies in a country of immigrants that prides itself on ‘a fair go’? A Country Too Far suggests several contributing factors at play. Undoubtedly a key factor – and one that has been discussed frequently, albeit with little effect – is terminology. Language is powerful: it shapes and defines the debate and provides a shield behind which we can hide. In her introduction to the collection, Rosie Scott argues that the refusal to acknowledge that we are dealing with people who are in profound need of our help – via the use of terms such as ‘detainees’, ‘transferees’, ‘illegal maritime arrivals’, ‘illegal entrants’, ‘illegals’, ‘terrorists’ and ‘fraudsters’ – permits the fact that ‘we are talking about the most marginalised people on earth – deeply traumatised refugees who have lost their countries, homes and families through disasters of every kind’ –  to be lost in a ‘storm of venom and cliché’.  As Rodriguez writes in her powerful poem, entitled ‘There are no words for this’:

It’s simple: they’re different. Plus,
Illegals, they chose their fates.

A second important factor at play is ignorance. Although there is a wealth of information in the form of simple ‘fact sheets’ available from a host of relevant organisations, many people do not have any idea about the most basic facts about refugee policy in this country. What explains this? Many people feel overwhelmed with the magnitude of the problem (‘surely we cannot help everyone’), confused by the slogans (‘surely boat people should “wait in line”?’) and ethically torn (‘surely we should try to prevent deaths at sea’). Yet few people take the time to challenge and question these confused and conflicting messages. Many of the pieces in this collection attempt to shake us out of our state of confusion and ignorance. They challenge us to be informed, to know what is being carried out in our name and why. As the late Judith Wright observes in her autobiography Half a Lifetime (1999): ‘The sins we commit in ignorance taste bitterer to the tongue than those we intend.’ Her daughter Meredith McKinney contends in A Country Too Far that the ‘moral failure’ described in Wright’s autobiographical reflections can be seen ‘writ large in the sorry story of Australia’s treatment of refugees today’.

One of the main issues – particularly under the current government – is the lack of information readily available to the public. This is partly because one of the most damaging policies – the indefinite detention of men, women and children who have committed no crime – occurs behind closed doors in detention centres located for the most part far from Australian cities. ‘There has been an ugly brilliance to this silencing,’ observes Geraldine Brooks. ‘Whoever devised the gulag system for asylum seekers understood very well that the Australian heart was too big to withstand the truth about the people who risked everything to come here.’

Gail Jones’ short story captures the sense of disengagement many feel in relation to this issue. The protagonist watches the news and sees images of boat arrivals but ‘there were no close-ups, just this lonesome drifting ship filmed from high above, like something stranded and fictitious; so she could not see the women and children, or imagine details of their lives’. Other contributions consider whether the ignorance is in fact wilful. As the character of Dora states in an extract from Funder’s novel All That I Am (2011): ‘It is not that people lack an imagination. It is that they stop themselves using it. Because once you have imagined such suffering, how can you still do nothing?’

The underlying reasons for such ignorance are complicated and numerous, but one thing is certain: one cannot read this collection and return to a life of ignorance or wilful misunderstanding about the reality of policy in this area. The damage inflicted by our detention system both onshore and offshore is vividly highlighted in pieces by Debra Adelaide and Denise Leith. Contributions by Keneally and others describe the impact of damaging policy settings, which have been deliberately designed to deter others, such as temporary protection visas, the denial of work rights, and the denial of family reunification. Stephanie Johnson’s brilliant dystopia forces us to confront the ‘Golden Rule’: that one should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself. And a number of contributions – including those by Kim Scott, Sue Woolfe, Fiona McGregor and Alex Miller – encourage us to recall our history and to remember, in the words of Miller, that ‘Australians, new, old, naturalised and unnaturalised, with the exception of the Aborigines themselves, live in a place that is manifestly not their own’.

A third contributing factor to current attitudes that is suggested in a number of the contributions is the degree of misrepresentation that abounds in many aspects of the debate. As Brooks observes, ‘if the truth is silenced, lies can fill the space. And that is what happened.’ In challenging many of the simplistic slogans, the book has the potential to contribute enormously to a more informed public discussion. For example, some people in the community assume that asylum seekers explicitly target Australia, mainly for economic reasons, and the fact that asylum seekers often do not come directly from their country of origin, but via other countries in the region, presumably underscores this perception. ‘It is as if we believe the asylum seekers, the day they fled home, had the intention to impose themselves on Australia, and Australia alone,’ observes Keneally.

Many of the contributions – most notably those from Debra Adelaide, Arnold Zable, Bella Vendramini and Kathryn Heyman – provide insight into the decision to leave. Such a decision is often made hastily, once all hope is gone, and often when the killing of a loved one has exposed the overwhelming nature of the risk in remaining. Such a decision is not made lightly, and the focus is on safety and freedom, not a particular utopian destination. The courage it takes to leave one’s home, family, language, culture and country is profound. Once that decision is made, especially where family members have sacrificed themselves and all available resources to allow the chosen one to seek safety. ‘Once begun, the thing has been to keep going,’ observes the protagonist in Rodney Hall’s haunting contribution. This insight into the difficulty of leaving helps us to understand why and how asylum seekers find the fortitude to withstand so much, to risk so much, to endure so much.

As Keneally observes, governments of both persuasions have designed policies on the supposition that ‘people can be frightened out of trying to escape terror or likelihood of death’, an assumption shared by many people in the community.  Yet when we understand the horror so many are fleeing and the fact that there is no protection worthy of its name in our region of the world, we can understand why travel to Australia is often the only option.

Arnold Zable writes of Faris – an Iraqi Kurd stripped of his citizenship and expelled from Iraq – who lost his wife and daughter at sea in the infamous SIEV X disaster in 2001, in which 353 people died. Twelve years after the boat journey ‘there is no respite’ from the pain. When he does manage to sleep, ‘He dreams – of the boat going under, of his wife Layla, his daughter, Zahra … They are floundering the ocean. His daughter’s hand in his. She slips from his grasp …’ Yet when Faris is asked if he would risk the journey again, he replies: ‘Of course!’ The persecution from which he fled left him no choice: ‘What did I care? What did I have? I am suffering for what? To die was much better.’

Several contributions highlight the lack of alternatives for asylum seekers to seek safety through ‘regular’ or ‘lawful’ means. There is no system by which a person can patiently wait in their country of origin, confident that a protection place will eventually become available.  For a start, a person is not a refugee in international law until they have left their country.  Once they are outside their country, they will often find no place – whether a consulate or UN agency – to which they can apply for protection. And even if they do find such a place, there is no ‘international queue’. Few countries offer resettlement programmes, and those that do – including Australia – do not base their decision to resettle on how long a person has been waiting in a so-called queue. The Refugee Council estimates that it would take 117 years for all the world’s refugees to be resettled. Since there is no visa available to come to Australia to apply for asylum, the only option for many genuine asylum seekers is to attempt the perilous boat journey.

Keneally points out that while most asylum seekers who arrive by boat are found to be genuine refugees, this is not true of those arriving by air, who are far less likely to be found to be genuine refugees. This exposes the ultimate catch-22 of Australian refugee policy. If you are a genuine refugee, you will almost certainly not be granted a visa to travel to Australia. But if you are not, then you are far more likely to be given a visa to travel to Australia, which in turn permits lawful entry and application for asylum without risk of detention or subjection to other deliberately harsh policies designed to deter.

This catch-22 also assists in explaining why there is a demand for people smugglers – the ‘scum of the earth’ according to then Prime Minister Rudd. While several contributions rightly acknowledge the negligence and cruelty of many in this industry who exploit asylum seekers and place their lives at risk for financial gain, other pieces suggest that the picture is not so simple. Robin de Crespigny’s extract from her excellent book The People Smuggler: The True Story of Ali Al Jenabi (2012) highlights the heroism and integrity that can be inherent in assisting others to seek freedom.

Despite the confronting nature of much of this collection, hope does emerge. Rosie Scott’s introduction notes that there are, at present, more than 100 Australian organisations giving help to refugees. Indeed, as government policy intensifies in its cruelty, some organisations find themselves deluged with volunteers – testament to the widespread discontent among many citizens who are determined to fight feelings of frustration and impotence with action.

On reading this collection, one cannot but take the view that we are at a crossroads. We cannot continue on this path and still hold ourselves out as a civilised member of the global community or maintain pride in our history as a nation that, as Brooks puts it, was ‘founded on the sweat of the poorest, most despised outcasts of nineteenth-century society, a country that saw those people come together to forge one of the best and fairest and most prosperous nations the word has ever seen’. We need genuine leadership which can counter the fear, ignorance and misunderstanding so endemic to policy in this area. Keneally’s essay reminds us that we were once capable of such leadership. He recalls past challenges and the way in which leaders, such as Ben Chifley and Malcolm Fraser, responded to major crises of displaced persons, and cites Bob Hawke’s response to the overnight transformation of 42 000 Chinese students in Australia into refugees sur place following the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. ‘Chifley’s alacrity in accepting [displaced persons from Europe post-World War II] had global repercussions,’ notes Keneally. Sir Robert Jackson, the Australian-born Secretary-General of the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration from 1944 to 1948, attributed the eventual solution of the post-war crisis of displaced persons in part to ‘Mr Chifley’s immense contribution at that point’.  We can only hope that this collection is widely read and that it stirs within us a desire to reclaim the compassion that we once had and demand from our leaders a more humane policy – one consistent with international law and with our status as a responsible member of the international community.