Write that you’re ashamed of your country and the same bullshit argument descends like a dead snapper. Within three minutes Internet time, someone who doesn’t share your disenchantment will say “Why don’t you just fuck off to North Korea then?”
This is either a subtle recruitment strategy by agents of the Kim dynasty, or a series of Aussies woofing at the wrong foliage. Disappointment in your own country doesn’t mean you hate it and want it boxed up. It means you care enough that you want it to be better. Patriotism that denies all fault can dine out on a juicy choad.
There’s a story you know from thrillers and bad dreams. You have a heart-pounding escape from an evildoer. You reach safety, find an ally. Relief floods in, you have sanctuary. Then… the ally betrays you to whoever you were fleeing. Or you dodge the monster, bolt the doors, then turn to see your smiling friend change shape. Gaining hope only to have it snatched away, that’s the nightmare, and our most visceral form of despair.
Well, Australia is now that traitor who turns you in.
Aussies have two reactions when refugees are mentioned: switch off in boredom or retreat to established political lines. Instead of either, get your shit together for five minutes and think about this like a functioning person. It’s important.
Our government now hands Sri Lankan Tamils over to the same Sri Lankan military they’re running from. There are no grey areas here: we are surrendering people to a government with a proven recent record of murdering those like them.
It does not matter how hard or soft your stance is on asylum. It doesn’t matter if you say refugee or queue jumper. It doesn’t matter if you’re all about proper paperwork, using the front door, or one giant global reach-around. I’m not arguing any of those points. They’re not relevant.
What is relevant is what happens when human beings are in our custody. Of the options available for dealing with them, sending them to people who might kill them is not one. Sending them to people who will likely hurt them, imprison them, and subject them to surveillance and harassment, is not either. Speculating that they should have stopped in India just shifts the blame: “Hi, we’re delivering people to be tortured, but they deserve it because they didn’t follow protocol.” No matter whether we disapprove of how they got into our custody, what matters is how they leave it.
And guess what? Your gut feeling that they’re not real refugees isn’t actually relevant. Places where guessing is great include casinos, game shows, and the hilarious opening sequence to Lethal Weapon 3. Places where guessing is not great include refugee assessments whose subjects may end up being stomped in a prison cell. Baseless assertions do not mean you’re “telling it like it is,” they mean you are up to your back teeth in liquid dumbfuckery.
So the only point of contention is whether Sri Lanka is safe. Except that isn’t a point of contention unless you’re either ignorant, which is fair enough, or a complete liar, which is not. Accordingly, such statements only came from poorly informed internet commenters and Australian prime ministers.
“I want to make this observation,” observed Tony Abbott observantly from the observation deck in his observatory. “Sri Lanka is not everyone’s idea of an ideal society, but it is at peace.”
“There is no way these people are Asylum Seekers. Sri Lanka isn’t a place of persecution and oppression, in fact its a TOURIST destination!” expanded Peter over at The Age, proving it is possible to both type and be a damp fuckstain on the sagging sharehouse couch of humanity at the same time. Most places are pretty nice when you’re spending a bunch of foreign currency away from conflict zones.
The facts are there. While the Tamil Tigers have shed plenty of blood, the Sri Lankan army rounded off the long civil war in 2009 by targeting Tamil civilians en masse. They announced ‘no fire zones’ which would be free from attack, waited until Tamil refugees filled them, then cut off supplies and shelled them for weeks, including consistent attacks on hospitals. The conservative estimate is 40,000 dead.
But wait, says Ron: “Some friends have recently holidayed in Sri Lanka for 3 weeks. They have rated it a beautiful country with beautiful people and considering how widely travelled they are, have rated it one of their best and most enjoyable holiday destinations. Something doesn’t ring true about the persecution.”
Verified footage taken by Sri Lanka’s own soldiers shows them shooting naked bound prisoners in the head; tying prisoners to trees and cutting their throats; and piling up dozens of women’s bodies for disposal, half dressed or naked after being raped. Through these clips the perpetrators joke and chatter, egging each other on, giving at least a façade of casually enjoying their work. (You can see the vision here, but it’s very hard going.)
Anna: “The war with the Tamils was over ages ago.”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “The war is clearly not yet over.”
Tutu was punchy as hell in the foreword to an independent investigation by the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales. He wasn’t impressed by findings that “Abduction, arbitrary detention, torture, rape and sexual violence have increased in the post-war period. This report establishes a prima facie case of post-war crimes against humanity by the Sri Lankan security forces.” Several European countries have stopped deporting any Tamils, “finding them to be at risk of torture on return.”
Abbott: “Sri Lanka is not everyone’s idea of an ideal society, but it is at peace.”
Sri Lanka has the second-highest rate of disappearances in the world behind Iraq. People are routinely abducted by white vans, then interrogated under torture or executed. Local journalists are murdered, foreign journalists deported, websites censored, aid workers killed, NGOs accused of political agendas. Tamil areas remain under military occupation with foreign access closely monitored. Terrorism laws allow detention for 18 months without charge, a threat that occupying forces use to extort money and sex from Tamils. “Members of the Sri Lankan security forces are secure in the knowledge that no action will be taken against them,” says the BHRC report.
Dave: “let’s give [refugee] spots to people who truly have nothing and need the help, rather than the people who have the money to jump the queue.”
BHRC: “These are the witnesses whose families were able to bribe them out of detention and send them abroad. We don’t know what happens to those without family or money. I continue to receive horrifying reports from inside Sri Lanka of women subjected to years of repeated sexual violence by the security forces in the north and threats to rape their daughters if they don’t comply.”
Abbott: “Sri Lanka is not everyone’s idea of an ideal society, but it is at peace.”
Yeah, nah. You don’t need intelligence briefings to know what’s up. Sri Lanka’s government dismiss the mountain of evidence as biased: apparently footage of jungle executions is unfair to those holding the guns. In the battle between the remotely possible and the plausible, you have to conclude that it’s less likely for war crimes to be elaborately and convincingly faked than to be real. Human history unfortunately favours the latter.
The government might also be a touch more credible if they did anything to disprove the claims, instead of fighting tooth and claw to resist all inquiry after having the army pronounce itself not guilty. The weak generality of their denials is damning enough: “There were no civilian casualties,” was their president’s flat claim when the fighting was done. It’s the same absurdist denial that sees Scott Morrison refuse to admit that refugee boats exist even while their occupants are on the phone to journalists. You could take Morrison and Rajapaksa to Everest Base Camp, ask them to describe what’s in front of you, and have them agree that they’re not aware of any mountains in the area.
This is what Australia is collaborating with. Nor is it new: in March we stood up in the UN to oppose a war crimes inquiry. Last November we gave Sri Lanka two navy patrol boats to help stop asylum seeker escapes, a Labor scheme first championed by the insectile Bob Carr. This is direct collusion with an ongoing human rights abuser. Apparently it’s as convenient for us to ignore Sri Lanka’s excesses as it is for them.
It’s not right.
It makes my skin crawl, how snugly this all fits with historical precedent. I know smug shitheads on the internet live for the righteous joy of hollering “Godwin!”, but not all mentions of Nazi Germany indicate a train of thought plummeting into Crazy Ravine. As someone whose study specialised in 20th century war crimes I can attest that Hitler’s chaps provide a useful logical marker. The benefit of their example is its clarity: while the odd whackjob denies the Holocaust, no one credible defends it. This is the premier case where the rights and wrongs are self-evident.
Contrast an example with a Nazist approach doesn’t mean you’re equating the two. But if you can take an example that everyone agrees is wrong, then show how a rationale or behavioural pattern within it is mirrored elsewhere, you can illustrate an ethical failing.
The parallels are there: a military hunting a particular group, an attempt to escape, a lack of will from other countries to help. Various ship-loads of Jewish refugees were denied landfall outside Europe, and plenty who returned ended up dead. When the news first broke about the Sri Lankan handovers, a Jewish friend of mine wrote about her family’s history: relatives hiding in attics and escaping over borders in the night. Ethically, she said, there was no difference between us handing over Tamils or informers turning in those relatives. Surrendering people at risk is the same.
The overly literal like Eric Abetz would cite false equivalence, but that applies to scale. There is no moral difference between executing a thousand prisoners or a hundred thousand; the moral breach comes with the first shot. A legitimate comparison is that our government, like those of the Western powers before WWII, are ignoring morality for political convenience.
Late in my WWII studies I came across a photograph. Hungarian Jews, safe for the first few years, were rounded up and deported in 1944. In this photograph were hundreds squeezed together on a train platform, and at the front of the crush, looking worried and very young, was the friend I mentioned earlier. Well, almost: not a perfect double but very close, something in her bearing and her face that crossed those generations. Years of grim research had left me professionally detached, but here I was shocked back into feeling: a rage, a helplessness, an impossible urge to save her, a despair that whatever awaited this woman was long since done and gone. It was the outrage at the idea of someone I cared about being treated like that, because she was not a stat or a story or a case study, she was a person.
Everyone we pick up at sea is a person. They deserve to be treated that way. We don’t just owe it to them, we owe it to ourselves to behave with honour. Every time Morrison commends our navy for their duty, he is stripping them of the honour their vocation should entail.
I’ll say it plain: we are aiding and abetting murderers. We are actively helping a regime that continues to kill and torture its citizens. People are pleading for help while we chat to those in power and pretend not to hear. We are doing all this so the current government can win the pointless merit badge of saying that they stopped the fucking boats, whatever the cost to other people’s lives and our own decency.
The words and ideas we use are being twisted. We say we send people into danger “to prevent deaths at sea”. We discuss visas in terms of “rewarding” people, not helping them. Government lawyers argue that the High Court can’t stop them transferring detainees whose existence has not been officially announced.
And in the midst of this fuckery, our leader stands up to give a speech to a bunch of businessmen. He says that “We are not a mean or petty people. We will remain a beacon of hope and optimism, freedom and prosperity in a troubled world.” He is a man willing to trade political advantage for the lives of strangers. And here is a country that is letting him do it, that gave him the chance, and whose name and benefit is invoked as the cause with each step along his way. The stain is on all of us. We are not a beacon. We’re a lighthouse. Our signal warns mariners to stay the fuck away or we will smash you on these rocks. You’re damn right I’m ashamed.