Cause To Hope: How To Break Australia’s Indifference To The Way We Treat Asylum Seekers

The last fifteen years make it difficult to imagine. But it can be done.

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This article is the second in a two-part series. Read part one here.

This article contains distressing images.

It’s hard to say exactly when Australia’s asylum seeker policy became more dystopian than 1984. Perhaps it was when Kevin Rudd announced the “PNG Solution”. Or maybe it was when our great leaders denounced people smugglers as the worst form of evil, then paid them to smuggle people. In fact, if Orwell were alive today to hear that Australia would rather resettle refugees in Cambodia and Kyrgyzstan than New Zealand, who knows how he would have coped with being made redundant. Unlike 1984 though, authorship of our dystopia rests not with one man, but with all of us. Understanding how we turned a nightmare into reality can help us pen the next few plot twists.

Albert Bandura’s moral disengagement theory is a great place to start (if you missed part one explaining the theory, please read it first or the rest of this piece will be pretty bewildering). Some studies have shown that even education about the theory alone can reactivate personal moral codes.

More than just understanding the theory, though, awakening the moral self-censure of Australia’s political, media and corporate leaders, as well as the general public, will require concerted campaigns targeting all four pillars of moral disengagement. Thanks to the hard work of significant sections of civil society, much of this work is already being done.

Stripping The Emperor

According to Bandura, the techniques by which malevolent actions are redefined as moral are the most powerful, and therefore the most dangerous:

“Cognitive restructuring of harmful conduct through moral justifications, sanitising language and exonerating comparisons is the most effective set of psychological mechanisms for disengaging moral control. Investing harmful conduct with high moral purpose not only eliminates self-censure so destructive acts can be performed without personal distress and moral questions. Sanctification engages self-approval in the service of destructive exploits. What was once morally condemnable becomes a source of self-valuation.”

In this light, the utilitarian rhetoric about brutal policies of deterrence “saving lives at sea” is the most noxious aspect of our immigration discourse. It has entrapped the Labor Party, once the “light on the hill”. In the last two years of opposition, Labor has compounded its historical failures: namely, introducing mandatory detention in 1992, crumbling to the Liberals in 2001, and reintroducing offshore processing in 2012. Using this twisted moral justification, Labor has dutifully followed the Liberal Party into some of the most disturbing corners of Australia’s policy history: the Border Force Act and turning back boats.

It is critical then to counter the torturous logic of the mainstream political parties: that the imprisonment, physical and sexual assault, psychological abuse and murder of real people are humanitarian if these actions save the lives of hypothetical other people, even in light of many other solutions which do no harm. By this logic, no amount of suffering we inflict on asylum seekers in offshore detention is enough to trigger our moral codes. Shame and guilt are the appropriate responses to the fact that we lock up innocent people on remote islands indefinitely and subject them to physical, sexual and psychological abuse. Yet as long as we convince ourselves that by doing so we are saving lives, we will instead congratulate ourselves for our humanity.

By exposing the absurdity of this brutal logic, and comparing deterrence with sensible and humane alternatives, we can stir the nation’s comatose morality. The work of The Greens, The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, The Refugee Council of AustraliaChiloutGetUp! and the Refugee Action Coalition in denouncing this faux-morality and articulating sensible and humane policy alternatives like community processing, increasing our refugee intake and funding for UNHCR, and offering safe passage for asylum seekers to Australia, could not be more important.

Secrets And Lies Exposed

You may remember the second trick to disabling moral condemnation: minimising or hiding the suffering caused by your actions. The social psychology research shows people exposed to the pain caused by their behaviours are far more likely to restrain their harmful conduct. Studies of obedient aggression, for example, show that people are much less compliant to the damaging orders of authority figures if a victim’s pain becomes more obvious and personalised.

The government knows this well, as do refugee advocates. The counterattack to government secrecy and duplicity about the effects of their actions is spearheaded by individuals like President of the Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs. Her work uncovering the profound harm to children in detention, denouncing Border Force powers for “disrespecting human dignity,” and calling government secrecy “worrying for democracy” lays bare this particular government strategy of moral disengagement.

The Greens are another important voice, consistently chipping away and the government’s sins of commission and omission.

Similarly, GetUp!’s project The Shipping News, crowdfunding investigative journalism into conditions in offshore centres, undermines government secrecy. Frequent front-page stories from The Saturday Paper and investigations at The Guardian and New Matilda can also be seen as vital humanitarian work amidst the Australian government’s longstanding war on asylum seekers.

The more citizens can be exposed to the harms perpetrated by our government, the greater the chance of generating widespread moral outrage and ending the human rights abuses.

I Am, You Are, We Are…Human Beings

History beats us over the head with one great big lesson on how dehumanisation and victim blaming enable people to perpetrate atrocities, on repeat. Bandura’s research into the power of humanisation offers a welcome antidote to the tide of history. He has found that “most people refuse to behave cruelly, even with strong authoritarian commands, toward humanised others,” and that humanising victims has a “powerful self-restraining effect”.

Bandura points to the famous photograph of Kim Phuc, the little girl burnt by napalm bombing in her village in Vietnam, and claims that “this single humanisation of inflicted destruction probably did more to turn the American public against the war than the countless reports filed by journalists”. The effect was confirmed in recent months with the global reaction to the photograph of Aylan Kurdi, the domestic pressure for a compassionate response, and the government’s subsequent decision to accept 12,000 Syrian refugees.


To this end, efforts by organisations like People Just Like Us (PJLU) become especially meaningful. Formed this year, PJLU have joined the Refugee Council of Australia to run regular talks in Sydney for refugees detained by the Australian government to tell their stories. Audiences have heard the experiences of refugees from Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Sudan. For these audiences, the thought that we have inflicted terrible suffering on such beautiful people and continue doing so is deeply affecting and motivates activism. Likewise, prominent stories like that of Khodayar Amini in The Saturday Paper and personal appeals for help such as that from Mohammad Albederee in The Guardian are intensely humanising and spark our natural helping response.

Public repudiations of the government’s victim-blaming strategies are also effective. We’ve seen the effectiveness of the government’s toxic language of “illegals” in fuelling negative community attitudes to asylum seekers, so Julian Burnside’s frequent denouncement of this rhetoric is laudable. He has written widely on this pernicious practice and draws attention to it at every opportunity.

Stepping up these efforts to humanise asylum seekers and blame perpetrators, not victims, will help re-activate our moral codes and terminate our brutality.

We Are All Spartacus

Moral control of immoral deeds works best when people think they are in some way responsible for those actions. Campaigns which pressure politicians, journalists, and corporations complicit in abuse to take personal responsibility are crucial. Andrew Wilkie’s formal request to the International Criminal Court in October 2014 to prosecute Tony Abbott and the 19 members of his Cabinet for crimes against humanity is one such example. Another is the No Business in Abuse campaign, which pressures corporations like Broadspectrum (formerly Transfield) to take responsibility for profiting from an abusive detention regime by revoking the moral license for these companies to operate.

We also need to encourage the general public to acknowledge their complicity and take some personal responsibility for ending the abuse. The government represents the people, and for more than a decade the public has broadly supported the immigration regime. In fact, a 2014 poll found 59 percent of Australians thought most boat arrivals were not genuine refugees and 60 percent wanted the Abbott government to “increase the severity of the treatment of asylum seekers” (!).  In the same year, 71 percent of us supported turning back boats to Indonesia.

Attacking bogus moral justifications, exposing government secrets and lies about the effects of their policies, as well as humanising victims and blaming perpetrators are all important strategies in shifting these community attitudes. These counterattacks can also be turbocharged by educating citizens on taking responsibility for the malicious actions of the government and empowering ordinary people with the many ways to build pressure to stop such policies. I’ve been to several asylum seeker forums in recent years where audiences, incensed and shamed by stories of atrocities, cry out for things they can do to help. Strategies of citizen engagement should be no mystery; they should be part of our core curriculum in schools.

There are few better examples of citizens taking responsibility and trying to change policy than former migration agent Tracie Aylmer. Incensed by the murder of Reza Berati in February 2014, Aylmer took it upon herself to spend six weeks researching and writing a 45-page submission to the ICC to prosecute Abbott and co. for their mistreatment of asylum seekers. She added 73 attachments to support the case, including Immigration Department manuals and guidelines she was privy to as a migration agent. Her actions have since inspired Andrew Wilkie, Greg Barns, Julian Burnside and the Refugee Action Collective to make submissions, presently being considered by the ICC.

Many other Australians have joined their local refugee advocacy groups, attended refugee rallies and forums, made or signed petitions, written, phoned or met with their local MP, and engaged in civil disobedience. Thousands more have donated to refugee groups, written articles, plays or made films about the crisis, or even created their own organisations and other modes of protest.

Yet thousands are not enough. We need millions.

Endless Or Ending Cruelty?

So refugee advocates are already operating on each of the main fronts of moral disengagement, and there have been partial victories as a result. Some of these strategies helped secure the release of long-term detainees and all children from detention in 2005 and were influential in the abolition of the Pacific Solution in 2007 and TPVs in 2008. More recently, they can be linked to the acceptance of 12,000 Syrian refugees, the return of Abyan to Australia and the poll which found an increase in the number of Australians who support asylum seeker immigration from 52 percent in 2010 to 71 percent in October 2015.

They have also played a role in pressuring the Labor Party to debate the closure of Nauru and Manus at a caucus meeting in November last year and led to the Senate passing a bill demanding the release of all children in detention. We’ve also very recently seen human rights activist and lawyer Kellie Tranter call for a Royal Commission into the Immigration Department in The Guardian, two scathing Fairfax editorials and powerful ads from campaign group Ourstralia calling for a more humane response to asylum seekers.

Yet we’ve also seen Prime Minister Turnbull’s continuation of our asylum regime with deception over Abyan, the suspicious release of asylum seekers on Nauru ahead of a High Court ruling on the legality of offshore detention, the discussion of sending asylum seekers to Kyrgyzstan , turning back a boat that came within 200 metres of Christmas Island, the appalling treatment of Sayed Abdellatif, the refusal to resettle refugees in New Zealand, the threat to send 267 asylum seekers back to Nauru and Manus, and the abuse and sexual harassment of asylum seeker children at Nauruan schools after the detention centre school was closed.

While these are timely reminders of Australia’s ongoing human rights pariah status, optimism is justified. There have been past successes and redoubling our efforts to oppose each of the four pillars of moral disengagement will bring more success. Our advocacy can convince the Australian community that the justification for torture on Nauru and Manus is hollow, that the suffering of humanised asylum seekers is prolonged and intense, and that we all share some responsibility for healing these deep wounds.

If we can do all this, we will end mandatory detention and Australia will return to sane, humane asylum seeker policies. Then maybe poor old George Orwell will stop rolling around in his grave.

This article is the first in a two-part series. Read part one here.

Liam McLoughlin is a freelance writer who is sweet on activism and the arts.  He blogs at Situation Theatre and tweets from @situtheatre.

Feature image via John Englart/Creative Commons.