QUARTERLY ESSAY 13 Sending Them Home



Carmen Lawrence

As I write, the contemplation of the politics of “indifference” is particularly pungent. It’s a week in which we’ve seen photographs of US soldiers grinning as they sexually humiliate and torture Iraqi prisoners, the US President being more discomfited by the fact that he wasn’t told about the allegations than by the offences themselves, and his Defence Secretary “more peeved than sorry” about the affront to decency and the violations of human rights these images depict. The rest of us are shocked out of our complacency, our indifference – at least for the moment – by the power of the images.

As Susan Sontag observes in her recent essay Regarding the Pain of Others, “photographs are a means of making ‘real’ (or ‘more real’) matters that the privileged and the merely safe might prefer to ignore.” The fact that it takes such photographs to disturb our comfort suggests that “our failure is one of the imagination, of empathy; we have failed to hold this reality in mind”; the reality of war – the killing power of modern armies and despots, indiscriminately raining bombs and chemicals on civilians.

How many pictures of death and bloody destruction are we not being shown? And why do these images, above others, command our attention? As one commentator raged, “What is it about these images of sexual humiliation that is more distressing to us than bodies smashed by the bombs in Falluja or children being ripped apart by cluster bombs?”

We have been protected from the images of death that the viewers of al-Jazeera have seen on their screens with relentless frequency – smashed bodies and ruined neighbourhoods. These images will tell them little that they were not already primed to accept. Our delicate sensibilities have been protected from the full force of the invasion of Iraq. Nor, it is true, did we know – or if we knew, much care – about the sadistic brutality of Saddam Hussein. But that cannot exonerate us from understanding what we now see. The fact that Saddam’s victims were un-remarked and unmourned in the West does not excuse us from responding now.

Sontag observes that such images can give rise to a variety of responses – calls for peace; for revenge. “As objects of contemplation, images of the atrocious can answer several different needs. To steel oneself against weakness. To make oneself more numb. To acknowledge the existence of the incorrigible.”

And, she might have added, to mobilise the PR machines. The International Red Cross and human rights groups repeatedly complained about the American military’s treatment of Iraqi prisoners. They received very little response from either the military or the US government until the graphic photographs were made public. As Seymour Hersh wrote, “The Army’s senior commanders immediately understood they had a problem; a looming political and public-relations disaster that would taint America and damage the war effort.”1

Manne and Corlett remind us in their excellent essay that indifference is a potent psychological defence against the kindred feelings which might otherwise overwhelm our detachment from the daily toll of killings around the globe, from the suffering of the people who’ve sought our succour and been penned like animals in the camps on and beyond our shores. If we could see the anguish and suffering of those on Nauru, would we not insist that our government immediately abandon the “Pacific Solution”? Our leaders were careful to prevent us seeing any “humanising” images of those stranded on the Tampa, to deny any access – even for lawyers – to those on Nauru, and to prohibit any photographs, videos or media coverage of the conditions in the mainland camps. This suggests that they well understand the power of the image. They appreciate that “indifference” is difficult to sustain when we are confronted with the vivid immediacy of the visual image.

In a speech in 1999, Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner, spoke eloquently of the “the perils of indifference”.2 He surveyed the legacy of the twentieth century, labelling it a “violent century”, a century which encompassed two world wars, countless civil wars, a senseless chain of assassinations, civilian bloodbaths in many armed conflicts, the inhumanity in the gulags, the tragedy of Hiroshima and the vile stain of the Holocaust. “So much violence”, says Wiesel, and perhaps more surprisingly, “so much indifference”.

Indifference, as Wiesel conceives it, is “a strange and unnatural state in which the lines blur between light and darkness, dusk and dawn, crime and punishment, cruelty and compassion, good and evil”.

“What are its causes?” he asks, and its “inescapable consequences? Is it a philosophy? Is there a philosophy of indifference conceivable? Can one possibly view indifference as a virtue? Is it necessary at times to practice it simply to keep one’s sanity, live normally, enjoy a fine meal and a glass of wine, as the world around us experiences harrowing upheavals?”

“Of course,” he says, “indifference can be tempting – more than that, seductive. It is so much easier to look away from victims. It is so much easier to avoid such rude interruptions to our work, our dreams, our hopes.” It is, as he points out, “awkward, troublesome, to be involved in another person’s pain and despair.” Yet there are costs. For the person who is indifferent, “his or her neighbours are of no consequence. And, therefore, their lives are meaningless. Their hidden or even visible anguish is of no interest. Indifference reduces the Other to an abstraction.”

Wiesel argues passionately that “to be indifferent to … suffering is what makes the human being inhuman”. In his view, indifference is more dangerous than anger and hatred. He points out that anger can be a stimulus for creativity or for altruism because one is angry at injustice. But, he argues, indifference is never creative. Even hatred may elicit a response. You fight it. You denounce it. You disarm it. Indifference elicits no response. Indifference is not a response.

Indifference is not a beginning, it is an end. And, therefore, indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor – never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten. The political prisoner in his cell, the hungry children, the homeless refugees – not to respond to their plight, not to relieve their solitude by offering them a spark of hope is to exile them from human memory. And in denying their humanity, we betray our own.

It is instructive from this perspective to remember our responses to the terrorist attacks on September 11 – reactions of grief at so many lives cut cruelly short, horror at the unprecedented scale and the cold calculation of the act – all appropriate responses.

Contrast this to the relative indifference shown to the loss of life in Afghanistan which followed. For much of the media, the war in Afghanistan ended with the fall of Kabul, and apart from the search for bin Laden and al-Quaeda, it quickly became yesterday’s news although so many civilians are still being killed. As David Edwards points out, a careful reading of the press reports at the time shows that the number of Afghan casualties of the bombing – collateral damage – quickly exceeded the loss of life on September 11.3 This on top of the decades of civil conflict, brutal repression and starvation. The fate of millions of innocents stranded in refugee camps as a result of the continuing strife in Afghanistan has been a matter of “supreme indifference” in most of the Western media. As Edwards says, “The sheer scale of what has been so casually passed over is extraordinary.”

Why universal reactions of condemnation in one case and muted responses or outright indifference in the other? Why such a discrepancy?

Perhaps it’s because we can be seduced into believing that we have no obligation to people who do not share our culture or race or religion. Perhaps it’s because the differences between “them” and “us” can be magnified to a point where these people become so alien that they tend not to be seen as fully human. They stop existing as beings with whom we share a common humanity. As a consequence, our capacity to empathise with their suffering and take in the nature of the crimes committed against them becomes partially obliterated. So we can feel the full force of the barbaric murders on September 11, but the thousands of civilian casualties in Afghanistan hardly touch us. And we, like the US military, “don’t do body counts” in Iraq and blithely catalogue the atrocities committed by Saddam Hussein and his regime while locking up his victims in the desert.

Whatever its parents or its progeny, indifference, as Wiesel reminds us, is the most poisonous of human reactions when action is needed.

Manne and Corlett’s essay provides a timely and dispassionate reading of the history of our recent refugee policy, particularly the most recent element of forcible repatriation, and how it both illustrates and is informed by what they call “the new politics of indifference”. In seeking to understand why many Australians appear largely indifferent to the fate of asylum seekers, they ask how we could tolerate such a network of “inhumane and destructive quasi-penal institutions” – the Immigration Detention Centres. How could we see the images of children behind the wire and not be moved? How could we accept the Minister’s interpretation of “lip sewing” as just another example of “their” calculated attempts to exploit “our” goodness? How could we cheer a Minister of the Crown who refuses to accept that depression is a mental illness and describes a nearly catatonic young boy as “it” – four times in one interview? And how we can stand uncomplaining as the government sends many of them back to the dangerous, life-threatening circumstances from which they fled.

They ask, rhetorically, “Can a political nation lose touch with moral reality?” and conclude that it can and it did when our government refused to allow Ahmed Alzalimi join his grieving wife after the drowning of their three daughters on the SIEV-X; that at that moment, “the cardinal Orwellian political virtue of ‘common decency’ was nowhere to be found.” In like manner, no one in the Australian government “bothered even to pretend to care about whether the hunger strikers (on Nauru) lived or died”.

The ultimate obscenity of the asylum seeker policy is the forcible repatriation of people found to be genuine refugees and those who, for various reasons, cannot return to the countries from which they came. Among the poor souls who face this threat are the Sabian Mandaeans, followers of the teachings of John the Baptist, who have fled from Iran. Together with several hundred other refugees from the repressive regime, these families face forcible deportation as part of the Howard government’s secret agreement with the government of Iran. Many have already received notice that they could, at any moment, be sent back. Indeed, several have already been removed without prior warning, and one young man was recently rescued from imminent deportation after an eleventh-hour intervention by sympathetic lawyers. Most of this is happening without any public reaction at all.

The government has persistently refused to make public the contents of the Memorandum of Understanding that details this agreement, telling the Senate and also in answer to one of my questions, that it was “not in the public interest” to make the document public. They have also consistently refused to provide any guarantees for the safety of those deported to Iran, or anywhere else for that matter. This despite the fact that the head of the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, Justice Louis Joinet, has made it clear that, having visited Iran to inspect the human rights situation, he came away with deep concerns about the nature of Australia’s agreement with Iran, particularly the fact that, “There are no guarantees as to what will happen when they (Australian detainees) are returned to Iran.” He also expressed some scepticism about whether so-called voluntary returns would actually be voluntary.

There is no doubt that the Howard government does not regard itself as seriously bound by our international treaty obligations. But even by their degraded standards, this represents a flagrant disregard of the obligations under the Refugee Convention not to return a refugee to “a place where his or her life or liberty is threatened” and of the Torture Convention not to send a person to “a place where there is a real prospect of torture”.

While the federal government has insisted that none of the Iranians threatened with forcible deportation are owed protection under Australia’s migration laws, many of those facing deportation fear that, in the very act of providing information for their refugee applications, they have exposed themselves to greater danger if they are returned to Iran. This is especially true for those who are easily identified by religion, occupation or region, even if their names are withheld. Louis Joinet told radio journalist Tom Morton that “the very act of fleeing takes on a political complexion” and in certain cases, “this has given rise to persecution.” When apprised of this elevated risk to those forced to return, Philip Ruddock stated the implausible conclusion that if Australia’s refugee assessment process has found that they are not refugees – i.e. that they do not have a well-founded fear of persecution – then they will not be persecuted. By definition. Yes, Minister.

The Mandaeans, a tiny pre-Christian religious minority, would, almost certainly, be readily identified from Tribunal and Court transcripts. Because their religion is not recognised by the government of Iran, they are subjected to discrimination and denied the normal protections of the law. The Federal Court, in an appeal against a decision of the Refugee Review Tribunal heard last year, gave the following measured assessment of religious persecution in Iran:

In Iran all religious minorities including Christians and of course Jews, suffer varying degrees of persecution, vis a vis the Shi’ite Muslim majority. The State, since the religiously inspired revolution, does not, for example, permit non-Muslims to engage in government employment or attend university and there are restrictions on the extent to which they can fully practise their religion, for example, by teaching it. If injured or killed, they or their dependants apparently receive less compensation than would the Muslim majority, and they may suffer in assessments of their credibility as witnesses before Iranian courts.4

Religious persecution in Iran is a matter of public record and the subject of frequent comment from human rights observers and even from the US State Department. Louis Joinet told journalists that Iran was detaining dissidents and others without due process on a “large scale” and keeping them in solitary confinement. Human Rights Watch also reported that:

The arbitrary detention of students and the targeting of government critics have increased. Scholars and students who criticise the ruling clerical establishment have faced death sentences, teaching bans or long prison terms.

There are many recorded cases of the execution of minority religious leaders for no other reason than that they practise their faith and organise their followers. Iran is almost as enthusiastic as the United States in its use of the death penalty, and for much less serious offences. Amnesty records that the death penalty and various brutal forms of torture were imposed “for issues concerning freedom of association and freedom of expression”. In one year alone 113 prisoners, including long-term political prisoners, were executed in Iran. Many were also flogged, frequently in public.

Although there are several Federal Court injunctions still standing between these people and other Iranian detainees threatened with deportation, it is clear that the Howard government is determined on a program of forced deportation, first of those people whose claims for asylum have failed and then of those on temporary protection visas whose countries of origin have been deemed to have improved sufficiently to allow their return. Even a cursory examination of the state of security and basic infrastructure in both Iraq and Afghanistan would lead to the inevitable conclusion that people returned would confront serious risks to their lives and health.

The government apparently wants to test the resistance of Australians to this indecency; to estimate just how profound is our indifference. I hope they are unpleasantly surprised and that Australians will draw the line at forcing people back to situations where their very lives are at risk.5

As I was reading the Manne and Corlett essay, I was struck by the paradox that at the same time as “a terrible coldness settled on very many Australian hearts”, many others were galvanised into action as they had never been before. While the majority of our fellow citizens may have endorsed the Howard government’s (and the Opposition’s) “pitiless” response to those few thousand souls fleeing persecution at the hands of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, there were many others who repudiated the rhetoric of “illegals” and “queue-jumpers” and “inappropriate behaviours”. For them, Tampa and the Pacific Solution were a bridge too far, the moment when the politics of indifference had to be challenged.

In my nearly twenty years in public life, I have never seen so many people devote so much energy, money and time to give practical effect to their convictions: lawyers acting without fee to challenge the prolonged detention of asylum seekers; writers and journalists meticulously unpicking the contrived fabric of deceit surrounding the official policies; men and women from churches and charities raising money, collecting furniture and clothing to support the refugees refused permission to work and thrown on the mercy of the community; artists probing the impact of our cruelty on the men, women and children we sent to remote camps and refused our compassion; medical professionals insisting that we understand the inevitably destructive consequences of the policies; academics and advocates researching and devising better policies; rural Australians standing up for TPV holders and helping them endure the separation from their families; decent people everywhere writing letters and visiting those detained and lobbying politicians for their release, setting up websites and discussion groups, and writing letters to the papers and often copping abuse for their troubles; ordinary members of both the major political parties bucking their leaders and pushing for policy change.

Perhaps there is hope, after all. I know from my many conversations with these good people that they are not likely to give up until we return to a refugee policy based on the values of a common humanity. While some of us clearly want to slip into insensibility, living moment to moment in soporific detachment from the suffering of others and finding no need to puzzle over the obvious injustices in our world, others understand the need to inquire and to reach more complex understandings – and to act to reduce the suffering of others. Like Robert Manne, they are anything but indifferent.


Carmen Lawrence is the National President of the Australian Labour Party.

1. The New Yorker, 17 May 2004.

2. http://www.edchange.org/multicultural/speeches/elie_wiesel_perils.html

3. Edwards, David, “Media indifference to the Afghan crisis: Why is the mainstream media ignoring the mass death of Afghan civilians?”, The Ecologist, March 2002.

4. Federal Court of Australia, SCAT vs Minister for Immigration and Indigenous Affairs, 30 April 2002, http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/cases/cth/FCAFC/2003/80.html

5. The National Anti-Deportation Alliance has been formed to stop these forcible deportations.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 13, Sending Them Home. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 14, Mission Impossible.


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