No Sugar

by Greg Egan

B B   A A A A A
You’ve got to get rid of the sugar. They are like ants attracted to the sugar.

—An unnamed Indonesian minister offering advice to Australian
Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock on the treatment of asylum seekers.
Source: The Weekend Australian, 2-3 February 2002, page 21.

Last night, I watched a powerful (and often hilarious) film, Divided We Fall, a work of fiction which dealt with the experience of a Czech couple who sheltered a Jewish acquaintance during the Nazi occupation. The film’s protagonists were not saints; they stumbled into their role by accident, and many of the sacrifices they made came down to a fear of the consequences should their “crime” ever be discovered. Nevertheless, they were courageous people, and beneath all their flaws was an underlying sense that it was better to risk death than betray their guest and destroy a part of themselves that gave their own lives value.

It’s cheap to compare everything with the Holocaust, but it’s the contrasts as much as the similarities with Australians’ present attitude to asylum seekers that I wish to pursue. Those people who really did risk their lives to shelter Jews from the Nazis are almost universally admired, but I suspect most of us would be far from certain that we’d have the strength to do the same thing, if faced with the same choices. We recognise an ideal worth striving towards, but acknowledge that we might easily fall short of achieving it ourselves. What’s most depressing, though, about the current situation in Australia is how little has been asked of us, how lightly we’ve been tested, before deciding (if the opinion polls mean anything) that it’s all too hard and we just can’t be bothered.

Have Australians been asked to hide Iraqi and Afghani strangers in their cellars and attics, at risk of death if our neighbours notice anything unusual? No, though in fact several networks of people offering to take refugees into their own homes have sprung up — an offer refused by a government acting in the name of the majority of people who’d suffer no such inconvenience themselves. Have Australians been asked to impoverish themselves to provide hospitality? On the contrary, we’ve spent millions of dollars on inhospitality: shuttling asylum seekers off to Nauru and Papua New Guinea at vast expense, lest they have access to Australian courts, and pouring money into remote detention centres. Housing people in ordinary accommodation in towns and suburbs would be far cheaper, even if the many offers of free rooms were ignored.

Are we being asked to face an elevated risk of crime, disease and terrorism by allowing people without documentation to enter the community? No. People can be given health checks in a matter of days, to ensure that they’re free of communicable disease; this is no excuse to lock them up in the middle of the desert for months or years. Identity checks will always take longer, but the question is not whether there might be criminals or terrorists hiding among asylum seekers, but whether this is especially likely compared to all the other routes available to such people. Are we being asked to face the risk that, if not locked up, some portion of asylum seekers will vanish from sight, melting into the crowds, avoiding deportation if their claims are refused? Yes, but how will we even notice the consequences of these tens or hundreds of additional illegal immigrants in our midst, compared to the sixty thousand visa over-stayers from the UK, New Zealand, North America and South Africa?

Are we being asked to face an ever-growing tide of boat people, if we dare to abandon the current punitive regime? Will we have blood on our hands when the next leaky boat sinks, with the death of hundreds on board, if we fail to be as cruel as possible to those who have arrived, as a deterrent to those who might follow? Not if we take serious steps to divert asylum seekers in Indonesia from people smugglers to official processing centres, and work with the Indonesian government and the UNHCR to ensure that people there are assessed and resettled in a reasonable time. Are we being asked to stop helping refugees facing far worse circumstances than those who can make it to Indonesia or Australia? No. It’s not either/or. Philip Ruddock has complained that the people who reach our shores are diverting resources from those refugees in most need, but the reason a disproportionate amount has been spent on them is precisely because we’re wasting money by handling them as if they were as dangerous and undesirable as nuclear waste. Are we being asked to take places in the immigration program away from people who’ve been patient enough to wait in camps overseas? No. The quota for refugee intake hasn’t even been filled in recent years, and this is not a zero-sum game, except by bureaucratic fiat. Sure, there is a finite limit to the number of refugees we can take, but when even the arbitrary quotas haven’t been met, it’s obvious that we have a lot of room for flexibility. Statements by the Minister that we must pick a number and stick to it, come what may, or resign ourselves to accepting hundreds of millions of people, are simply Pythonesque.

In the end, we’ve been asked to pay almost nothing, sacrifice almost nothing, to make a few thousand desperate people feel safe and welcome. Instead, we just keep paying more and more, sacrificing more and more, to make them feel as wretched and persecuted as possible. Even those Australians who are indifferent to the money wasted on the “Pacific solution”, even those who can honestly say they’re not saddened and ashamed that a government acting on their behalf has driven people who came here seeking sanctuary to hunger strikes and self-mutilation, must be weary by now of their own defensiveness.

During the recent election campaign, the Opposition Leader Kim Beazley declared that, like the Prime Minister, he would not allow Ahmed Alzalimi — an Iraqi man whose claim for asylum had been accepted — to return to this country if he went to Indonesia to be with his wife, after his three daughters had drowned while trying to join him. When politics descends to that level of competitive cruelty, when the surest claim on electoral popularity is the size of the splinter of ice in your heart, the whole country is degraded.

That’s what it’s like, though, living with no sugar: working relentlessly to create a society so vile that no one in the world would choose to be a part of it. It takes a lot of effort to poison a calm, civilised, prosperous democracy to the point where people would rather eat grass or live under a dictatorship than attempt to come here, but if we keep it up, we’ll get there.

Am I preaching to the converted? Then all I can ask you to do is to think about tackling the people you know who feel differently. I don’t believe Australians really are irretrievably cruel, petty or racist; rather, our politicians have managed to con us into a kind of collective game of chicken with our conscience, in which people imagine they’d have something vital to lose by swerving: control of the borders, national sovereignty, or some more amorphous sense of pride at our toughness and resolve. If you know someone who feels that way, show them the photograph of the smiling Afghani family from the Tampa who had the good fortune to end up in New Zealand (The Weekend Australian, 2-3 February 2002, page 5), and ask them who’s earned the right to feel proud: the New Zealanders who made this family welcome, or the Australians who locked up their counterparts behind barbed wire in the middle of the desert?

10 February 2002

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