Children and families become ‘it’ and ‘them’ as asylum seekers are dehumanised
Date July 17, 2013 Category Opinion
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Stills from a Four Corners program on the Villawood Detention Centre. Mohammad Bedraie holds his son, Shayan,6, with mother, Zahra Saberi.
Asylum seekers issue ‘poisoned by politics’
Remember Shayan Badraie?
In 2001 he was a six-year-old boy who lay limp in his parents arms as they told the ABC Four Corners program that Shayan was so traumatised by his time in Villawood detention centre that he had stopped eating and drinking.
Art by Children in Detention
Drawings done by kids in detention on Manus Island. Photo: GetUp and Chilout
The then immigration minister, Philip Ruddock, was criticised for his apparent lack of compassion towards the family, which was noticeable in his repeated references to Shayan as “it”.
Not “the boy” or “the child” or “him” or any other slightly more personal way of referring to a human being.
Of course it was deliberate.
A tough immigration policy relies on preventing stories such as Shayan’s from being told.
It it why pictures drawn by children held in the processing centre on Manus Island and released by Greens Senator Sarah Hanson Young early this year are so affecting.
They remind us of our sons and daughters, our nieces and nephews, our grandsons and granddaughters and the measures we would take to keep them safe.
It is why the administrator of Christmas Island, Jon Stanhope, has been trying to get permission to release the names of the people who have died trying to reach Australia and whose bodies lie in the local mortuary.
The mortuary now holds the body of a one-year-old who was pulled from the sea at the weekend.
From today there will be many more men, women and children on Christmas Island following confirmation from the Commander of Border Protection Command, David Johnson, that the boat that capsized overnight was carrying 144 people including as many as 19 children.
Their names and stories will never be known, the result of a policy concerned for people’s privacy and possible repercussions against their relatives.
“We have a one-year-old baby in our mortuary, the child of an asylum seeker family,” Mr Stanhope said on ABC radio on Wednesday morning.
“I wished we named [him] … I wish we humanised them. I wish we gave them that respect in death.”
Soon afterwards on Wednesday, Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare concluded a press conference about the circumstances surrounding the latest boat tragedy.
He barely mentioned the people on board except as a body count.
Mr Clare pointed out the toll such rescue operations take on the lives of men and women called on in the dead of night to face fearsome seas and scores of dead bodies. He was right to do so. Their emotional wellbeing should be looked after.
But Mr Clare offered no such sentiments for the people who lost their lives or the relatives and friends of those who helplessly looked on as that rescue operation was carried out.
Their emotional wellbeing is barely considered.
Instead, they will become the latest people to be talked about by politicians, journalists and commentators as “asylum seekers” or “illegal boat arrivals” or another anonymous group reference.
Language is powerful.
Dehumanising people with complicated stories is the first step towards “dealing” with them, of turning them into policy problems that must be solved.
It is a constant theme when dealing with marginalised people – the unemployed, people with mental illness, people who are homeless, indigenous people.
Sometimes the mould breaks and complex policy issues get a human face.
The campaign that preceded the introduction of DisabilityCare is an example.
Telling the stories of people trapped in an inadequate system was the first step towards coming up with a solution.
It was also the way the campaign to introduce paid parental leave began – telling people’s stories, identifying experiences with faces and names made a policy problem relatable.
Both those campaigns took years.
The people who arrived on the latest boats can have no such hope that their stories will be told.
The political class is not ready to listen.
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