On learned suspicion, good faith, and asylum seekers

July 21, 2013 § Leave a comment

In the wake of Rudd’s announcement of massive changes to asylum seeker policy and legislation in Australia, I’ve been once again rattled into thinking about this problem, this huge political problem, of institutionalised racism in Australia.

In amongst the political analysis, the proof that Manus is hellish, and the arguments for human rights, I want to make a fairly simple point.

One of the less urgent, but I believe, important things that bothers me about asylum seeker policy is that it teaches Australians to be deeply suspicious of others.

Asylum seekers on the roof of a detention centre, banner reads “Are not we your neighbours/ Don’t mistreat the foreigner”, from wikimedia commons

It’s not just that legislators in Australia don’t care enough about asylum seekers’ suffering, though the suffering is great and the policies awful. It’s that, in asking us to accept their policy decisions, they ask all Australians to be intensely suspicious of the motives of others. Is suspicious even a strong enough word? In order to accept that chucking people in indefinite detention on god-forsaken islands is ok, we have to believe that they are shifty, disingenuous, dangerous. Most recently, in order to say, as a country, “you may never come here, you may never seek asylum here”, we are being asked to believe that these people in boats shouldn’t be asking asylum of us (relatively, globally speaking) rich people at all, and if they do, it’s for bad, bad reasons.

Maybe KRudd was right all along. This is not just a matter of fact but a matter of faith. If fact were the problem, this debate would be over.

We are being taught to believe, deeply and without proof, that people who come here by boat want something from us that they don’t deserve. We have taught ourselves to believe that these people are grasping, evil, dirty, sexist, fraudsters.

A bit of a personal story: my mum taught me to approach with good faith those who have little, or less than me. I remember walking through Maitland mall, and having Trevor, the homeless man who lived around there, address her by name and she would stop for a chat. Jimmy, the disabled guy down the road, would ask her about our dog every day as he walked by and she always had time.

This isn’t some idyllic memory. My feelings toward these men were mixed, and I was a bit scared of Trevor, honestly. Nonetheless it was my experience that most folks are eager to repay a kindness if they can. One time Jimmy brought us an old, amazingly sturdy fan in the heat of summer. I think my mum still has it.

I don’t think my mum’s attitude is so unique. I know there are generous people on both sides of politics. Why can’t we collectively believe then, that asylum seekers arriving by boat could be worthwhile residents and citizens of Australia, one day? It’s not such a stretch.

What I’m saying is that suspicion or good faith is learned, and Australians have been learning to believe for a long time now that those seeking asylum are undeserving. A frightening micro-politics of the self, if you like. I do not believe that asylum seekers are singularly bad, with bad motivations. I think the consequences of believing they are dehumanises not just the asylum seekers, but those refusing asylum.

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