Only The Sangfroid

Mark is of fair average intelligence, who is neither perverse, nor morbid or suspicious of mind, nor avid for scandal. He does live in an ivory tower.

These are his draft thoughts…

You may tell yourself, this is not my beautiful house… How not to write about #asylumseeker policy #auspol

Refugees from DR Congo board a UNHCR truck in ...
Refugees from DR Congo board a UNHCR truck in Rwanda (Photo credit: noodlepie)

You have spent time volunteering with refugees.  Kafei (not his real name) has told you all about the horrible things that happens in his country.  How could Kafei not deserve a protection visa in Australia?  His story sounds so sad.

Take pains to note how Kafei now lives.  Mattress on the floor?  Bugs everywhere?  Shared with others?  You don’t want the reader to compare Kafei’s experience to other people living in the same area; you want the reader to compare Kafei’s living condition with their own.  How could Kafei not deserve a protection visa?  This is so sad.

There’s nothing illegal about Kafei.  There is no ‘border protection problem’.  We’ve excised the Australian mainland.  Offshore processing is cruel.  Detention centres are factories for mental illness.  Everything is Orwellian and/or Kafkaesque.  Why does Tony Abbott only discuss the issue in slogans?

If you have a law degree, the policy you’re discussing is illegal.  If you have an arts degree, the policy you’re discussing is inhumane.  If you have a comms degree, this is all about ‘narrative’ and ‘framing’.  The facts that you hand wave do not need to be analysed.  Facts that don’t agree with you aren’t facts.

You are a child of the human rights age.  You watched every episode of Go Back to Where You Came From.  You tweeted during the Q&A session after the screening of Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.  People who disagree with you are ignorant.  You know things.  But you don’t know why Australia is so cruel.

Politicians and government officials are liars (except when they agree with you), or they’re cynically politicising an issue for their own gain (except for when they agree with you).  As such, you don’t need to understand their arguments and your readership doesn’t need to know either.

You’ve never worked in the policy portfolio, but you know spin when you see it.  ‘Economic migrants’ don’t exist.  Kafei isn’t an economic migrant.  People who use the term ‘economic migrant’ only see a wave of brown people.  You know that each one of those brown people is identical to Kafei.

If there’s been a disturbance on Nauru, ask Pamela Curr (based in Melbourne) for pictures.  If there’s been a disturbance on Christmas Island, ask Ian Rintoul (based in Sydney) for pictures.  The Refugee Action Coalition can get you a quote faster than Sandi Logan, so it must be more accurate.

The UNHCR has said that the Government is wrong.  If the UNHCR agrees with the Government, quote Amnesty International instead.  If you need a pithy quote, try Julian Burnside or the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.  Because the ASRC and Amnesty International rely on donations from an outraged public, they are impartial.  Remember: Tony Abbott is the one polarising the debate.

You are not trying to convince your audience or persuade anybody; you are confirming what they already think.  You’re not adding new content to the conversation.  You’re not adding a new perspective to the conversation.  You are writing because you’ve met Kafei.  You are getting published because these stories make for good linkbait.  Only trolls will disagree with you.  Only racists will disagree with you.

Detainees have been driven to whatever behaviour you’re discussing.  If they’ve kicked in a window, DIAC is keeping them in substandard accommodation.  If they’ve set fire to something, it’s DIAC’s fault.  If they’ve injured themselves, DIAC is running detention centres like a prison.  If they’ve injured each other, DIAC isn’t paying enough attention.  Remember, persecution doesn’t cause issues related to trauma; detention centres do.

You should mention Kafei again.  The problem is that people like Kafei have been dehumanised.  You are humanising him.  Kafei is the personification and embodiment of every irregular maritime arrival.  Mention that your heart breaks.  How could we be so cruel?

You haven’t read the Refugees Convention, but you’re certain that stateless people are refugees.  You haven’t read the Refugees Convention, but you’re sure that Article 1F of the Convention doesn’t apply to anybody.  You haven’t read the Refugees Convention, but you’re certain that all asylum seekers have the same rights as refugees.  You haven’t read the Refugees Convention, but it must include some provision about having the right to cross national boundaries.   There’s no such thing as international case law.

You know that mandatory detention is an evil policy, but you’re fine with all irregular maritime arrivals being subject to detention for the purposes of health and character checks.

Tony Abbott’s proposals won’t work and you know this because you personally read a blog post by a lawyer saying so.  You haven’t read the Houston Report, but you know it’s incorrect.  The ALP’s proposal has failed and you know this despite the ALP’s proposal not being implemented.  You don’t have any opinions of your own on any of the policy proposals on the table but your readers will agree with your assertions anyway, so don’t worry.

State your commonsense asylum seeker policies.  We should take more refugees from Indonesia.  We should process all irregular maritime arrivals onshore and give them work rights here in Australia.  We should give more money to UNHCR to do work in Indonesia and Malaysia.  Unilateral policies are only bad when the Coalition advocates them.  Your unilateralism isn’t really unilateralism.  You can’t think of any reason why your policies won’t work.

Mention the bureaucratic limbo in which Kafei finds himself.  As you conclude your article, try to picture Kafei’s face.  Opponents base their arguments on emotion, but you have used the rock hard logic of Kafei’s sad story.  Compassion, empathy, and sad stories will produce good asylum seeker policies.

11 responses to “You may tell yourself, this is not my beautiful house… How not to write about #asylumseeker policy #auspol”

  1. So only those who have worked ON Nauru or Manus Island, or in the department may comment on the issue of asylum seekers. That’s good to know.

  2. I don’t think that’s what he is inferring (except for the paragraph about arts/law/comms degrees which was a bit OTT but not the main point from my point of view as the proud holder of an arts degree). My take is that it’s more a ‘meta’ critique of how the debate on asylum seekers is too often reduced to abstracts and concepts.

    I’m pro-migration and pro-asylum seeker but these issues are complex and too often the complexities get missed for the platitudes and points scoring. The ALP started it with mandatory detention (or White Australia if we’re getting old school), Howard perfected it with Tampa and the current policies from Abbott (simplistic), to the Greens (also simplistic), are basically worthless. The whole debate lacks an understanding that policy discussions such as Education funding and Climate Change have. For example, Tim Hatton’s research on ‘push/pull’ flows and how regulation affects flows and movements is basically ignored, despite being one of the best empirical comparison studies on asylum movements. Is this because he infers that Australia policy post-2007 acted to attract asylum seekers (even if it can perhaps only roughly account for 20-30%)? I’m not sure. See here ( and here ( (Chapter 9, p77-85 should be one of the informative pieces of data in this debate but I’ve never seen it even referenced in public or private).

    These issues are not simple. And coming back to the author, all I believe he is trying to do is highlight that it’s complex and deserves to be taken seriously.

    • ‘the current policies from Abbott (simplistic), to the Greens (also simplistic), are basically worthless’

      I’d also add that the ALP’s implementation strategy of the policy options it was given has been poor as well.

      As for the arts/law/comms bit, if I know the background of the author, I can set my watch by the pace of their article. Very little variation.

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