If you think Australia making an example of a sick three year old is an exception, think again. This is what we do | Catherine murphy
Tthis week my colleagues Melissa Davey and Josh Taylor have drawn up a rich timeline of events on Christmas Island that culminated in a three-year-old being sent to Perth for medical treatment.
I encourage you to read it if you haven’t. What you will learn is that a little girl, Tharnicaa, waited almost two weeks, as her physical condition deteriorated, before someone acted to get her the medical care she needed.
By the time she was transferred to Perth, Tharnicaa had a high temperature. She had dizziness and vomiting. When she arrived at the hospital, she was diagnosed with pneumonia and a blood infection.
Tharnicaa’s medical evacuation odyssey has traveled the world. The story was made indelible by the photographs of the distressed preschooler being comforted by his caring older sister.
While events were heartbreaking, it would be tempting to view this as an arbitrary systems failure – a medical bureaucrat somewhere in the border forces apparatus making suboptimal clinical judgment.
As and when errors are made, it is even relatable, up to a point. Anyone who has cared for young children knows that when they contract nasty, sometimes frightening, viral infections they fall apart quickly, but their illnesses can turn around just as quickly. Parents, being humans, don’t always make the right calls. Neither do the doctors. Australian Border Force denies “any allegation of inaction or ill-treatment”.
But we cannot ignore this incident as just “one of those things”, because the suboptimal treatment of Tharnicaa exists in a larger context.
This context is the performative cruelty of the Australian border protection regime.
Sri Lankan nationals Tharnicaa’s parents are unauthorized boat arrivals. The Australian system is set to make life deeply uncomfortable for this cohort. The regime neither invites nor welcomes interrogation, but its arbitrary cruelties are designed to be seen, like an Aesop’s fable or a moral play.
Australia’s policy of performative cruelty has carried different labels and spawned various slogans over the years – “we decide who comes here and the circumstances in which they come” in the Howard era; “Stop the boats” in the Abbott / Turnbull / Morrison years. Governments classify this activity as border protection, which sounds bureaucratic, but what Australia actually does is deterrence – the harder the better.
As Malcolm Turnbull told Donald Trump in 2017, Australia would not allow a Nobel Prize-winning “genius” to settle in Australia if he arrived by boat – an observation that prompted the self-confessed native Trump to enthuse “we should do that too.” The Trump administration then put people in cages and separated the children from their parents at the US border.
In Australia, we lock people up overseas. We also send asylum seekers to a permanent life in the limbo of temporary protection.
Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton regularly trumpet their success in stopping unauthorized boat arrivals. This triumphalist framing suggests that an undeclared invading force has been repelled. But the truth is that a catalog of genuine horrors lurks on the flip side of tabloid staging and ritualistic self-congratulation.
Before Australian authorities react with passivity and panadol as a preschooler on Christmas Island has fallen seriously ill in the past fifteen weeks, children from Nauru have been brought here for medical treatment from emergency after refusing food and fluids.
There was the 14-year-old who suffered from major depressive disorder and severe muscle wasting after not getting out of bed for four months.
There was Reza Barati, 23, who was beaten to death in violent riots in the Manus Island detention center in 2014.
There was Iranian asylum seeker Hamid Kehazaei, who was misdiagnosed, treated with broken equipment and left unattended as he fell seriously ill on Manus Island. After his death from sepsis, Queensland coroner Terry Ryan found the death was preventable.
It is possible that Australians have forgotten some or all of these things because it is difficult to remember them. Remembering can trigger acute moral unease. Institutionalized acts of inhumanity can make empathetic people uncomfortable.
But that’s us. This is what Australia is doing.
Right now, we have a Sri Lankan family who are suffering a strange uprooted half-life on Christmas Island as they exhaust their remaining legal options because (wait for it) Dutton wanted to be able to deport them without them. protesters don’t put ABF officials in a “difficult situation”.
I repeat, it’s us.
We elect the governments that do these things. Again and again. If we can’t face this simple truth, nothing will ever change.
“It’s not about being mean,” new Home Secretary Karen Andrews said in a TV interview this week. (Dutton’s successor displayed the justification of severe deterrence). “I’m not going to have people dying trying to come to Australia by sea under my watch,” Andrews said. “I’m not going to open the doors to smugglers. “
This particular sound phrase will sound very familiar to people who have been following this miserable conversation, as it is failure and mat official rhetoric.
Australian Home Ministers regularly use this argument to cool down legitimate debate. If you are not for amoral deterrence, then you are apparently for open borders and for people who die at sea.
But what this overworked binary fails to respect is enduring truth beyond the topic of discussion. People may have stopped dying at sea, but they haven’t stopped suffering, suffering, and in some cases dying, as part of the punitive deterrence regime Australia has created for arrivals unauthorized shipping.
Andrews’ binary may be silly, but the Australian election results illustrate its enduring political utility. We’ve all seen the Coalition at different times with the megaphone appealing to the deep-rooted isolationist instincts of Australians, and Labor at different times sneaking into their protective helmets too terrified to say this hyper-partisan politics rancid (and it’s just as much than practical policy) has a terrible human cost.
Trying to develop a policy in this area is actually very complex. Nation states have the right to assert their sovereignty. Those who attempt to navigate a failing global resettlement system also have the right to flee danger and persecution. But Australia has reduced the political conversation around these issues to a caricature.
Sometimes, however, reality pierces the cartoon.
In this particular case, the story of a Sri Lankan family hovering in distress cascading on the verge of deportation causes some political unease in the Morrison government, as these individuals are identifiable.
People arriving in Australia by boat, without a visa, are expected to queue. They are supposed to be unworthy. But the basic humanity of this family seems to have eclipsed the tropes. They were greeted in a city in Queensland that has moved beyond the pejorative labels associated with their mode of arrival.
While there are still votes in performative cruelty in this country, right now the government is feeling a bit trapped. A small hoist on its own firecracker.
Officials insist senior players are looking for a viable relocation option once remaining legal actions have been exhausted. The government has made exceptions in the past, quietly, and the world has not ended.
But as this case unfolds in public view, the government is under pressure to reconcile any resolution with the well-worn truisms of the Australian deterrent monster.
As Morrison declared in 2019: “The worst thing we can do is … send a message of ‘you know what if you come to Australia illegally, and the courts say you don’t have a claim and the government says you don’t. claim, then the government may well make an exception because there has been a public reaction ”.