The story of the Tamil asylum seekers Priya, Nades and their two young daughters has touched the hearts of many. The fanatical determination of Peter Dutton and his Home Affairs department to deport the family to Sri Lanka has collided with their embrace by residents of the town of Biloela where they made their home.
At first glance, it’s illogical and incomprehensible that the federal government could spend $2 million on court battles and then well over $30 million to reopen the Christmas Island detention centre for just four people.
But there is a cruel and twisted logic.
Escalating anti-refugee policies and rhetoric have been a staple of Australian politics for two decades. However, it reached rock-bottom in 2015 when boat turn-backs became bipartisan policy.
The country’s adherence to the principles of the 1951 Refugee Convention and its obligation to provide shelter to those fleeing persecution is now completely dead in all but name.
Ironically those who remain in detention on the mainland and offshore are a residue of when Australia actually had a better policy, insofar as it still recognised its legal obligation to offer protection to those who, fleeing for their lives, came knocking at our door.
Sure, the policy of mandatory offshore detention with no possibility of resettlement was the equivalent of locking people in the garden shed. But now we don’t even answer the door and we’ve installed a six-foot high front fence topped with razor wire.
The policy assumes refugees fleeing persecution should first go and wait indefinitely in some other less wealthy country, predominantly populated by other black or brown skinned people, no matter how terrible the conditions there.
Then, we might pick a few out for resettlement and claim to be more generous than Lebanon, a country of only 6.8 million that hosts 1.5 million refugees.
But under no circumstances should anyone come to Australia to make their claim for asylum.
The crass racism underpinning turn-backs is obvious. But it works for those that support the policy as long as the asylum seekers have to pass through some other country on their way to Australia.
The persecuted Tamils of Sri Lanka pose a particular challenge to this narrative. Some of them have attempted to make the boat journey directly to Australia. They are not “queue jumping” or “country shopping”: we are the first port of call.
The response of the Australian government has been twofold.
Like a sociopath locking the doors of a burning building, it helped the Sri Lankan government stop people fleeing in the first place by gifting it two navy patrol boats in 2013. Next, those that do escape the clutches of the murderous regime face being rounded up and returned to their tormentors by the Australian Navy.
It’s worth pointing out the obvious: intercepting a vessel in international waters, taking its passengers prisoner and then handing them over to the people they are trying to flee is an illegal act of piracy.
This grotesque policy requires the Australian government to deny the persecution of Sri Lankan Tamils. Having spent so much money and political credibility insisting that it’s safe to return, it’s now difficult for Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Dutton to make an exception for this one family without losing face. They rightly fear that this would undermine the lies that underpin their approach. This is the reasoning behind Dutton’s stubborn refusal to grant a ministerial exemption.
Their rotten bi-partisan racist refugee policy rests on denying that they are helping persecute Tamils, Hazaras, Rohingyas and many others, and the corporate media is happy to play its part.