“Australia is suffering from an empathy deficit. A deficit so deep that I fear we may never repay it.”
In 2006, the man who would one day be President of the United States, Barack Obama, asked a group of graduating university students to consider their community’s empathy deficit.
He worried that we were losing our ability to “put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us — the child who’s hungry, the laid-off steelworker, the immigrant woman cleaning your dorm room”.
Today, Australia is suffering from an empathy deficit. A deficit so great that I fear we may never repay it.
Our Government has confirmed that last week they intercepted a boat of 41 Sri Lankan asylum seekers, who were attempting to make the journey to Australia. Those on board had their refugee claims processed with questionably fast speed, assessed based on only a handful of questions and in all but one case, were rejected. This all happened while they remained on the water.
Every single person on that boat is now being returned to Sri Lanka, including the individual who was determined to possibly have a legitimate claim. The Australian Government says this individual chose to return voluntarily.
A second boat carrying 153 Tamil Sri Lankan asylum seekers, believed to have departed from a refugee camp in India, is currently unaccounted for in the public arena. Those on board made contact with human rights and refugee groups in Australia last week but the Australian Government has not made any comment about where the boat might be now. It is missing.
Frustrated and afraid in the wake of the Government’s silence, a group of refugee rights activists have today filed for and been granted an interim injunction by the High Court. If these 153 asylum seekers are in the custody of the Australian Government, the injunction will prevent them being handed over to the “Sri Lankan government, its military or its agents,” for the next 24 hours.
Or at least, it’s the first time that the Government has openly admitted this is what has happened. This system of on-sea processing is a historic and abominable first for Australia.
It points directly to the deficit of empathy that President Obama spoke of. A complete inability — or worse — an unwillingness, to put oneself in the position of someone who isn’t exactly like us.
It feels cold. It feels calculated. And it feels deeply unkind.
Because when faced with the facts of Australia’s international obligations, of the UN’s condemnation, of the current conditions in Sri Lanka and of what these 41 people are returning to — what compassionate person could make the decisions our Government has?
To answer that, let’s begin by canvassing those facts, because they are important and all too often lost in the heat of emotionally and politically charged debate.
Fact #1: The UNHCR have expressed concern that the so called ‘streamlined’ at-sea screening processes being used by Australia may be “unfair and unreliable.” Some media reports today claim that those on board were asked as few as four questions each, before their non-refugee status was determined.
The Guardian, who have been expansive in their coverage of this issue, note that according to the Government’s own data “more than 50% of Sri Lankans who arrive by boat have a legitimate claim for protection”. And point out that this “throws serious doubt over the minister’s claim that almost every person on board the boat did not engage Australia’s protection obligation”.
It is these fact, which led former (Liberal) Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser to observe on Twitter that: “Handing AS [asylum seekers] back to SL [Sri Lankan] navy at sea redolent off handing Jews to Nazis in 1930s.”
Fact #2: It is highly likely that Australia has breached international law, specifically the principle of non-refoulement which says that you cannot return the persecuted to their persecutor. Australia has voluntarily signed up to international conventions against torture and for the protection of refugees; both of which incorporate this principle.
At least one asylum seeker on board the boat of 41 was found to be a refugee — which means he or she had a well founded fear of persecution in Sri Lanka. Now, according to the Government, that individual ‘voluntarily’ chose to return. But were the Australian Government found to have encouraged this choice in any way, Australia would have contravened its international obligations.
While the war formally ended in 2009, Sri Lanka remains a dangerous place. The Sentinel Project, warns that “the overall risk of genocide in Sri Lanka is medium to high” and international organisations have documented multiple cases of abductions and torture taking place in Sri Lanka since the end of the war. Amnesty International ranks Sri Lanka as 5 out of 5 on the political terror scale.
Fact #3: Sri Lanka has spent 27 of the last 31 years in the midst of a brutal civil war. Torture, rape and abductions were commonplace and often linked to government officials. Between 1983 and 2009 more than 100,000 people were killed and a further 1 million displaced from their homes.
Fact #4: When the 41 people who were processed at sea return to Sri Lanka, an uncertain fate awaits them. At best they’ll be arrested because Sri Lankan law prohibits its nationals from leading the country from a non-authorised port. At worst, they’ll be abused and possibly tortured.
All of this will happen in our country’s name. And it will happen because we let it.
The 41 people who have been accounted for and the 153 whose whereabouts is unknown, fled their home countries out of fear. Regardless of whether they are refugees by law, they are likely to have faced unimaginable horrors over the past three decades in Sri Lanka. They may have spent years languishing in refugee camps, struggling to see a future for themselves and their families.
They embarked on a journey to Australia asking for our help and were not only denied a new home but also a fair and adequate hearing under the international laws Australia signed up to.
This is what Obama meant by an empathy deficit. And empathy is something we must fight against our lesser natures to preserve — even when it might seem difficult, or tiring, or confusing.
Tonight’s decision by the High Court to protect 153 Sri Lankans for 24 hours longer, shows that compassion can move legal mountains when it’s directed in the right way. It is a small, temporary but brilliant win for empathy.
I know it’s hard to ask the Australian community to care right now. When the impact of a harsh budget is hurting you and your family, and your neighbour and your friends — it’s difficult to find the emotional space to hurt and worry on behalf of those who are far away.
That is understandable. Justifiable, even.
But think of this: Obama told that same group of graduating students that as you get older and experience more of the world, empathy gets harder, not easier. He said, “There’s no community service requirement in the real world; no one forcing you to care. You’ll be free to live in neighbourhoods [sic] with people who are exactly like yourself, and send your kids to the same schools, and narrow your concerns to what’s going in your own little circle”.
Australia – please don’t allow your concerns to narrow to your own little circle.
Because all of this is happening in Australia’s name and in contravention of the things that were promised in Australia’s name.
And surely the collective empathy of Australians is enough to demand that it stops.
This article originally appeared on MamaMia.
Photo credit courtesy of original article.