Asylum Seekers and the Redefinition of ‘Compassion’

I’m going to talk about the practicalities of debating/challenging/protesting against official asylum seeker policy in a future post, however I wanted to use this post to challenge the redefinition of the notion of ‘compassion’ that’s going on before our eyes in regards to these issues.

It seems to me that the concept of ‘compassion’ for those who are seeking asylum has been hijacked by people who understand its potency and who wish to harness the emotion that is attached to it, all the while re-inscribing the word with new meaning leaving it, ultimately, void of any real meaning.

For years now, those of us who have found this bizarre obsession with ‘boat people’ distressing—and who object to the dehumanising policy that has grown out of this irrational, fearful fixation—have suggested that we need to inject a little bit more compassion into the mix. The point is reasonably straight forward: vulnerable people, fleeing often horrendous situations, need to be embraced with gentle, caring, open arms rather than clobbered with an iron fist (you know, that whole ‘treat other people like you’d like to be treated’ thing?). Whether or not this is a useful strategy for speaking into this issue (or whether it, rather, speaks to a frame of thinking that automatically associates such notions with naive ‘bleeding heart’ syndrome) is for a future post. The point here is that is has been a fairly common call.

This has been challenged, however, by those who would suggest that ‘allowing’ people to get on the boats in the first place is to encourage dangerous behaviour, and is therefore implicit support for asylum seekers dying at sea when boats sink. “How is this compassionate?”, it is asked. And many people are left without an answer. Surely it’s not compassion that encourages people to risk their lives on a dangerous voyage! Surely it would be ‘compassionate’, rather, to make sure that these dangerous journeys across the oceans on leaky boats are not embarked upon in the first place!

Of course, from this point, we have a direct line to support for idiotic mantras like ‘Stop the boats’.

I must admit, it’s been brilliant insofar as i’s been a very effective strategy for disarming the force of the argument. It’s worked well!; this I cannot deny.

However, it’s total nonsense.

It works out of the premise that the desire to treat asylum seekers with dignity and respect and at least some level of care—to treat them as human, in other words—is tacit approval for the method in which they arrive. Support for ‘boat people’ is deemed support for ‘boats’.

It’s a pretty stupid argument, when you think about it.

No one I know actually supports people having to get on leaky boats to make a perilous journey across the ocean. No one! The thought of being so desperate that the decision to do so looks like a good option is quite frankly horrifying to think about. I, and the people I know who are most vocal about support for vulnerable people who are seeking asylum, would not ever suggest that this is a great idea. It’s dangerous. It’s a recipe for disaster. It’s deeply saddening that people would feel like they are left with no other choice.

What we’ve consistently suggested (apparently not very effectively…) is that it is precisely because people feel that they have no other choice that they take this option in the first place. The ‘queue’ that so many people insist these people are jumping just doesn’t exist. There is no appropriate framework in place in these areas to be able to manage the situation, and so the option of ‘going through the correct channels’ is quite simply not on offer much of the time.

What many of us are calling for, then, is not a free-for-all on boats, but rather for funding to be directed to establish an appropriate framework throughout the region which is able to better deal with the situation. Let’s at least help in setting up adequate regional processing centres before we complain about people bypassing ones that don’t currently exist.

It would be a heck of a lot less expensive than the billions that we currently spend on ‘deterrence’ measures, and it has the added benefit of allowing us to meet our international obligations as well as not being evil. Everyone wins!

But where this co-opting of the language of compassion in support of deterrence policies is really exposed in all its ugliness is when you look at what is offered as the ‘solutions’.

‘Compassion’, it is argued, is making sure people don’t get on the boats to start with. And that’s where it apparently also finishes. Truly caring about these men, women, and children is not, it seems, about doing anything in regards to making sure they have other options; it’s simply about making sure they don’t get on a boat that’s headed anywhere near us.

This sort of approach does nothing by way of really grappling with the causes of the situation, but is rather aimed solely at treating the presenting symptoms. The ‘problem’ doesn’t exist, apparently, if we don’t see it. Out of sight, out of mind, as they say.

Let’s call this what it is: blatant hypocrisy.

This co-opting of the language of compassion is merely a disgusting cover for making sure that we don’t have to deal with it, even though we know others still will. We don’t want to have to abide by our international obligations, but we’re happy for others to have to (who don’t have a colossal moat surrounding their countries).

Asylum seekers will still take desperate measures, because they’re in desperate situations. They’ll still die in the process. But, apparently, this is fine as long as we don’t have to see it.

The whole argument is breathtakingly abhorrent! It’s truly despicable!

But it’s even more despicable that it’s wrapped in the co-opted language of ‘compassion’.

Don’t be fooled: the current ‘solutions’ to the asylum seeker ‘problem’ have absolutely nothing to do with compassion.


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Josh Dowton

Student of history/theology/nonviolence/permaculture/missional thinking. Large of limb, red of hair. Semper in excretia sumus, solum profundum variat.

5 thoughts on “Asylum Seekers and the Redefinition of ‘Compassion’”

  1. Love this post, I received a letter from the Nationals candidate that said he would make sure that boat people aren’t housed at Singleton Army Base whilst they were “processed” if he were to be elected… He closed by saying something along the lines of that processing people fleeing war at an army base is inappropriate. I was very enraged. It is a horrible travesty and I’m very close to doing something protest wise… Just not sure what :S

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