Buried at sea

Julian Burnside

Unpacking the insane rhetoric behind our government’s immigration policies, featuring drawings by children in detention

From Future Perfect Issue 2, Summer 2014–15. Buy a copy here.


The late June arrival of two boats of Sri Lankan asylum seekers caused a headache for Immigration Minister Scott Morrison. The boats had set out from India, so they could not readily be sent to Indonesia or Sri Lanka. The public learned of their presence before Morrison’s jackboots style could make them disappear. The High Court’s help was sought, and it became apparent that the Court would hear the matter and was not pleased with the government’s nonchalant intention simply to hold the asylum seekers hostage on the high seas.

For months, Morrison had been crowing about the fact that no refugee boats had arrived in Australia since his government came to power. He and Abbott made great political mileage out of the boast that they had “stopped the boats”. Morrison was silent about whether boats were still setting out in the direction of Australia. These, he told us contemptuously, were “on-water matters” which we, the public, could not be trusted to know about. This stood in marked contrast with his pre-election commentary on every boat arrival. Before the election, he deemed it essential that we be told every detail of every boat, but now it is information we could not be trusted with.

Of course, we know boats are still setting out: we have bought a lot of expensive life-boats so that our navy can force boat people back to Indonesia. The fact that they tried to get here is significant, because we can be confident, on the evidence of the past 15 years, that a high proportion of them were genuine refugees legally entitled to protection. Over the past 15 years, about 94% of all boat people have been assessed—by us—as refugees legally entitled to protection. But that is not something that engages Morrison’s Christian spirit

A series of drawings from children in detention submitted to the 2014 National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention, Australian Human Rights Commission. 

A series of drawings from children in detention submitted to the 2014 National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention, Australian Human Rights Commission. 


Neither is he concerned, it seems, that the people we pushed back will have made landfall in Indonesia, a country which has not signed the Refugee Convention, and that they risk being sent from Indonesia back to their country of origin, where they face persecution.

So that is the source of Morrison’s delight: we are indirectly sending people back to a place of persecution, in plain defiance of our central obligation under the Refugees Convention.

But he was also pleased with himself because he could say he had “stopped the boats”.

It is interesting to watch the evolving content of the “stop the boats” rhetoric. Originally, it was the LNP response to the fact that boat people drown in their attempt to reach safety. Concern about people drowning was not prominent until we saw a boat smashed to bits on the shore of Christmas Island in 2010. It was horrific footage. The idea of “stopping the boats” was directed as stopping the drownings; or at least the visible drownings. Since then, “stopping the boats” became a standard part of the LNP propaganda; it became a cliche of the LNP megaphones in the Murdoch press (Andrew Bolt, Chris Kenny, etc.), and is now a repeated mantra of the LNP trolls on Twitter.

“I wonder how many Australians relish the idea that we are being made to look so ugly that a person would prefer to face the Taliban than face us.”


After the disaster at Christmas Island on 15 December 2010, politicians dedicated themselves to “stopping the boats” ostensibly because of their concern to stop the drownings. The idea which emerged was a revived Pacific Solution. During the 2013 election campaign, both major parties harnessed the Pacific Solution idea and tried to out-bid each other in their promises of cruelty to boat people. The theory was that, in order to spare people from drowning, you take the ones who have survived the perils of the sea and treat them so harshly that they will prefer to stay home and face persecution there rather than be persecuted by Australia in its PNG or Nauru depots.

What Morrison does not want to recognise is that refugees face an agonising choice: stay and risk being killed, or flee and risk drowning. What he does not want to recognise is that a person who stays home and is killed is just as dead as one who drowns.


Of course it is tragic when asylum seekers die in a desperate attempt to reach safety. It is also tragic when they stay behind and are slaughtered by their persecutors. The key difference is that, when they stay behind and become another statistic in the grim arithmetic of ethnic cleansing, we do not empathise with them; our conscience remains untouched. When we learn that they have perished in an attempt to seek safety here, it seems different. 

Why is that? Is it because they have tried to engage us? Is it because the ethics of proximity has begun to operate, so that we feel a heightened sense of responsibility for them? Is it because, seeing their last moments on the TV news, we understand their agonies, although perhaps not the desperation which drove them?

Soon enough “stop the boats” shifted its content. It stopped meaning “prevent the drownings” and came to mean “punish the un-drowned”. Then, when the LNP took power, it came to mean “stop them arriving”. Morrison has spent the last 9 months trumpeting that he had “stopped the boats”. We know boats were still setting out, but at least they weren’t arriving in Australian territory. And if people were still drowning, we weren’t allowed to know and our national conscience remained sanctimoniously clear.

So, by the time the two boats of Sri Lankan asylum seekers were approaching Christmas Island, Morrison was desperate to keep them at bay so that he could continue to say that the Abbott government had “stopped the boats”. So desperate was he to maintain the rhetoric that he had the navy take command of one ship on the high seas and hold the passengers hostage until the High Court intervened. Then, after holding them at sea for a month, he brought them to Australia and lodged them in Curtin detention centre where, no doubt, he will make them wish they had drowned.

The irony comes full circle.

It has all come at a great cost. The Abbott government is explicitly pursuing a policy of deterrence. The veil of secrecy that surrounds the whole exercise prevents the public from understanding just what that signifies. It is important to recall what “deterrence” means. It means that a person, faced with several options and acting rationally, will choose one course in preference to an alternative course. A person fleeing the Taliban or the genocidal Rajapaksa regime in Sri Lanka has to make a choice: flee for safety or face your persecutors? The whole brutal and expensive apparatus of the Pacific Solution is directed to deterring people from seeking safety here. For that to work, coming to Australia has to look less attractive than the Taliban or Rajapaksa.

I wonder how many Australians relish the idea that we are being made to look so ugly that a person would prefer to face the Taliban than face us.


Are the politicians sincere in their stated concern about refugees drowning? In my opinion they are not. Members of the Coalition do not care if people drown in their attempts to reach Australia. Their expressed concern for the drowned is base hypocrisy. This is easily demonstrated.

First, if we started cooperating with Indonesia and established a genuine regional processing centre there, we would put an end to boat arrivals in an instant. If asylum claims were processed fairly in Indonesia, and those found to be refugees were offered swift, safe resettlement, the incentive to get on a people smuggler’s boat would disappear.

Second, the LNP are trying to reintroduce temporary protection visas (TPVs). TPVs create a substantial incentive to use a people smuggler. It is often the case that one member of a family will “blaze a trail” to Australia. Once he (it is usually the husband or the eldest son) reaches Australia and is accepted as a refugee, he naturally wants to be reunited with his family. In the ordinary way of things, if the man of the family is a refugee, then it is almost certain that his wife and children are also refugees. TPVs have a condition that prohibits family reunion. The only way the family of a TPV holder can be reunited is by the family using a people smuggler. On 19 October 2001 a refugee boat later designated the SIEV-X sank on its way to Australia. By the time a rescue vessel arrived nearly 24 hours later, 353 people had drowned. Most of them were women and children whose husbands and fathers were living in Australia on TPVs.

It is clear that TPVs are an active inducement to use a people smuggler. Abbott and Morrison want to re-introduce TPVs. When they say they are concerned about people drowning in an attempt to reach Australia they are lying.

Of course, this is not the least of their hypocrisy. Abbott and Morrison are conspicuous Christians. That is a fine thing, but it is irreconcilable with their policy of deterrence. They express concern about people who might drown seeking protection, and they then wilfully mistreat those who do not drown. They mistreat them deliberately, not least by sending them to Nauru (where the rule of law has broken down) or to Manus (where the guards are unable to protect them from murderous attacks). The theory of the deterrent policy is that, if the Australian government treats asylum seekers badly enough, then asylum seekers will prefer to face down their persecutors than ask for our help. That is a position which finds no support in the religion which both Abbott and Morrison (and Rudd before them) embrace so conspicuously.

More in Issue 2

Speaking between the lines

Interview with Robert Lehrman, speechwriter for former US Vice President Al Gore