Commodifying and dehumanising asylum seekers. Guest blogger Michael Kelly SJ

Sep 18, 2013

The rejection by the Indonesian foreign minister of Tony Abbott’s suggested ways of “stopping the boats” is only the latest assertion of how the Coalition’s policy on asylum seekers was never going to work. It might have made political sense at election time, allegedly in marginal seats though the results in western Sydney throw some doubt on that.

But now a factious Senate that will be difficult for a Coalition government to woo, a High Court to appeal to about the implementation of a policy that has all to many features similar to the one struck down when the “Malaysian Solution” failed and the unparalleled damage done by the policy to Australia’s standing in the region all indicate that, however loudly proclaimed and possibly significant at the polls, it was never a goer.

Its absurdity as policy is now clear to anyone wanting to look at how unworkable it is. And Labor didn’t help. Already, despite promises during the campaign from such people as Penny Wong that Labor would never send children, especially unaccompanied ones, to Nauru, it’s happened. And as PM, Kevin Rudd’s dealings with PNG and Nauru only intensified the issue with which the Coalition joined the ALP with glee.

But there’s something deeper at work in what is, in the medium and long term, just bad policy. It surfaces in people wondering how committed Christians like Rudd, Abbott and Morrison can so politically exploit and instrumentalise vulnerable people and see any coherence with the faith they profess.

Karl Marx was wrong about a lot of things in his moralizing pseudoscientific economics. But one thing he did get right was the way capitalist economies can commodify and dehumanize people as “units” in a production process. He called it “reification” which, for those not familiar with Latin, means making “things” of people.

And that’s what happens when an absence of proper legal process, attentive listening to actual personal stories and a readiness to accept a civilized approach worked out over the last 70 years to dealing with asylum seeker claims are replaced by punishing the claimant before the case has been heard.

We are all familiar, or should be, with what a relatively insignificant share, by international comparisons with the numbers of asylum seekers in the world, those coming to our country are. But a national category mistake seems to be the order of the day in Australia: we hear politicians waxing ferocious about an “emergency” whose context they don’t get or refuse to acknowledge.

And in that context, people can be dehumanized and “reified”. Don’t ask me how those doing it can square such an attitude and approach with their claimed “deepest beliefs”. I thought central to being a Christian was what’s celebrated at Christmas through which believers mark that every human is dignified as a carrier of God’s presence.

As with so many people who propose or enact inhuman solutions to apparent problems and challenges, Tony Abbott is also widely discovered to be not the demon alleged but a very approachable, sensitive and humane individual. Ask some Aborigines in northern Australia.

Those who know him attest to his gracious and compassionate warmth as a person. His use of site visits and shopping center walk throughs have always been a winner for him because he is an engaging person who is the antithesis of the cartoon ideologue his enemies paint him to be.

Characterizations of him as a misogynist and a blue tie wearing cardboard cut out are how Labor sought to dehumanize hi

But characterizing asylum seekers as “illegals” and targeted as people whose story is never to be heard – dehumanizing them – is what he’s done. And why has this happened with someone whose Christian faith is sincere and whose human qualities are well attested to?

The simple answer given by many is it’s all about politics. And if that’s so, what well deserved reputations politicians have.

But perhaps it’s also because, for the last 500 years, Christians have so trivialized their understanding of sin – reducing it to the commission of acts that violate a rulebook someone has made – that the fundamental sin of human beings is missed. That sin is the depersonalization of human beings, allowing them to be reduced to figures on a page.

Marx reviled the process; Jesus decried it; and we all do it. Any time we advance an argument against an actual or perceived enemy and neglect to acknowledge the humanity of our opponent, we are into reification. Any time we propose a process that neglects engagement with the people affected, we are into reification.

Marx was in the great tradition of Jewish Prophets who decried injustice as not only destructive of human community but an ultimate offence against humanity. He didn’t believe in God. But he got the consequences that his Jewish heritage specified for the way we live for or off each other.

And now that the black comedy of the election campaign is over, and no matter how many worthy warriors Tony Abbott can muster from the ranks of the retired military to manage “stopping the boats”, there’s a real problem: it won’t work.

One way or another, Australia is going to have to return to finding a regional solution to the challenge, engage with the real people in the mix of both our regional neighbors and the asylum seekers wanting to come our way or face even greater failures in foreign affairs and the health and quality of Australia’s public culture.

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