John Menadue. Sharks and asylum seekers

Feb 2, 2014

Over the weekend we have seen thousands of people crowding onto our beaches on both sides of the country to protest against the culling of sharks in Western Australia.  I happen to think that the protesters are right, that people who swim in dangerous seas know the risks but are prepared to take them. Compared with the carnage on our roads, the number who die from shark attacks is quite minor.

But the protests made me ask why we do not see the same protests supporting asylum seekers, fellow human beings fleeing terror of a different sort.

Why are we so exhausted in defending the rights of asylum seekers? Maybe it is because the problem is so large, it’s long-term and seems to be intractable. What can we do to make a difference?

I think our willingness to “pass by on the other side” is because for over a long period deliberate and successful attempts have been made to anaesthatise our consciences to the plight of asylum seekers and refugees. We have become numb to the tragedy that we have allowed to happen in our name.

I suggest that there are a string of events and actions that have made us less sensitive.

  • John Howard was the first Prime Minister in Australia since the war to show us the great political benefit in appealing to our fear and our worst instincts. Tony Abbott has followed in the same path.
  • We were told at the time of the ‘children overboard’ event that asylum seekers were so inhuman and degraded that they would even throw their children overboard.
  • Tony Abbott continues to call boat people ‘illegals’, akin to criminals, when they are not. As a colleague of Tony Abbott’s at a Jesuit college put it ‘They are not illegals, they are our brothers and sisters’.
  • Scott Morrison told the Coalition Caucus that most people believe that asylum seekers are Muslims and that that should be exploited.
  • He later told us that asylum seekers bring disease and wads of money.
  • The new Member for Lindsay at the last election told us that asylum seekers are blocking the M4 in Sydney.
  • Eric Abetz in Opposition told us that asylum seekers in the community who offended, even in a trivial way, should be treated like paedophiles.

The demonization of asylum seekers and refugees continues almost daily. The media is largely silent. Its major interest is the politics of boat arrivals, not the plight of the persecuted. The leadership of our churches, synagogues and mosques is scarcely heard. The Vietnamese community that was given a haven in Australia more than 30 years ago is silent. The Labor Party is largely silent as are many members of the Coalition who I know are privately very concerned about what is happening.

What is it that sharks have that seems to make their plight more important than that of asylum seekers and refugees? Our consciences have become numb. The demonization of asylum seekers is proving to be a political winner.

It seems to be worth making the effort to save sharks but not human beings also fleeing terror.


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