In the opening scenes of George Orwell’s 1984, the protagonist, Winston Smith, sits down to write a diary entry. Hands trembling, unable to be sure of the date, he is overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness, in part brought on by the sheer scale of state propaganda that he has witnessed in the hours before. But amidst it all there is one thing that occupies his mind:
“April 4th, 1984. Last night to the flicks. All war films. One very good one of a ship full of refugees being bombed somewhere in the Mediterranean. Audience much amused by shots of a great huge fat man trying to swim away … you saw him through the helicopters gunsights, then he was full of holes and the sea round him turned pink … audience shouting with laughter when he sank.
“Then you saw a lifeboat full of children with a helicopter hovering over it. There was a middle-aged woman might have been a Jewess sitting up in the bow with a little boy about three years old in her arms …
“Then the helicopter planted a 20 kilo bomb in among them terrific flash and the boat went all to matchwood. Then there was a wonderful shot of a child’s arm going up up up right up into the air a helicopter with a camera in its nose must have followed it up and there was a lot of applause from the [ruling] party seats …”
Are we today at the level of barbarity described in the above passage? Some would argue that to put the question is preposterous. After all, those in the ALP and Coalition party seats claim again and again that their asylum seeker policies are concerned with saving the lives of those who might otherwise drown at sea.
Their narrative, however, smacks of the establishment “doublethink” Orwell mocked: “War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength.” He could have included “Destroying lives is saving them.”
In the wake of the ALP’s announcement of the disgraceful “PNG solution”, which will intern and process all new boat arrivals on Manus Island and Nauru, with no prospect of resettlement in Australia, the Liberals quickly moved to outflank them, again, to the right.
Party leader Tony Abbott and immigration spokesperson Scott Morrison pledged to militarise the borders further by appointing a three-star general to oversee a comprehensive surveillance of the waters to our north. They also promised to build a mass internment camp on Nauru.
The proposed Operation Sovereign Borders was announced amid all the atmosphere of a war film: “This is one of the most serious external situations that we have faced in many a long year”, Abbott declared, attempting to paint asylum arrivals as some sort of naval invasion.
On 16 August he further announced his intention to deny permanent protection and a path to citizenship to some 32,000 people waiting for their asylum claims to be processed: “This is our country and we determine who comes here.”
The Coalition’s announcement was sickening. Even those now living in Australia and found to be genuine refugees will be condemned to a life of permanent uncertainty, forced to reapply in three years or less, again to be put through the process of proving that they are at risk of harm if deported.
Those whose claims are denied are to become like Orwell’s “unpersons” – erased from existence (or at least from the view of the population). They will have no access to appeals via the Refugee Review Tribunal and the court system. They will be deported, in the words of the Coalition, “as quickly as possible”. If the country they fled refuses to accept them, they will face the prospect of indefinite internment in Australia’s gulag archipelago. It is as Orwell wrote: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.”
Polling by Essential Media in early August showed that 64 and 51 percent respectively think the ALP’s and the Coalition’s policies are “about right” or “too soft”. Just one in five thought they were “too harsh”.
There is certainly a minority of people who would like to see asylum seekers kicked ever harder in the teeth. Most of us have met at least one person in that category. But they are not born that way – they have been created in part by the incessant refugee bashing of politicians and the media.
One example of how it’s done is the government’s advertisements warning asylum seekers not to come to Australia by boat. More than 80 percent of the campaign budget is devoted to domestic newspapers – which are not read by overseas refugees. The advertisements are designed both to appeal to a layer of racists and to promote barbarity as reasonable and mainstream.
Another recent example was the Department of Immigration’s decision to release images on 22 July of the first group of people to be transferred to Papua New Guinea under the government’s new agreement. The photos clearly showed people in a state of despair and trauma. Why were they made public, if not to stir up passions like those described by Winston Smith?
Yet it’s not the case that masses of people are gleefully awaiting footage of limbs flying into the air. There seems to be general indifference, rather than delight, at what is going on. That isn’t surprising. In the last 30 years of neoliberalism and working class retreat, the prerogatives of the rich and powerful have gone almost totally unchallenged. Social solidarity has been smashed up and the world made a tougher place in which to exist.
Many now just shrug their shoulders, thinking that there is nothing else to do: What’s the point of being interested in the plight of others when the world doesn’t give a shit about any of us? Why bother caring when we seem to have no power to alter the course of events?
There is also a carefully constructed use of language by politicians, which aims to make it difficult for us to connect with those being locked up. For the politicians, there are no such people as refugees – there are just “people smugglers” and their “clients”, “irregular” and “illegal arrivals”. There is no “flight to safety”, just a “business model”.
Indifference within the population when confronted with such inhumanity serves a purpose: it helps to cement power in the hands of those who endeavour to use it against all of us. That’s surely part of Orwell’s message that is relevant today.
The militarisation of the borders and dehumanisation of asylum seekers is not isolated from the militarisation of policing, the incredible increase in covert surveillance of almost every person on the globe and the transformation of us from human beings into simple consumers for private industry and clients or customers of government services.
All go hand in hand in the construction of a society in which there are fewer and fewer social bonds, and where the government and the capitalists more and more do as they like with all of us, asylum seeker and citizen alike.