TIn his week, my colleagues Melissa Davey and Josh Taylor put together a comprehensive timeline of the events on Christmas Island culminating in a three-year-old being flown to Perth for medical treatment.
I encourage you to read it if you haven’t already. What you will learn is that a little girl, Tharnicaa, waited the better part of two weeks, as her physical condition deteriorated, before someone intervened to give her the medical attention she needed.
By the time she was transferred to Perth, Tharnicaa had a high fever. She was dizzy and vomiting. When she reached the hospital, she was diagnosed with pneumonia and a blood infection.
Tharnicaa’s medevac odyssey went around the world. The story was made indelible by the photos of the ailing toddler being comforted by her concerned older sister.
While the events were heartbreaking, it would be tempting to dismiss this as some random system failure—a medical bureaucrat somewhere in the borderline machine making sub-optimal clinical judgment.
In fact, when mistakes go, it’s relatable, up to a point. Anyone who has cared for young children knows that things quickly go downhill when they contract nasty viral infections, sometimes terrifying, but their illnesses can turn just as quickly. Parents, being people, don’t always make the right calls. Neither do doctors. Australian Border Force denies “all allegations of inaction or assault”.
But we can’t dismiss this incident as just “one of those things” because the sub-optimal treatment of Tharnicaa exists in a broader context.
That context is the performative brutality of the Australian border protection regime.
Tharnicaa’s parents, Sri Lankan citizens, are unauthorized boat arrivals. The Australian system is configured to make life very uncomfortable for this cohort. The regime doesn’t invite interrogation, but its random atrocities are meant to be seen, like an Aesop’s fable or a morality game.
Australia’s policy of performative cruelty has borne various labels over the years and spawned various slogans – “we decide who comes here and the circumstances in which they come” in the Howard era; “stop the boats” in the years of Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison. Governments categorize this activity as border protection, which sounds benignly bureaucratic, but what Australia actually practices is deterrence – the stricter the better.
As Malcolm Turnbull famously told Donald Trump in 2017, Australia would not allow a Nobel Prize-winning “genius” to settle in Australia if they happened to arrive by boat — an observation that led the overtly nativist Trump to get excited: “We would too.” The Trump administration later put people in cages and separated children from their parents at the US border.
In Australia we lock people up offshore. We also send asylum seekers to a permanent limbo life of temporary protection.
Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton regularly proclaim their successes in stopping unauthorized boat arrivals. This triumphalist framing suggests that an undeclared invasion force has been repulsed. But the truth is a catalog of real horrors lurking on the other side of tabloid staging and ritual self-congratulation.
Before the Australian authorities reacted with passivity and panadol when a toddler on Christmas Island became seriously ill for the past two weeks, the children on Nauru were brought here for urgent medical treatment after being refused food and liquids.
There was the 14-year-old who suffered from major depressive disorder and severe muscle wasting after not getting out of bed for four months.
It was 23-year-old Reza Barati, who was beaten to death in 2014 during violent riots in the detention center on the island of Manus.
There was Iranian asylum seeker, Hamid Kehazaei, who was misdiagnosed, treated with broken equipment and left unattended when he fell seriously ill on Manus Island. After he died of blood poisoning, Queensland coroner Terry Ryan found that death was preventable.
It is possible that Australians have forgotten some or all of these things as it is difficult to remember them. Memories can cause acute moral discomfort. Institutionalized acts of inhumanity can make empathetic people uncomfortable.
But this is us. This is what Australia is doing.
Right now we have a Sri Lankan family going through a strange, degenerate half-life on Christmas Island, as they exhaust their remaining legal options because (wait for it) Dutton wanted to be able to deport them without leaving protesters in a “difficult position”.
I repeat, this is us.
We choose the governments that do these things. Over and over. If we can’t face that simple truth, nothing will ever change.
“It’s not a matter of being mean,” the new Home Secretary, Karen Andrews, said in a televised interview this week. (Dutton’s successor unfolded the rationale for hard deterrence). “I don’t want people dying trying to get to Australia by sea while I’m waiting,” Andrews said. “I’m not going to open the gates for the people smugglers.”
This particular sound bite will sound very familiar to people who have been following this miserable conversation, as it is the official rhetorical checkmate.
Australian interior ministers routinely use this argument to cool a legitimate debate. If you’re not for amoral deterrence, then apparently you are for open borders and people who die at sea.
But what this overworked binary doesn’t respect is the enduring truth outside of the conversation topic. People may have stopped dying at sea, but they haven’t stopped suffering, sick and in some cases die, in the punitive deterrent regime Australia has created for unauthorized maritime arrivals.
Andrews’ binary may be silly, but the election results in Australia illustrate its enduring political usefulness. We’ve all seen the coalition at different times with the loud hailer appealing to the entrenched isolationist instincts of Australians, and Labor at different times sneaking around in their crash helmets, too terrified to say this raunchy hyper-partisan politics (and it’s as much as practical policy) has a terrible human price.
Trying to make policy in this area is actually very complex. Nation states have the right to assert their sovereignty. People trying to navigate a broken global resettlement system also have the right to flee danger and persecution. But Australia has reduced the political conversation on these issues to a cartoon.
Sometimes reality pierces the cartoon.
In this particular case, the story of a Sri Lankan family hovering on the brink of deportation in growing distress causes the Morrison government some political discomfort, as these people are recognizable.
People arriving in Australia by boat without a visa are presumed to be queue jumpers. They are deemed to be unworthy. But the basic humanity of this family seems to have overshadowed the tropes. They have been welcomed to a Queensland town that has looked beyond the pejorative labels associated with their mode of arrival.
While there are always voices about performative cruelty in this country, the government is feeling a little caught out at this point. A little lifting on his own petard.
Officials insist senior players will be looking for a viable resettlement option once remaining legal proceedings are exhausted. The government has quietly made exceptions in the past and the world has not come to an end.
But since this case is out in the open, the government is under pressure to reconcile any solution with the hackneyed platitudes of the Australian deterrent monster.
As Morrison stated in 2019, “The worst thing we could do is… send a message of ‘you know what if you come to Australia illegally, and the courts say you have no claim and the government says you have no claim? , then the government may make an exception because there has been a public response.”