Australia’s asylum shame

A year ago, I moved back to Australia after 10 years in Scotland.  Over these last 12 months, I’ve been relearning what it is to be Australian – not in the cliched sense, but in terms of the nuances of daily life that I’d just clean forgotten about (such aggressive driving, for example) or never even known about (the oddities of school drop offs).

But more than anything, I’ve had to confront and compute my country’s attitudes to its indigenous people and its asylum seekers. I feel like I’m seeing these issues with fresh eyes, and I really don’t like what I see.

When it comes to the refugee question, I’m trying to better understand how, over 10 years, the Australian population now tolerates the offshore processing and detention of thousands of asylum seekers in conditions that would appear to breach every human rights convention and all moral codes.

Peter Dutton, Australia's Minister for Immigration
Peter Dutton, Australia’s Minister for Immigration

Obviously, there are people stridently opposed to this policy, but for the most part there seems to be, at best reading, a sense of powerlessness to change it, or at worst, a general agreement with this position.

So this weekend, I went to hear Robert Manne (professor of politics) and Madeleine Gleeson (human rights lawyer) discuss Australia’s asylum seeker policies at the Melbourne Writers Festival.  I learned lots in that one hour: about how to shift public opinion within Australia (apparently two-thirds of the population supports the current policy) and how internationally we are becoming more isolated (Australia ‘has lost moral compass’ over immigration detention: New Zealand opposition). During the discussion it also became apparent very quickly that even left-leaning academics don’t agree on an approach or even a solution to this.

This discussion provided a useful framing for Home Truths: An Anthology of Refugee and Migrant Writing (edited by Caroline Petit and Yannick Thoraval) which I just finished reading.  This collection presents voices that we rarely hear from and stories that are rarely acknowledged. It’s a collection of stories, essays and poems written by people who fled their own countries for different reasons, but who all now call Australia their

There are stories that focus on the trauma left behind.  Mohamed Abba Omar speaks of going to bed early one night as he wanted to be well-rested to start his first day of university. That night civil war broke out in Mogadishu. ‘I left my beloved city, I left my country, my school and my friends.  I ran for my life and spent most of my teenage years on the run’.

Some of the pieces, like the well-written story by Fatema Johera Ahmed, are lined with black humour.  Her story, ‘A Suitable Bride’, is about thirty-two year old Orni’s struggle to subvert her family’s efforts to secure her an arranged marriage in Bangladesh.  ‘She felt the piercing eyes of her evaluators as they casually undressed and appraised her for defects like one pressed a tomato’. Despite her family’s best efforts, and to Orni’s secret delight, she can not attract a potential husband:

There was no want of feedback too:  she was too chirpy, too edgy or too disinterested, she was too short or her heels were too pretentiously high; she laughed when she was to respond or responded when it was better to be silent… Orni chose the easiest way – becoming the embodiment of Bengali womanhood who was not seen, and not heard, and had not been.


There is a lot written about the process of making Australia home, a lot of it is good, but not all of it’s positive.  Sudanese author Ajak Kwai writes:

It is my tradition…. that each member of the community is to put others first… In Australia these ideas may be seen as idiot acts because it is expected that each person should stand up for themselves because no one else will.  It is a pity that the culture in Australia seldom allows for such graciousness; to a newcomer from a culture like mine, Aussie culture is not seen as racism, but as bullying.


Some of the opinions expressed were perplexing to me: ‘Life in Australia is wonderful and happy.  As citizens of this country, I and my wife and children pay loyalty and respect to the government and … acknowledge Prime Minister John Howard who accepted many Africans to be part of the Australian community’.  That would be the same John Howard who, in my view, has poisoned the political discourse around asylum seekers for eternity.  In the same essay, William Dimo calls George W. Bush ‘the bravest man ever’.  It’s just so interesting what a different perspective can do.

The writing in Home Truths is not always elegant and the stories don’t always hang together as they might in a regular anthology. The editors acknowledge this tension – it’s a fine balance between editing these works where English is not always the writers’ first language, but where an adherence to authenticity and cultural norms around story-telling are paramount. The editors have done well to get this balance right.  The immediate impact of each piece is huge, and collectively this is a powerful book. All the writers have done an amazing job to articulate their own, very personal experiences.

In some respects the refugees and migrants whose stories we can read in Home Truths have been lucky.  Their stories aren’t all lined with silver, but they’ve been allowed to resettle in Australia; and have done so happily.  Our former PM Kevin Rudd (who ironically when first elected seemed like an Obama-esque messiah sent to deliver us from political conservatism forever) introduced the current policy where any asylum seeker coming to Australia by boat is refused settlement in Australia, instead being settled in Papua New Guinea or Nauru if found to be legitimate refugees.  In other words, no-one in our detention centres will ever set foot on Australian soil.


I can’t do much about the situation in Syria or in other countries that makes remaining in these places untenable for many people, but I can better educate myself and continue to question what I’m being told. For those who’d like to do the same thing, you can read more about Robert Mann’s position here, about Madeleine Gleeson’s book here.  For some basic statistics about how many and what nationality of people are in Australian detention centres you can look here.  And then of course there is Home Truths to give you a different perspective again, even if at times an uncomfortable one.

Home Truths can be bought through Amazon.  All sale proceeds are donated to charities that support refugees.

This is a site about books and about tea, and how we should read more books and drink more tea. Sometimes, it's hard to know what books to read and what tea to drink. This is where I can help out.


  1. It’s a difficult question that all nations are struggling with to some degree or another, even poorer nations. As you’ll know, in our recent Brexit vote, there was much talk of us moving to an Australian system for immigration, and I have to say I found that kinda depressing, though I have no idea what a good solution would be. Seems crazy that, in a world with enough for all, we can’t find a way of allowing people to live in dignity and security without the need to leave their own countries.

    • I know, I know. The interesting point made by Madeleine Gleason was that countries need to accept that human mobility is a fact- that there will always be reasons why some people need to leave their country. She said until that’s recognised, it’s almost impossible to have a realistic and mature conversation between nations about the solution, let alone sorting it at its source, as you say.

  2. Sobering stuff! I’ve heard that Australia has a harsh immigration policy, but I don’t know much about it. My heart aches for refugees.

  3. Thanks so much. It’s sometimes hard to maintain outrage, and is good to be reminded of how things seem to someone who has a fresh perspective.

    • That’s a really thoughtful comment. How much outrage and for how long can you maintain it before it becomes pointless? It’s really hard to stay angry and motivated in the face of such dogma and adherence to a position.

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