Asylum Seekers & Coetzee

I study English Literature at University and as a result, read a ridiculous amount of books that range from the satirical pamphlets of Jonathan Swift to modern novels like “The Slap” by Christos Tsolkis. This semester I’m studying Contemporary Australian Literature and have had the pleasure of reading J.M Coetzee’s ‘Diary of a Bad Year’. The novel is set out in three streams of thought – the first a series of opinions dictated by the main character on a wide variety of subjects such as Politics, Sport, Intelligent Design Theory etc. The second stream of thought is the main characters thought’s relating to his typist, a Filipina woman from the Penthouse apartment in his block. The third is by Anya, the typist, and her thoughts impressions and conversations with her jealous partner about the writer. Though the book is a challenge to follow, the opinions on each subject in the first stream are particularly interesting. Here is the excerpt on Asylum Seekers in Australia, a particular subject that seemed important to share in the current political climate and impending election. Please note that this is J.M. Coetzee’s work of fiction and not my own.

I do my best to understand the Australian way of handling Refugees, and fail. What Baffles me is not the laws themselves that govern Petitions for asylum – harsh though they may be, a case can be made for them that is at least plausible – but the way in which they are implemented. How can a decent, generous, easygoing people close their eyes while strangers who arrive on their shores pretty much helpless and penniless are treated with such heartlessness, such grim callousness?

I suppose the answer is that people do not simply close their eyes. I suppose the fact is that they feel uneasy, even sickened, to the point that, in order to save themselves and their sense of being decent, generous, easygoing, et cetera, they have to close their eyes and ears. A natural way of behaving, a human way. Plenty of third world societies treat lepers with equal heartlessness.

As for the people that created the present refugee system and now administer it, it is truly difficult to feel one’s way into their state of mind. Do they not have doubts and second thought? Perhaps not. If they had meant from the beginning to create a simple, efficient and human system of processing refugees, they surely could have done so. What they have created instead is a system of deterrences, and indeed a spectacle of deterrence. It says: This is the purgatory to which you will be subjected if you arrive in Australia without papers. Think again. In this respect Baxter Detention Centre out in the South Australian Desert is not dissimilar to Guantanemo Bay. Behold: this is what happens to those who cross the line we have drawn. Be Warned.

As evidence that their system works, the Australian Authorities point to the drop in the number of what they call “illegal arrivals” since the system came into operation. And they are right: as a deterrent, their system clearly works. Deterrence, from terrere, to terrify.

One forgets that Australia was never a promised land, a new world, an island paradise offering its bounty to the new arrival. It grew out of an archipelago of penal colonies owned by an abstract Crown. First you passed through the entrails of the court system; then you were transported to the ends of the earth. Life in the Antipodes was meant to be a punishment; it made no sense to complain that it was unpleasant.

Today’s refugees find themselves in much the same boat as yesterday’s transported. Someone, or more likely some committee, concocted a system for ‘processing’ them. That system was approved and adopted, and now it is implemented impersonally, without exceptions, without mercy, even if it dictates that people must be locked up indefinitely in calls in camps in the desert, humiliated and driven mad and then punished for their madness.

As in Guantanamo Bay, the Baxter detention camp (correction: the Baxter Facility) has among its targets masculine honour, masculine dignity. In the case of Guantanamo Bay it is intended that when prisoners at last emerge from incarceration they will be mere shells of men, psychically  wrecked; in the worst cases, Baxter is achieving the same effect.

– J. M. Coetzee, Diary of A Bad year, 2007, pgs 93-95

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