“Does the calculus of numbers falter when it comes to matters of good and evil?” Coetzee on Australia and the refugee crisis.

Share

“What is more of a mystery is why so many Australians wish refugees ill.”

Australia backs strong border controls, and its relationship to immigration has had a troubled history.

Like everywhere else in the world, however, the great refugee crisis from the Middle East and North Africa has affected Australia, too. Most refugees come via Indonesia, where they are routinely arrested and returned to their country of origin. According to Nobel writer J.M. Coetzee, who makes his home in Adelaide: “At the height of the boat traffic to Australia in 2009–2011, some five thousand people a year were setting sail from ports in southern Indonesia, in leaky boats provided by smugglers.” Some estimates put the number of deaths at 2,000 in the last two decades, with  a spike of over 400 in 2012. He continues, “To call their hostility racist or xenophobic explains little. Its roots lie further back in time…”

Coetzee considers imprisoned Kurdish-Iranian journalist  Behrouz Boochan’s  No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison in the current New York Review of Books. Incidentally, Boochan’s book was typed in Farsi on a cell phone that he kept hidden in his mattress, and then surreptitiously dispatched, one text message at a time, to a collaborator in the outside world.

An excerpt of Coetzee’s review:

Let us suppose that I am the heir of an enormous estate. Stories about my generosity abound. And let us suppose that you are a young man, ambitious but in trouble with the authorities in your native land. You make a momentous decision: you will set out on a voyage across the ocean that will bring you to my doorstep, where you will say, I am here—feed me, give me a home, let me make a new life!

A bold and persuasive claim

Unbeknown to you, however, I have grown tired of strangers arriving on my doorstep saying I am here, take me in—so tired, so exasperated that I say to myself: Enough! No longer will I allow my generosity to be exploited! Therefore, instead of welcoming you and taking you in, I consign you to a desert island and broadcast a message to the world: Behold the fate of those who presume upon my generosity by arriving on my doorstep unannounced!

This is, more or less, what happened to Behrouz Boochani. Targeted by the Iranian regime for his advocacy of Kurdish independence, Boochani fled the country in 2013, found his way to Indonesia, and was rescued at the last minute from the unseaworthy boat in which he was trying to reach Australia. Instead of being given a home, he was flown to one of the prisons in the remote Pacific run by the Commonwealth of Australia, where he remains to this day.

Boochani is not alone. Thousands of asylum-seekers have suffered a similar fate at the hands of the Australians. The point of the fable of the rich man and the supplicant is the following: Is it worse to treat thousands of people with exemplary inhumanity than to treat a single man in such a way? If it is indeed worse, how much worse is it? Thousands of times? Or does the calculus of numbers falter when it comes to matters of good and evil?

Borrowing from Kurdish bardic traditions…

Whatever the answer, the argument against Australia’s treatment of asylum-seekers can be made as trenchantly on the basis of a single case as on that of a thousand, and Boochani has provided exactly that case. Under atrocious conditions he has managed to write and publish a record of his experiences (experiences yet to be concluded), a record that will certainly leave his jailers gnashing their teeth.

On Australia’s treatment of asylum-seekers:

The preventive measures undertaken by the Australian navy to head off asylum-seekers are shrouded in secrecy; therefore we do not know how many of them have persisted in embarking for Australia since a harsh new policy of interning and processing them offshore was put into practice in 2013, but there is every reason to believe that the number has fallen drastically. It would appear that when the navy intercepts a refugee vessel, it immediately transfers the occupants to a disposable boat with a minimum of fuel, tows it back into Indonesian waters, and casts it off.

On the book, and Boochani’s imprisonment on Manus Island:

This is a bold and persuasive claim: that through their experience on the island the prisoners have absorbed an understanding of how power works in the world, whereas their jailers remain locked in complacent ignorance. The claim rests on an extended conception of what knowledge can consist in: knowledge can be absorbed directly into the suffering body and thence transfigure the self. The prisoners know more than the jailers do, even if they do not have words for what they know.

Read the rest of the article here.  


Tags: ,

Leave a Reply