Refugees and human rights abuses: we can’t pretend that we do not know

Blurred refugees on a boatpublished by: The Guardian
published: 17 November 2013

The writer Hannah Arendt noted how, during the refugee crises of the 1930s, the treatment received by those fleeing repression was determined, even when they escaped, by their oppressors.

Those whom the persecutor had singled out as scum of the earth—Jews, Trotskyites, etc.—actually were received as scum of the earth everywhere,’ she wrote. ‘[T]hose whom persecution had called undesirable became the indesirables of Europe.

Arendt provides a useful framework to think about Tony Abbott’s extraordinary statement in Sri Lanka: his comment that, though his government “deplores the use of torture we accept that sometimes in difficult circumstances difficult things happen”.

On one level, the Abbott “torture happens” line might be understood as old-fashioned realpolitik.

Because Australia wants to repatriate Sri Lankan asylum seekers, Abbott needs to paint the authoritarian regime there as evolving to democracy (despite Amnesty International’s assessment that “the government is slowly but surely dismantling institutions, including the judiciary, that protect human rights”.) Because Abbott seeks co-operation against people smugglers, he’s willing to provide warships to one of the most bloodsoaked militaries in the world.

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