Australia’s Shame

An Australian-run camp where asylum-seekers who try to reach Australia by boat are detained, Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, November 2016
Ashley Gilbertson/The New York Times/Redux
An Australian-run camp where asylum-seekers who try to reach Australia by boat are detained, Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, November 2016

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!

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?

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.

Given the fact that the foundational event of the Commonwealth of Australia was the arrival on the island continent’s east coast of a fleet of uninvited vessels captained by James Cook; given further that since the end of World War II Australia has…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.