Flat White

Asylum – or arrogant entitlement?

20 September 2019

5:00 AM

20 September 2019

5:00 AM

The high-profile story of the deportation of the Sri Lankan Murugappan family has reminded us of the perennial tension between compassion, emotional manipulation and an effective immigration program. The family of four has lost numerous court battles to remain in Australia.

In contrast, another related but less known case has been unfolding with Behrouz Boochani, who the New Yorker recently profiled as, extraordinarily, “one of Australia’s most celebrated writers”. Unlike the Muruappans, however, Boochani “can’t step onshore” and, much more importantly, his story replaces compassion with indulgence of an acute sense of entitlement.

The New Yorker’s recent profile on Behrouz Boochani – “one of Australia’s most celebrated writers” – provides an interesting insight into the ascendance of acute entitlement in modern times.

Many Speccie readers will be well-versed with the ‘rights’ culture permeating our social fabric. It is, after all, a key reason the renowned Jordan Peterson attributes to his wide reception – for decades young Westerners have been told about their rights, says Peterson, and not their responsibilities. But this trend, when not aimed at finding meaning and ‘tidying up your room’, climbs into interesting territory when mixed with literary awards and sovereign borders.

Boochani, originally from Iran, is a transferee in Manus Province, Papua New Guinea (PNG), where he is part of the original total of 1300 men that tried to arrive by boat to Australia. Intercepted by the Royal Australian Navy, and taken to Christmas Island before being flown to PNG, he has spent the last six years at PNG’s Manus Regional Processing Centre.

His book – No Friend but the Mountains – was written by transmitting slabs of text messages to an academic in Australia, and has been lauded by Australian critics, receiving the National Biography Award, the Victorian Prize for Literature and the Victorian Premier’s Prize for Nonfiction.

The New Yorker piece contains the usual broadsides of Australia’s border protection policy, labelling offshore processing as a “war on immigrants”, and the MRPC as “Australia’s asylum gulag” and a “concentration camp”. It is notable for its breezy omissions – that Boochani simply “made his way” to Indonesia from Iran (bypassing tens of sanctuary countries), and that offshore processing is exclusively the policy-child of angry conservatives. And there is no mention of the 20,000 attempted arrivals by sea to Australia in 2013, nor the total 50,000 arrivals on over 800 boats, including the activation of 17 new detention centres.

Boochani’s profile also misses some small but important elements – that he presumably wrote his book using an Australian taxpayer-funded phone and wifi, surrounded by millions of Papua New Guineans that don’t have enough money to even buy phone credit. Or that hundreds of men in identical circumstances to Boochani have actually opted to return home or, to much less a degree, settle in PNG (only 50 of the original 1300 have taken up the offer).

But Boochani, fed up with waiting around and standing in line for first-class medical care, appears to be unmoved by all of this:

Living in anticipation vexes me sorely, it has always vexed me. The sense of cessation and inertia. It’s even worse when one’s own anticipation is compounded by that of others. At this particular moment we are all staring fixedly at one point, all desiring the same thing.” Later, about to be taken to Manus, he writes, “I have always despised waiting, always despised glancing at whatever is around me, staring for hours while I wait for something worthless. . . . I want the fate that awaits me. I want it to arrive immediately.” There is still no end in sight to Boochani’s waiting.

From reading the above and other parts of his book, Boochani appears unaccustomed to encountering rules, especially when he has seemingly moved across national borders with great ease and, as one suspects, great connections. In the heat of offshore processing, we often forget a shared regional aspiration is for strong states with sound institutions – a goal that Boochani has undermined not only bypassing the formal refugee resettlement process altogether but through suspicious modes of transport.

Rather than discouraged, Boochani’s spirit of entitlement has only been egged-on by the praise and encouragement of literary accolades, which should be safe spaces (apologies Speccie readers!) where those who shout the loudest should not win. Additionally, he has been given a non-resident appointment at the University of Sydney. This is at a time when Ramsey Centre on Western Civilisation – built on an endowment from a man who has been a standout philanthropist for all Australians – has battled to find a home.

Short memories, as they say, are legion in politics. The enthusiasm among transferees for a Shorten victory at the last federal election is revealing for obvious reasons. And there’s strong reason to expect that, learning very little, Labor will seek to replicate and transmit mixed offshore processing signals at the next federal election – a move that will only create more havoc among neighbours and at sea.

Yet, with some irony, Boochani’s stardom may actually be the most potent form of inverted deterrence. In not just his written work but his public appearances he has shown an appetite to sharply criticise and attack Australia – the very place he has eagerly sought to try and call home. At a recent Skype-hosted book event, where Boochani appeared live from PNG, his translator urged the audience to think hard about why it was their (read: the West’s) fault Boochani had been exiled from Iran in the first place. To be attacked for your legitimacy as a nation and labelled as running “a gulag” are two things, but to be held accountable for Ayatollah Khamenei’s direct political decisions is another. Indeed, it is not entirely the best way to win over the hearts and minds of everyday Australians that do not choose literary awards or make academic appointments.

“If you have no border,” said Douglas Murray to a Hungarian audience recently, “you have no country.” And Australia remains very much a country – one that broadcasts to the world that impatience, let alone a sense of acute entitlement, is an attitude that can only take one so far.

Sean Jacobs writes at www.seanjacobs.com.au

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