The pyramid of suffering

The story of peaceful community activism to prevent baby Asha from being returned to detention on Manus Island has been celebrated. It is right and good that the outpouring of communityand professional – goodwill has at least delayed the return of the infant to what are reported to be the terrible conditions of the detention centre on Nauru.

Despite individual ‘wins’ – such as the baby Asha decision – Australia’s asylum seeker laws (and policies) involve unresolved systemic issues. As happy as I am for the temporary reprieve for the infant Asha and her family I cannot help but wonder if wins for individual cases, as important as they are, fail to gain any traction on the central issues.

Refugee campaigners have, for example, increased the profile of individual asylum seekers, lately exemplified by the release of names and photos of babies due to return to Nauru. This is an important strategy, to humanise the people who are being harmed or are likely to be harmed by the Australian government’s policy of detention. And, by all accounts, it has been successful in garnering public support for these small children.

My concern however is that this strategy is indicative of a fragmentation of asylum seeker debate in Australia. Lowy Institute polls indicate that six out of ten of Australians support mandatory detention. It is difficult for refugee campaigners to get public support for a broader campaign about asylum seekers or mandatory detention, and the support for the named infants, including baby Asha, may indicate a threshold of suffering beyond which the Australian public is unwilling to accept.

There are however multiple layers to the plight of asylum seekers in Australia, and a reprieve for Asha cannot of course, fix the system. It is almost as if there is what I might describe as a ‘pyramid of suffering’ of those who imperil their lives to save their lives. At the base is war and persecution in the asylum seekers’ homeland. They run the risk of drowning at sea, and find themselves in detention in Australia. But Australia has shifted these people offshore, where the island detention offers them no escape – and it is coupled with, we are told, institutional cruelty. Women face sexual violence, children face forced removal and severe mental health issues, and babies likewise are in an inappropriate and unhealthy environment.

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The discourse in Australia has struggled to find its level in this pyramid, and there is a lot of talking at cross-purposes. The government speaks at the ‘drown at sea’ level, reflected in its ‘stop the boats’ mantra. The public – according to the Lowy poll cited above – seems to accept this rationale for the policy, and turns a blind eye to the allegations of institutional cruelty. This is made easier by government control over information, by the corporatisation of the detention centre ‘services’, and by its outsourcing to a foreign jurisdiction. The ‘truth’ is hard to come by.

It is only at the very top of this pyramid – here represented in the individual of baby Asha – that there is apparently more widespread community support. At this individualised level, the systemic issues of the layers below become real and unpalatable. But the solution to the individual’s suffering is of course, an individual one. The underlying problems remain.

In contrast, the response to the reality of detention in the person of baby Asha can be depicted as an inverted pyramid. In this example, the ‘win’ is the release of the baby. There might also be further action in support of the release of all babies, and even of all children. Occasionally support galvanises around women – or particular women – but activism seems to decrease as the pyramid itself reduces.

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In a triage sense, it might be logical for government and for community activism to take target the ‘stop cruelty’ level. This would require community to recognise the systems that cause suffering to individuals, and to target them. Even those in favour of a system of mandatory detention should be able to get behind a movement that sought to uphold the dignity of humans, and to hold government to account.

For government, targeting the institutionalised cruelty would involve administrative policy of openness and transparency, including admitting media scrutiny and legal and medical assessments. At an administrative level also, government would expedite claims for refugee status. Government and its service providers should, at this level of ‘triage’, improve accommodation and living standards, and provide effective personal security for all residents, appropriate grievance procedures, adequate medical facilities and care, and so on. There is no reason why a ‘stop the boats’ policy that would prevent upholding human rights and human dignity.

In other words, while government – and its bipartisan supporters – negotiate a sustainable and suitable alternative to detention, it can be dispensing with the egregious systemic aspects of the detention regime that themselves create suffering.

Sadly, it no doubt suits the government’s overarching policy position for activists to wear themselves out fighting for individual justice while leaving systemic abuses and obfuscation in place. Despite the logic of upholding the most basic dignity for the vulnerable in government care, the pyramid of suffering is wielded as a tool of state oppression in the cruel execution of government policy.

4 thoughts on “The pyramid of suffering

  1. This is a persistent problem in social change activism to my way of thinking. It is always harder to get traction on systemic issues than on ‘winnable goals’; personal interest stories; individual cases. Yet it is the systemic issues that create the individual cases. Despite the state of the world right now, the peace movement is struggling to get heard above the noise, as are those advocating systemic change.


  2. Pingback: Welcome to the 94th edition of the Down Under Feminist Carnival | Opinions @

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