Stren­u­ously seek­ing tales of asy­lum

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

That Sink­ing Feel­ing: Asy­lum Seek­ers and the Search for the In­done­sian So­lu­tion By Paul Toohey Quar­terly Es­say 53 Black Inc, 111pp, $19.99

LAST year I be­friended a young Hazara woman who had ar­rived in Aus­tralia by boat via In­done­sia and been de­tained, first on Christ­mas Is­land, then in Mel­bourne. She and her ail­ing mother fled per­se­cu­tion in Iran, as her mother’s and fa­ther’s fam­i­lies had both fled per­se­cu­tion in Afghanistan, a gen­er­a­tion be­fore.

She is a dig­ni­fied, highly in­tel­li­gent and prin­ci­pled young woman; the kind of refugee we should be wel­com­ing with open arms, but she is on a tem­po­rary bridg­ing visa and faces a highly un­cer­tain fu­ture. Get­ting to know her and learn­ing her story has hu­man­ised the asy­lum­seeker de­bate for me as never be­fore.

I read Paul Toohey’s That Sink­ing Feel­ing against this back­ground, with per­sonal en­gage­ment and in­tense in­tel­lec­tual in­ter­est. At just 94 pages, it is a valu­able re­source for any­one who is both flum­moxed by the state of the de­bate and time-poor in terms of com­ing to grips with it. In that sense, it is a fine con­tri­bu­tion and per­haps one of the most use­ful and im­por­tant of Black Inc’s long se­ries of Quar­terly Es­says.

It is at its best in bring­ing the specif­i­cally hu­man side of the mat­ter vividly to life. It be­gins and ends with the story of an en­raged Afghan refugee, Ali Reza Bahrami, whose per­sonal story (of per­se­cu­tion as a Hazara in east­ern Iran) is stun­ningly sim­i­lar to that of my young friend. In be­tween, there are many more touch­ing sto­ries of women and chil­dren and deaths at sea that, in a quite clas­sic man­ner, should find a place at the cen­tre of our moral re­flec­tions on this vexed sub­ject.

Toohey, a jour­nal­ist with News Corp and an au­thor, has done stren­u­ous field work in Java and tells heart-rend­ing tales of ex­ploita­tion, be- reave­ment, be­wil­der­ment and long­ing. Ev­ery­one who has come to see the mat­ter in ab­stract or merely po­lit­i­cal terms should read these tales. Their moral im­pli­ca­tions and emo­tional res­o­nance are in­escapable.

More­over, Toohey em­beds these tales within

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