Strenuously seeking tales of asylum
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