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Stop the Bears

Compassion, children and unhappy endings

When the story broke that one of the boatloads of asylum seekers recently intercepted by Australian authorities had been handed over to the Sri Lankan navy, many were horrified. While the asylum seekers left from India, they were Sri Lankan and this act runs a risk of refoulement. The other boatload contains 157 Tamil asylum seekers that are, according to 53 Australian law experts, at risk of imprisonment, persecution and torture if they are handed over as well. So after a month detained on the customs vessel Oceanic Protector, they are heading for the Curtin detention centre in Western Australia. Return to India is problematic, and possibly illegal, as it is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention. Alternatively, return to Sri Lanka is horrifying.

After all, Sri Lanka’s civil war did not end well, with war crimes committed on both sides. While our current prime minister claims that Sri Lanka is at peace, Human Rights Watch reported last year that the nation’s army, police and pro-government paramilitary groups are using rape and sexual violence to torture Tamils. Our governments have encouraged asylum seekers to return to Iraq and Syria in the past but the notion of forcing Tamils back to Sri Lanka seems particularly frightening to me. My wife and I spent nine days volunteering with The Salvation Army in northern Sri Lanka during the ceasefire a decade ago. We heard enough war stories and met enough orphans in those shattered towns to know that war was atrocious for the Tamil people. There is still plenty for them to run from.

To return Tamils fleeing this situation, or to detain them indefinitely, seems horrid but is what Australia wants, by and large. Earlier this year, research found that 60% of Australians want the Government to increase the severity of the treatment of asylum seekers, with only 30% believing most asylum seekers to be genuine refugees. Many want ‘the boats’ to stop, either to protect our borders, to prevent loss of life at sea or from a racist fear of immigration. Regardless, asylum seekers are pushed away or punished in detention as a result. Whatever political narrative we subscribe to, compassion is not the moral of this story.

Personally, when I hear of boats I don’t picture queue jumpers or criminals, but bears.

Paddington Bear

Particularly, one very polite bear who wears a duffle coat and loves marmalade sandwiches. I speak of Paddington Bear, the children’s book character created by Michael Bond and first published in 1958. Inspired by the memory of children fleeing World War II, Bond imagined a bear arriving in Paddington station, looking for a safe home. As the story goes, Paddington wasn’t just fleeing war but was also orphaned by natural disaster, travelling to England as a stowaway on a boat. Put plainly, Paddington Bear is an asylum seeker or, as the Immigration Department’s 60 plus team of spin doctors have put it, an ‘Illegal Maritime Arrival’ (language here really matters, ‘stop the bears’ doesn’t have the same ring to it as ‘stop the boats’). Which leads me to ask what we would do with Paddington Bear if he had caught a boat to Australia?

Well, let’s picture it shall we.

First, Paddington’s boat would be intercepted at sea and, as he can’t be returned, he might be taken into immigration detention on Nauru. As an unaccompanied minor on Nauru, according to a comprehensive report produced by five independent clinical experts, Paddington would be subjected to inadequate healthcare, with a 50% chance of having latent Tuberculosis. Without a protective framework, Paddington would also be at risk of sexual abuse.

Alternatively, if Paddington went to immigration detention on Christmas Island, according to the testimony of fifteen doctors, those conditions would put him at high risk of depression, mental illness and developmental retardation. Paddington may refer to himself by his boat number instead of his name and even stop speaking altogether, all common behaviours amongst minors recently noted by Human Rights Commission president Professor Gillian Triggs.

If Paddington was detained in an onshore facility, according to Dr Jon Jureidini’s investigation of minors in a South Australian centre, the distress of indefinite detention would lead to insomnia, suicidal thoughts and hallucinations. Paddington might begin to wet the bed and staff would force him to wear nappies. Now, I imagine some might protest, ‘This is silly. No one is subjecting poor Paddington Bear to imprisonment and a risk of sexual assault and mental illness!’ No. We aren’t doing to these things to fictional bears at all.

We are doing these things to children.

Today, there are 983 children locked in secure immigration detention centres. The Australian Human Rights Commission in 2001 found that children in detention were given inadequate health care and education and were at risk of mental illness. In February this year, the Human Rights Commission launched another inquiry and recently learned that 128 children in detention have self-harmed in the last year.

This very moment, 37 Tamil children face the same fate in Curtin detention centre. One example is three year-old Febrina, who was allegedly born in an Indian refugee camp but is considered Sri Lankan as her parents fled persecution and torture from the nation’s police and military. Her father claims they would face it again if handed to Sri Lankan authorities. The question is, does Febrina face indefinite detention or will some arrangement be made for her return to India or even Sri Lanka?

Asylum Seeker Child

We don’t know how Febrina’s story will end. At the request of lawyers representing the asylum seekers the High Court has granted an injunction to stop the Tamils from being handed back to Sri Lankan authorities. The Government has momentarily complied and has invited India to take the asylum seekers back. The full bench of the High Court will hear the matter shortly. For now, Febrina will be another child locked in detention. She could, of course, be resettled in Australia as a genuine refugee, but that isn’t the story the Government wants to tell us. Perhaps if all involved were to picture Febrina as a bear in a duffle coat there may be a little more compassion on offer.

 That’s how the story goes. It’s the strange nature of narrative that anthropomorphic animals can invoke compassion in far greater measure that actual children. In all of Paddington’s adventures, there never was a single unhappy ending. We wouldn’t stomach it. Audiences get the endings they want, by and large, and consecutive Australian governments have authored this conclusion for us. At this point, we are unsure of how Febrina’s story will finish, but we can be increasingly convinced she won’t get a happy ending.


Anthony N. Castle is a writer based in Adelaide. He writes for The Salvation Army and elsewhere on the crossroads of social justice and pop culture narratives.