While politicians of various bents have found it expedient to weep in the Parliament these last days, what is absent in the asylum seeker policy brawl is an indication that the majority of them have any understanding at all of the desperation that drives the global movements of refugees.
And it is a global movement and we must eventually accept that we are not the only developed country stateless peoples look to for refuge, and indeed, we are so un-beleagured as to make us the laughing stock of nations whose borders are crossed by thousands of asylum seekers every week.
What I’m about to write about desperation may be unsettling, and may act as a trigger for some people. It is my experience of desperation, and it’s an experience that gives me the authority to speak on the topic.
As a young girl, from the age of about seven, I lived in very dangerous circumstances. I was beaten with hose pipes, fishing rods and my stepfather’s bare hands. I was tied up, always after I’d been ordered to remove my clothes. On many occasions until I was fifteen, I was threatened with death by this man who wielded a loaded gun that he fired into cushions. I was regularely absent from school because of my injuries.
I was first raped when I was ten. These rapes continued at regular intervals until I was fifteen. I cannot talk about these rapes more than to state their occurrence.
My stepfather was a doctor, and he performed various medical procedures on me in the surgery that was attached to our house. I cannot talk about these.
He also photographed me, posed and naked from the age of ten.
There’s nothing to be gained for either me or my readers in attempting descriptions of these events, and I am barely able to write this much. I am trembling. I am sweating. I am weeping. My heartbeat is loud and irregular. I feel nauseous. My body hurts everywhere. The pain in my head is appalling.
During those years I told at least seven adults what was happening to me. Every one of them sent me back. Every time I arrived home I was beaten, tied up, threatened with death if I did it again, and raped. I never stopped telling people, even though I knew the next telling might cost me my life. In retrospect this seems to me something of a miracle. I love my young self, I love her with all of my heart, for her determination to help herself survive, for her willingness to risk death in the attempt to have her life.
So what does this have to do with asylum seekers? As Judith Lewis Herman wrote in the introduction to her book “Trauma and Recovery: From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror:”
This is a book about restoring connections…it is a book about commonalities: between rape survivors and combat veterans, between battered women and political prisoners, between the survivors of vast concentration camps created by tyrants who rule nations and the survivors of small, hidden concentration camps created by tyrants who rule their homes…
One of the things we have in common, those of us who survive the small, hidden concentration camps, and those of us who survive political terror, is our experience of desperation. Desperate to escape. Desperate to live. Desperate to experience the ordinary. Desperate to feel we can sleep safely in our beds at night, whether we fear the invasion of soldiers, or the stealthy night time visits of the rapacious stepfather. Desperate to be allowed to eat and drink. Desperate to live like a human being, untrammelled by the kind of primitive terror that reduces everything to a question of day to day survival.
The will, not just to live but to live a decent life, is inexpressibly powerful. Death can seem preferable to suffering the tyrannies of the imposed will of another, tyrannies that strip one of all integrity. This much I know. I know it with the full authority of my experience, and my survival.
One does not have to suffer in order to appreciate desperation. One does not have to experience prolonged terror and coercive methods of control. What is required for understanding is emotional intelligence and imagination. The majority of our politicians would seem to be seriously lacking both. Instead they appear to be, in the words of philosopher Martha Nussbaum …people whose imaginations are blunted, who simply refuse the acknowledgement of humanity.
The odious tears of the sentimental who weep for the cameras yet support policies that will condemn the desperate to even more desperation, are deeply offensive to me as a survivor. Your emotions count for less than nothing, when deterrence is your only answer to desperation.
The leaders of this country are behaving as did those adults who sent me back to the dangerous hell that was my home. I do not think those people were evil. I think they didn’t want to become involved. I think they were incapable of imagining the circumstances I was attempting to escape. I think they wanted more than anything to maintain the equilibrium of their lives, and I was a child who could disturb that forever. They moved me on, out of their sight and mind. They were cowards.
The concept of a human right to ask for help and protection seems barely to exist in our world. Such requests are viewed as impositions, and those who make them, importunate. The implication of our treatment of asylum seekers is that they are sub-human, and that seeking asylum is a criminal offence. We deny any recognition of a priori suffering, and instead focus on maintaining an abstract construct of national sovereignty.
Those who denied me asylum did so to maintain their domestic sovereignty. They could not let me in, for fear of the ruptures dealing with my suffering would provoke.
I can never forget desperation. I can call it up in an instant. When I see it in another I have to respond. Try as I might, I find it very difficult not to despise those who wilfully close their ears and eyes and hearts to desperation. I have even wished it on them, that they walk a mile in the shoes of the desperate and know what it is to be turned away, when all you are asking is help to conduct a decent life.
Thank you for reading this. I give the last word to Emmanuel Levinas:
To shelter the other in one’s own land or home, to tolerate the presence of the land-less and homeless on the “ancestral soil” so jealously, so meanly loved – is that a criteria of humanness? Unquestionably so.