Bordering on the Fake

Australia is one of the few to stick by George W. Bush in Iraq and push a set of messianic values to justify the occupation. But by the standards of the Geneva Conventions, this is feigning freedom. In Australia’s case, this new reading of ‘freedom’ hides a shameful chapter of disdain at home for the rights of refugees who were once fleeing Saddam.

In October 2001, Prime Minister John Howard confronted a boatload of asylum seekers off the Australian coast in the middle of an election. His lie, that the refugees threw their children into the sea, was pivotal in the fear and loathing campaign that eventually won the day for Howard.

The hostility towards asylum seekers is puzzling now because the procession of falsehoods, such as WMD, has passed us by. Only ‘liberation’ remains. On this basis, surely those Iraqis escaping Saddam by any means before the war should have been made welcome. How can we begin to know what was driving John Howard, a figure praised by Dubya as our ‘deputy sheriff’ and ‘man of steel’?

The answer lies partly in an historic need to fake and feign to cover uncertainty about Australia’s place in the world and relationship with Asia in particular. This is a theme taken up in Peter Carey’s novel My Life as a Fake, involving a literary hoax and fictitious poet, Bob McCorkle. The book contains this interesting observation about its protagonist:

He had been born into a second-rate culture, or so he thought, and one can see in that austere bookshelf all the passion that later led to the birth of Bob McCorkle – a terror that he might be somehow tricked into admiring the second-rate, the derivative, the shallow, the provincial. (1).

Carey’s updating of an actual 1940s literary scandal contains a twist. In his account, the hoax becomes flesh and blood as an exact likeness of his fictional self. Frankenstein-like, the poet torments his creator, finally drawing him into the Asian labyrinth of the book’s dark climax. My Life as a Fake can be treated as an allegory of Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers. This can be seen in the ‘children overboard’ fake and the perpetuation of its lies of exclusion through the Pacific Solution.

There appears to be racism at the heart of attitudes to asylum seekers. The majority of ‘boat people’ are from Muslim countries. (With Afghan, Iraqi, Iranian and Palestinian being four of the top five groups.) In 2000, there were fewer than 6,000 unauthorized arrivals. But at the same time there was no fuss about the 58,750 backpackers and tourists overstaying their visas (2).

The vast majority have proved to be genuine refugees. Iraqis were the largest group to arrive by boat in the three years to 2002 and 4269 of them, more than 90 per cent, were assessed as genuine refugees who had fled death or persecution. Despite this, Australia’s system of mandatory detention remains the harshest in the Western world. Mandatory detention applies for all asylum seekers whilst their refugee claims are being heard. There is no legal limit on the length of their detention (3).

In the first instance asylum seekers are only entitled to a three-year Temporary Protection Visa (TPV). They must prove that the conditions in their country have not changed and that it would not be safe for them to return. A TPV does not allow the person to leave Australia over the three years and so they are separated from their families for this time. The holder of a TPV is also denied access to family reunion.

In July this year, the government announced that the 9,500 TPV holders would be allowed to apply for the full range of visas. Business or skilled migration visas are now open to TPVs. It remains to be seen how many of these refugees will benefit from this change. For those who miss out, there is little change to the stress of having to prove again that it would not be safe for them to return. A full amnesty is justified since they have been a part of our community for up to three years.

The women and children aboard rickety people smuggling boats show how the issuing of TPVs to genuine refugees can lead to tragic consequences if a family reunion is essential for survival. Typically, Ibtihaj Al Zuhiry had paid for a place on the Olong in order to be with her husband, Bashir. Although he had been accepted into Australia as a refugee after having been jailed and tortured in Iraq, he’d been given only a TPV. This would rule out any reunion with his family for at least three years (4).

The mean spirit of the TPV system is summed up by Howard’s 2001 election slogan: “we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.” The use of the military to intercept boats and later to enforce the Pacific Solution ensured that asylum seekers would not be able to access the courts in making their claims. But border protection at this extreme ignored an international duty of care to those in distress at sea. Even before the SIEV X, this duty of care had already been severely tested in the case of the Tampa, and again in the first week of October 2001, when under instructions from Howard, the Olong, even while it was sinking, was towed aimlessly by the navy frigate Adelaide. It was at the crippled vessel’s most desperate hour that Howard’s lie surfaced about the asylum seekers throwing their children overboard. Murdoch’s Herald Sun newspaper ran the banner headline, OVERBOARD: BOAT PEOPLE THROW CHILDREN INTO THE OCEAN. The paper quoted an angry John Howard saying, “I don’t want people like that in Australia. Genuine refugees don’t do that…They hang onto their children.” (5).

Howard appeared to be riding high in the polls. But some were critical of his leadership during the ‘children overboard’ episode. According to former governor-general Sir William Deane, the Government had shrunk from the “challenge of justice and truth” and instead “sought advantage by inflaming ugly prejudice and intolerance.” (6).

In this respect, Slavoj Zizek’s notes on enemy recognition are relevant to the whipping up of such racist fears.

‘The enemy is by definition always (up to a point) invisible: it cannot be directly recognised because it looks like one of us, which is why the big problem and task of the political struggle is to provide/construct a recognisable image of the enemy… ‘enemy recognition’ is always a performative procedure which brings to light/constructs the enemy’s ‘true face’. (7).

In the ‘children overboard’ episode, Howard’s lie was used to construct the ‘true face’ of the enemy. In his fake version, throwing children into the sea would prove the refugees’ appearance to be deceiving, unworthy of empathy, but also deserving of exclusion. In such a process, says Zizek, the Enemy must be re-imaged to “make it into an appropriate target of hatred and struggle.” (8).

They are also victims of what Marc Auge describes as ‘non-place’. A location that has no connection to identity is a non-place. Social places create and maintain the social fabric, whereas non-places create a solitary relationship with authority. We are all familiar with the everyday non-places such as airports and shopping malls. Moving within these zones, says Auge, “establishes the traffic conditions of spaces in which individuals are supposed to interact only with texts, whose proponents are not individuals but moral entities or institutions.” (9).

Detention camps are examples of non-places in the definition used above. As well as being remote locations, camps often fall under the authority of private contractors. The open sea is also a non-place defined by the authority of international waters. Here the existence of asylum seekers is limited to the radar screen of aircraft or as a surveillance authority map grid reference in a virtual non-place.

As any photojournalist will tell you, the power of the human image is the close up of the face and its power to engender a place in the heart of human compassion. Typical media images of boat people rarely portray close-ups but rather are mostly limited to hazy silhouettes on a boat’s unfamiliar deck. Such media images set up a virtual non-place where public empathy cannot connect.

Non-place complements the work of Italian writer Giorgio Agamben. He has looked at the status of humanity trapped in all manner of camps, ranging from those of the Nazi era to modern refugee camps.

According to Agamben, a refugee can save himself only in perpetual flight or in a foreign land (becoming an asylum seeker). And yet he is in a continuous relationship with the power that banished him. He or she is at every instant exposed to an unconditional threat. This is what the asylum seeker must reckon with at every moment (10).


We cannot endure any more suffering of this kind. It’s not just matter of a physical protection, Mr. Ruddock. We might have been secured physically so far, but in fact we feel we are being killed psychologically and mentally. We feel we are killed every moment. We are killed when we remember we’re temporarily living in Australia; whenever we remember that we left loved ones behind; and when we hear you announce that we may be sent back. We feel as if we are living in an environment of psychological battle. (11). – Letter to (former Immigration) Minister Ruddock from AI- Amel [hope] Iraqi TPV Holders Association

At the core of Agamben’s writing is his reinterpretation of the concept of “homo sacer” (or bare life). It designated, in ancient Roman law, someone who could be killed with impunity and whose death had, for the same reason, no sacrificial value. Today, as a term denoting exclusion, it can be seen to apply not only to terrorists, but also to refugees, asylum seekers and those who are on the receiving end of humanitarian aid (12).

Agamben reminds us that the camp is not a historical fact and an anomaly belonging to the past. Rather it is the hidden matrix of the politics in which we are still living, and it is this structure of the camp that we must learn to recognise in all its forms (13).

Abu Ghraib in Iraq looks more like a refugee camp than a prison. Most of the detainees are living in tents. They are divided up into compounds. They peer through the razor wire…One man wears a t-shirt carrying the words, ‘why are we here?’ (14).

In the camp, Agamben describes how a state of exception (the temporary suspension of the rule of law) is given a permanent setting, which nevertheless remains outside the normal order. The risk is that any camp can become like Abu Ghraib. Cases of abuse have been heard from Australia’s Baxter detention centre. One inmate, Mourad Beladjine, claims he was kept naked for five days after he threatened to cut himself with a razor blade. In the same report, an Iraqi woman is alleged to have been kept naked in an isolation room. The gap is closing between enemy ‘non-combatants’ and asylum seekers; it is the exclusion of bare life that defines the camp in all its forms (15).

Exclusion is also crucial to an understanding of the sinking of the people smuggling vessel known as the SIEV X. The story of how on 19 October 2001, 353 asylum seekers were lost at sea and drowned raises many questions about Australia’s share of the blame. But for so long as the government continues to slam the door on a full and open enquiry, a belief will persist that it has something to hide.

The SIEV X (or suspected illegal entry vessel – unknown) was on its way from Bandar Lampung, south Sumatra to the Australian territory of Christmas Island. Those aboard were fearful that the vessel was overcrowded and leaking badly. From the moment it set out the boat’s safety was precarious but somehow it stayed afloat for some 36 hours. It motored down the full length of the Sunda Strait and then 50-60 miles out into the Indian Ocean. On the afternoon of October 19, the SIEV X sank in international waters inside Australia’s Operation Relex border protection zone. 353 people lost their lives, including 146 children.

And yet Prime Minister Howard was able to exploit tragedy to his advantage, beginning with the lie that the SIEV X sank in Indonesian waters and therefore was not Australia’s responsibility. Howard was still repeating this claim a fortnight later at the National Press Club: “I was very touched by that tragedy in Indonesian waters… I’m human like everybody else.” But as David Marr and Marian Wilkinson later concluded in Dark Victory: “Essentially, it was impossible for the SIEV X to have sunk in Indonesian waters.” (16).

Marg Hutton of in May 2003 published a paper offering proof that SIEV X had sunk in the Operation Relex surveillance zone. Government witnesses and written evidence to the Senate CMI inquiry had deliberately concealed this truth. Tony Kevin later published two maps of this evidence in an article in The Canberra Times (17).

To this day much controversy surrounds the fate of the SIEV X. A superbly documented website, is dedicated to full disclosure. The quest for the truth is not only compelling for journalists, but has all the tragic and thriller elements of a film script.

SIEV X investigator Tony Kevin believes that deliberate disruption played a part in the sinking of the SIEV X. He will be setting out the evidence in his forthcoming book on the sinking of SIEV X (Scribe Books, to be published on 6 August). Kevin believes that disruption during 2000-2001 was politically driven, setting out to discourage people smuggling trips by subjecting asylum seekers to life threatening and failed crossings from Indonesia to Christmas Island and Ashmore Reef. In the case of SIEV X, evidence of planned disruption includes the sudden withdrawal of one of the two boats promised by the smugglers; and the fitting of a highly unstable extra upper deck to the 19.5 metre leaking boat that was provided for the transport of 430-odd people. These people were loaded on board by force with the help of 30 Indonesian armed police. This made the one remaining boat dangerously overloaded. The port of departure at the northern end of the Sunda Strait suggests the boat was intended to founder within the strait, and not in the Indian Ocean in Australia’s Operation Relex zone.

Attempts to out the truth in the SIEV X case have not been helped by Australian authorities’ refusal to release details about the real name of the craft, its passenger list, and whether tracking devices may have been planted on the boat. Nor have these authorities replied in full to questions about a radio reportedly in use on board or about the source of photos of the boat later shown to survivors by Indonesian and Australian police. Testimony in the Senate CMI Committee was often inconsistent and evasive. In the Australian Parliament, the Senate passed four motions in 2002 and 2003 calling for an independent judicial enquiry into the SIEV X. The Government has not responded.

The Australian government denies suggestions of a conspiracy. It is pointed out that kingpin people smuggler, Abu Quassey, was convicted for his crime in Cairo in late December 2003. However a closer look at these facts only casts more doubt. Although the alleged organiser of the SIEV X voyage, Quassey remained safe from extradition for about a year after being jailed for minor visa violations. Inexplicably, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) only issued a warrant for people smuggling – not even a crime in Indonesia. No warrant was issued for homicide and no Australian extradition bid was made on this basis though the Indonesian Justice Minister said he would have considered such a request sympathetically in view of the gravity of the alleged crime. With this failure to act by its neighbour, Indonesia deported Quassey to Egypt in April 2003. Quassey was tried in a national security court and sentenced to jail terms of five years for ‘causing death by mistake’ and two years for aiding illegal migration. Effectively the case had been buried (18).

The trial in Brisbane of Quassey’s alleged accomplice, Khaled Daoed, was adjourned on 8 April 2004 after the first three days of the committal hearing. Some committal hearing evidence may not be admissible as he is accused of people smuggling, not murder or manslaughter. However, first testimony points beyond any part allegedly played by Daoed as the accused. Farris Fadel Kadhem, an Iraqi survivor of the SIEV X, told the court of hearing a plane circle overhead and that large vessels shone bright lights onto survivors screaming in the water, but the boats quickly disappeared (19).

The mystery boats and planes are a reminder of a most puzzling aspect of the SIEV X case that the Government is loath to see in any public arena: further suggesting that it may have been part of a larger disruption operation that has been covered up by authorities ever since. At the time of the SIEV X sinking, Australian defense forces were conducting an intensive border protection exercise called Operation Relex. The SIEV X sank within this operational zone. Relex was flying P3 Orion surveillance aircraft over the zone but claims it did not detect SIEV X, its wreckage, or the rescuing boats – all in the Relex zone for 27 hours. Yet if Hutton’s and Kevin’s analysis and maps are correct, a RAAF Orion flew directly over the rescue location in good observation conditions while survivors were being collected by Indonesian fishing boats (20).

Mahmod Salem Yussef, a former Iraqi soldier who left the boat before it sailed, told the hearing that Indonesian police had helped put passengers on to the SIEV X. This claim was backed up by AFP officer, Andrew Warton. He told the court that Indonesian soldiers and officials were involved. But he had “no idea” why no attempts were made to identify Indonesian officials accused of taking bribes from people smugglers. At the time, the AFP was known to be spying on and infiltrating people smuggling rackets. In 2002, a former AFP informant, Kevin Ennis, boasted that he had arranged for boats to be scuttled close to shore as a way of putting off attempts to enter Australia (21).

In what should have been a race to convict those guilty of the SIEV X drownings, Australian authorities were ‘running dead’. They made little attempt to interview surviving witnesses, dealt only ineffectively with the Indonesians, and seemed content to see convictions recorded in a foreign court on relatively minor charges. How can this bring any sense of justice to the survivors and families of the SIEV X victims? Why didn’t the Australian government vigorously pursue homicide charges? In the Bali bombing, 88 Australians lost their lives, but what would have been the reaction if the Indonesians had only convicted the bombers for causing ‘death by mistake’?


The Catholic Commission for Justice places at the top of its of Australian human rights abuses list, the mandatory detention of children. Detention centres provide the most dangerous place for children. They pick up on the severe depression and behaviour of adults, including slashing themselves with sharp objects, drinking toxic chemicals or in the worst instances, trying to hang themselves (22).

According to Department of Immigration figures, almost 100 children held in detention have attempted self-harm over the past three years. Of the 97 children who attempted to harm themselves, 88 were successful in doing so (23).

The Medical Journal of Australia published clinical research of one particularly distressing case history of a 6-year old boy assessed as having acute or chronic post-traumatic stress disorder. As part of his counselling, the child’s drawings were dominated by the image of The Fence. In the foreground and background of one picture the child described the following impressions: “They’re crying. They’re all scared. Scared of officers – all of them”; and “It’s a stick. They bash up children with that wood.” (24).

It its May 2004 report, A Last Resort?, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission identifies multiple breaches of human rights as defined by the Convention on the Rights of the Child (25).

The report’s recommendation to release all children within 4 weeks was swiftly cut down by Howard. Seeming to play on the politics of fear, he said it would be like “sending a beckoning signal to people smugglers.”

Human Rights Commissioner Dr Sev Ozdowski totally rejects this response. “We have stolen enough of these children’s lives,” he said. And their ‘stolen’ time keeps increasing. By the end of 2003, the average length of detention had increased to one year, eight months and 11 days.

Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone, though, was quick to raise the spectre of fear. “I believe that people smugglers would go around and snatch kids to put on boats. People will masquerade as the parents of children,” she said.

Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt made explicit what was implied by these attacks on A Last Resort? and its findings. Bolt couldn’t stand for the way children had been asked to tell their own stories, adding: “It certainly never asks that rude question that Prime Minister John Howard is so criticised for having once asked: Do we really want such people here?” (26).

Over the last 5 years there have been more than 2,100 children put in detention. And 81 children (27) stay this way in the week new TPV rules are seen as a sign of a ‘softening’ on refugees. The slow release of children stems from a low level of ‘alert’ on border protection. But if it were to rise, asylum seekers might again become an implausible enemy.


Quoting J M Coetzee, columnist Ian Warden makes the point that part of the horror of the Nazi death camps was that German society refused to think themselves into the place of their victims. Some people can imagine themselves as someone else. But many others have the capacity but choose not to exercise it. There are also those people completely lacking this capacity (with an extreme lack found in the psychopath). In reading John Howard’s particular lack of capacity, Warden sees him as one of those who would “feign an ability to imagine themselves as someone else, who would pretend to have hearts that have a talent for sympathy (as Coetzee defines it) if ever the opinion polls showed that it was more politically artful to feign kindness towards detainees than to continue to display the probably sincerely-felt belief that they are just lice.” (28).

Howard’s feigning of kindness was exactly captured in a press photo of him attending the Remembrance Service for the Bali bombing victims. Howard was seen holding the hands of two Iraqi children left stranded by the horrific loss of their mother in the bombing. The children, aged 4 and 8, had been subject to a long and futile attempt to be reunited with their father held in an Australian detention camp. Up to this time the Government had refused to consider their case on compassionate grounds. But unwitting inclusion of the children in Howard’s photo op led to a speedy reunion with their father. Granting their request was to prevent the perception of Howard feigning kindness in blatant disregard for what had been the fate of the children.

In reaction to Greg Taylor’s piece of sculpture Little Johnny Howard (or LJH), art critic Sasha Grishin sees a man who hides in someone else’s clothes, in this case, those of an Anzac Digger. “A contrast is drawn between the smallness and ‘mean-spiritedness’ of the little man inside, and the greatness of the tradition through which he tries to conceal his pettiness.” (29). Glimpses of LJH can be seen at:

LJH seems to capture the essence of the Howard era. The faking and feigning of his posture can be seen in the monuments to Howardism cast in the public stance on asylum and the war in Iraq. Remember children overboard; the Tampa; the Iraqi prisoners cover-up. Welcome to Howard’s state of exception: a nation submerged in a kind of reality TV; a place where exclusion, spin and faking it displace the rule of law.

There is a lesson to be drawn from John Howard’s ability to feign and fake on asylum seekers. It may not stop a ‘boomerang’ effect whereby categories of exclusion hit back hard on civil liberties at home. Could Nauru, like Guantanamo, some day be used to hold enemy ‘non-combatants’ beyond the reach of Australian law? This may be the legacy of Howard’s own ‘My Life as a Fake’: the equivalent of Carey’s Frankenstein-like creature coming home to haunt its creator.

In Carey’s My Life as a Fake, the protagonist’s passion for his fake poet and austere bookshelves filled with works of Shakespeare hide a terror of his own culture. Without reconciliation leading to a more cosmopolitan worldview, perhaps Shakespeare may yet provide a fitting Australian epitaph:

“Then I, and you, and all of us fell down whilst bloody treason flourished over us.”

Stephen Smith is a freelance writer based in Canberra. He has written pieces for the websites Electronic Iraq and Melbourne Indymedia.


My thanks to Tony Kevin for editing assistance on the SIEV X section of this article.

1. Peter Carey, My Life As a Fake, Random House, Sydney, 2003, p 85; also of interest – Tom Keneally’s allegorical The Tyrant’s Novel, Doubleday Australia, 2003

2. Refugee Council of Australia, Facts and Stats, Asylum Statistics,

3. Mike Steketee, Door opens for 4000 Iraqis, The Australian, 10 April 2004, p 1; John Wilson, Brotherhood of St Laurence, Asylum seekers: A better way, Australian Policy Online, 14 January 2004;

4. David Marr and Marian Wilkinson, Dark Victory, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 2003, p 182

5. Dark Victory, p 189

6. Duncan Macfarlane, Deane attacks Howard ‘untruths’, The Australian, 30 May 2003

7. Slavoj Zizek, Are we in a war? Do we have an enemy? London Review of Books, Vol. 24 No. 10, 23 May 2002,

8. Zizek

9. Marc Auge, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, translated by John Howe, Verso, London, 1995, p 96

10. Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1998, p 183

11. Refugee Action Committee, Temporary Protection Visas,

12. Zizek

13. Agamben, p 166, 175

14. US soldier Court Marshalled for abuse of Iraqi prisoners, ABC Online, AM – 19 May 2004, Reporter: Sally Sara,

15. Agamben, p 168 – 169; Detainee claims shameful treatment at Baxter detention center, ABC Online, AM – 6 May 2004, Reporter: Alison Caldwell,

16. Dark Victory, p 240

17. Marg Hutton, Conspiracy of silence, 20 May 2003, ; Tony Kevin, New maps expose further holes in government’s SIEVX story, 17 July 2003

18. Jake Skeers, Australian government continues cover-up of refugee deaths, World Socialist Web Site, 16 January 2004,

19. Asylum seeker tells court of sinking horror, ABC News Online, 6 April 2004,

20. Tony Kevin, A media refresher course: Context for the forthcoming trial of alleged people smuggler Khaled Daoed, 30 March 2004, ; Hutton, Conspiracy of silence; Kevin, New maps expose further holes in government’s SIEVX story

21. David Fickling, Australia ‘helped send refugees to their death at sea’, The Guardian, 7 April 2004; Ainsley Pavey, Soldiers people smuggling: agent, AAP, 7 April 2004

22. Catholic Commission calls for release of children in detention, ABC Online, PM – 10 December 2003, Reporter: David Weber,

23. Number of young detainees inflicting self-harm nears 100, The Canberra Times, 12 February 2004, p 11

24. Karen J Zwi, Brenda Herzberg, David Dossetor and Jyotsna Field, A child in detention: dilemmas faced by health professionals, The Medical Journal of Australia, MJA 2003, 179 (6): 319-322,

25. Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, A last resort? The report of the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention, Chapter 3: Setting the Scene – Children in Immigration Detention, 13 May 2004,

26. The Sydney Morning Herald, Locking up children puts off smugglers: PM, 14 May 2004,; Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, A last resort?; Amanda Vandstone, Enough Rope with Andrew Denton, ABC TV, 24 May 2004, ; Andrew Bolt, Presumed guilty, Herald Sun, 21 May 2004,

27. Kids in detention count: 81 Children in Immigration Detention, 6 in Baxter, 11 in Pt Augusta, 31 in Villawood, 3 in Maribyrnong, and 11 on Christmas Island. At least 19 on Nauru (7 July 2004) Children Out Of Detention (ChilOut) records a total of 101 children in secure (closed) facilities (July 2004)

28. Ian Warden, Exposing the heart of dilemma faced by asylum-seekers, The Canberra Times, 8 January 2004

29. Boots take a hike, Stateline Canberra, ABC Online, 23 February 2004, ; Sasha Grishin, A serious work that engages the public, The Canberra Times, 20 March 2004 [note: sculpture piece also has alternative title If the boots don’t fit]

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