Book Review of The Drownings Argument

Book Review of The Drownings’ Argument

by Helen Panopoulos

‘We’ve stopped the boats and the refugees are no longer at risk of drowning at sea.’

Both Labour and the Coalition have used the death at sea argument to implement cruel border protection policies.

Like the Emperors’ new clothes, both political parties feign concern over refugees drowning at sea, perhaps to wear the cloak of racism with a clear conscience. It is also aimed at selling these inhumane and illegal policies to the wider public, draped in humanitarian concern.

If indeed the government is genuinely concerned with refugees drowning at sea then its outcry does not reflect its actions: Tony Kevin, former ambassador to Indonesia and author of Reluctant Rescuers, has written the “rescue response is ad hoc and unpredictable…we act when we choose to.” As a result “Hundreds of people have died when they could have been saved.”As a RAC factsheet states “The recent coroner’s report into the sinking of SIEV 358 in which over 100 people drowned, shows that authorities failed to respond to 16 distress calls over two days, including that the boat was taking on water. These cries for help were dismissed as “refugee patter” by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s manager for search and rescue operations, Alan Lloyd.”2

As the war waged on refugees has developed from the absurd to the barbaric, Labour-for-Refugees have published The Drownings’ Argument, a book comprising of eleven short articles, written by prominent refugee advocates, who are left, right and centre of understanding the complex issues surrounding asylum seekers. Contributors such as Tony Kevin, Julian Burnside QC, Ben Saul (Professor of International Law at the University of Sydney) and Anna Bourke (The Federal Member for Chisholm and former Speaker of the House of Representatives) debunk the Government’s justification for turning the boats back.

The authors have written compelling arguments as to why the Government’s Asylum Seeker Policy does not justify the mistreatment and offshore processing of refugees. At the core of each article is an acknowledgement of what the government is doing to refugees is in breach of Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Examples include the murder of Reza Barati, Asylum Seekers being physically and mentally tormented at Manus Island, returning refugees to their country of origin from where they are fleeing from persecution, children who have been traumatised and are self -harming in mandatory detention and the lack of medical supplies to treat them.

This body of works provides alternatives to existing inhumane treatment of refugees applied in the name of Australian Immigration Policy, addressing economic and humanitarian dimensions including redirecting funding assistance to UNHCR to expediterefugee applications from Indonesia, or for asylum seekers to be processed on-shore and integrated into the community whilst being processed, with access to Medicare and Centrelink payments.  This is not only a humanitarian response but also a sound economic one put forth by the Australian Churches Refugee Task force.  Misha Coleman from the Task force confirms “expenditure on detention and deterrence policies is so great that there is no fiscally responsible argument that can be made to justify it.”3 So far the Coalitions Sovereign Borders Policy is costing in excess of 4 billion to implement.  The alternative is a cost of $500 million dollars.

Minor disagreements aside (eg over Burnside’s suggestion that asylum seekers be required to live in regional towns) many of the articles presented in The Drownings Argument align with RACs values and principles. The book is a contribution toward undermining the false ‘deaths at sea’ justification for the Government’s inhumane treatment of asylum seekers.

The Drownings’ Argument is available from or contact Robin Rothfield at to obtain a copy.



3    Drowning in our seas drowning in other seas-we cannot afford it!  By Misha Coleman, presented in The Drownings’ Argument