Burn Explanations

Asylum Seekers turned back to Indonesia claim they were beaten and forced to hold onto a hot engine until their hands were burnt. The government has dismissed these claims, saying that the asylum seekers are untrustworthy and they believe the Navy (although I can’t actually see anything where the Navy has denied the allegations).

Now I am inclined to believe the asylum seekers. This is in part because of my knowledge of studies such as the Stanford Experiments and examples such as Abu Ghraib. However, I will also admit to bias on the topic. As I’ve written about before, I have a personal stake in this, and it could be clouding my judgement every bit as much as Abbott’s is clouding his.

However, the ABC has obtained footage showing asylum seekers being treated for burns on their hands at Indonesian clinics. Trying to think through this rationally I can come to the following possibilities:

1) The asylum seekers deliberately gave themselves horrific burns in order to make the Australian government look bad and engender support for their cause.

2) The burns are faked, either well enough to fool Indonesian doctors, or the doctors are in on the scam.

3) At least seven people simultaneously got accidental burns and decided to put these to use for propaganda purposes.

4) The asylum seekers are telling the truth and the Australian Navy harbours sadists who behave in a similar manner to…lots of other people.

I suppose at this point we cannot rule out any of these options, but I have to say that 1) and 3) look to me astonishingly unlikely. Such coordinated self harm without time to plan, with potentially severe long term consequences goes against my experience of human nature. Multiple people simultaneously getting the same unusual accidental injury seems pretty odd as well.

As to 2), I’ve yet to see enough evidence to rule it out, but it is something that could be fairly easily checked – just send an independent burns expert in. So far I don’t see any sign of the government wanting to do that.


About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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