The case for Open Borders

Underlying Bernard Keane’s article – ‘“Let them all come” is “stop the boats” for progressives’ – is a deep sense of indignation about the idea that Australians are racist. The oft-repeated argument is that elitist, disconnected, latte-sippers tut-tut over ‘Bogan’ racism, serving to displace the problem. So far so uninteresting. What this leads to is largely meaningless tit for tats between white people, stultifying crucial debates to be had about refugee policy. The focus is narrowed to disagreements over the purpose of the Left that fail to focus on the issue at hand. Paradoxically, the key thing that Keane admonishes left-liberal handwringers for is deflecting a focus on policy by prioritising unworkable ideals, such as ‘let them all come’. However, articles that themselves do not suggest concrete responses to the (manufactured) ‘refugee crisis’ and merely tell others off for failing to do the same are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Part of the reason why the asylum debate among the Left fails to look beyond the end of its own nose is the exclusion of racialised voices from the public arena. Understanding why white, left-wing Australians of a certain ilk are so invested in divesting their society of responsibility for racism is key to understanding why someone like Keane can dismiss ‘let them all come’ – or as I prefer it, Open Borders – as impractical and irresponsible. There is a telling passage in Richard Cooke’s article cited by Keane:

Our treatment of boat people […is] different to how Australians themselves treat immigrants of every other kind. It is also different to almost all our other expressed attitudes about race, and is so pervasive that it’s shared by immigrants, even, in some cases, by refugees themselves.

The idea that immigrants and refugees participate in the vilification of ‘boat people’ ignores how race functions. The racial state rewards newcomers for the participation in the othering of those lower down in the racial pecking order. Put another way, there is only one way to gain limited acceptance in Australia, and that is to internalise and perform the values and ideas of white society. None of this is to excuse individual attitudes towards boat arrivals, whoever they are expressed by. It is merely to explain that understanding Australian racism is central, and not at all irrelevant (as Keane and Cooke argue), to the viciousness of refugee policy.

The counter-argument to this is that it is tactically illogical to call the majority of the population racist, and with this I agree and have argued previously. I also agree with Tad Tietze’s critique that to understand Rudd’s PNG plan as uniquely concerned with vote-winning is to misunderstand that this is about the hardball politics of neutralisation. However, accepting that the PNG plan has little to do with courting racists, and insisting that the politics of ‘stop the boats’ (from both sides of the political fence) manufacture racism rather than respond to it, questions still remain of how best to respond to this latest attack on refugees.

Centring the argument around the need to stop drownings, as Keane has done, may be understandable, but his concern that ‘let them all come’ inevitably ensures more deaths at sea does not follow. He himself admits that it is possible to ensure safe passage for those on the boats, or to give them the visas required to arrive by plane and claim asylum. He finds this solution inadequate because it is to accept that boat arrivals will trump the 20 000 officially picked for permanent resettlement from the world’s refugee camps.

Keane tacitly accepts three things with these remarks. First, that there is, as the Right says, a ‘queue’ and that those coming by boat are jumping it. Second, Keane implies that allowing those seeking to arrive by boat to come and facilitating them to do it safely would open a floodgate, and that Australia would be overwhelmed with an overwhelming refugee population to settle. Thirdly, that national borders are logical. I shall answer each in turn:

    1. The part of the Left that dislikes the argument that the exclusion of refugees is due to a lack of compassion replicates that very argument by assuming that there is a sliding scale of deservedness when it comes to refugees; that somehow you are more deserving of an Australian visa if you waited your turn patiently in a refugee camp. Making this assessment is extremely telling of the imperialist mindset that lurks beneath many of these interventions. Even among those who agree that refugees deserve to be allowed to come to Australia under a system they deem fair participate in denying refugees agency by giving the Australian state sole decision-making power. One can argue this, but it must be openly declared that to do so gives Australia power that other states do not have – Jordan, for instance, does not get to decide about the number of Syrians that flood its borders daily. Why should refugees not try to come to Australia if they think they can make it? They will anyway.


    1. Keane has accepted the Right’s hysteria that the whole world wants to migrate to Australia and would do so given the chance. But the majority of refugees want to go home and only seek to migrate if they perceive that they have no other choice. Understanding contemporary migration, including asylum, as part of a regulatory racial regime would help us to understand how the fear of an unstoppable inflow of migrants is made possible by the way in which race structures the economy and labour, not just locally but globally. If we were to understand migration, as Phillip Cole explains, as part of a global process of inflows and outflows that consists of emigration as much as it does immigration – and as a process bound up with capitalist exploitation as a global phenomenon, not one contained within national borders – we would do much better in explaining away the hysteria. People fear refugees because they are blinkered by a parochial view of the national and are given no guides to making sense of the interconnectedness of global economic, social and political realities. Migrants and refugees themselves should be our guides in furthering this understanding.


  1. If it is true that Australian immigration, which no mainstream party proposes to curtail, is rapidly changing the country in irreversible ways, it is possible to move towards an acceptance of the logical fallacy of national borders. Phillip Cole notes that national borders are the exception rather than the rule: that there are myriad borders that determine our possibilities in various ways but which we cross freely daily (for example, those between states in federal Australia). He argues that national borders are unique in that we are policed only on entry and not on exit. International migration, according to Cole, should treat immigration and emigration equivalently, thus enabling us to see the extent of migration as a constant flow rather than a one-way street. We already know this is logical when we make arguments about the paradoxically lax treatment of overstaying backpackers in comparison to those dubbed ‘illegal migrants’.

While Cole’s paper on the ethics of open borders is essential reading, he over-privileges an individualist human rights framework which fails to give place to the salience of race as a means of explaining why so many object to his vision for open borders. Thus, opposing the national border entails a critique of capitalism that unveils its global dimensions, revealing the extent to which we are all exploited and exploitable. It also means unveiling the arbitrariness of the border and of the significance placed on immigration, just as Cole does. However, we cannot make a watertight case for open borders without simultaneously working towards the dismantling of racial inequality, because it is the tethering of race to nation, even in an age of ‘super diversity’, that defeats the open borders stance.

A step towards this dismantling is to understand the border not as something external and unyielding but, as Gloria Anzaldúa has taught us, an internal borderland or meeting point within each of us. National borders are to be negotiated, recast and abandoned as we reach a more profound understanding of their arbitrariness. The only way to achieve this understanding and to move towards openness – rather than closure – is to reveal the ways in which the ‘colonial power matrix’ serves to open borders for some, while closing them for the majority. The relative openness or closure of the border is racially defined. Denying this by arguing about asylum from the navel-gazing perspective of a tiny group of people – the Australian left – is a view that falls into nationalist traps by failing to contextualise migration within the global colonial power matrix, and misses the opportunity to offer an alternative.

As Ramesh Fernandez tweeted on Friday:

— Ramesh Fernandez (@RameshFernandez) August 2, 2013

The mainstream left has failed to engage with this fact.



  1. “Put another way, there is only one way to gain limited acceptance in Australia, and that is to internalise and perform the values and ideas of white society”

    Surely this requires a greater explanation. What is the process and the means by which immigrants internatlise the values of white society? How do we know that *that’s* why first and second generation migrants are suspicious of immigrants, as opposed to being because of pre-existing attitudes towards immigration. Nothing in the article seems to give the reader a good reason to pick one option over the other.

    re: “Keane tacitly accepts… that there is, as the Right says, a ‘queue’ and that those coming by boat are jumping it.” I’m not sure he is saying there is a queue. He is saying that if 20,000 refugees arrived by boat, then there would be no humanitarian intake left for non-boat arrivals. That’s not the same as saying there *is* a queue, with all the subsequent connotations about deserving and undeserving refugees. Simply that, according the current policy framework, the decisions of a refugee to arrive by boat affects the chances of refugee who stayed in a processing camp.

  2. Chris attributes to Keane, “if 20,000 refugees arrived by boat, then there would be no humanitarian intake left for non-boat arrivals” and argues this is not the same as saying there is a queue. But the “current policy framework” that makes the acceptance of an asylum-seeker who arrives by boat “affect… the chances of a refugee who stayed in a processing camp” is a deliberate decision by the government to create a queue where there wasn’t one, in order to be able to 1. restrict Australia’s refugee intake and 2. promote vilification of asylum-seekers who arrive in Australia by boat *as* “queue-jumpers”.

  3. ‘Prior attitudes to towards immigration’, Chris? By saying this you are assuming that attitudes are created in a vacuum. If one becomes a migrant, or comes from a background of migration, it is fair to assume that one would not have negative attitudes towards migration before migrating. One’s attitudes to migration may become negative, however, in an atmosphere of overriding negativity where social capital can be gained by reproducing mainstream attitudes to migration. Extensive research, most prominently from the US, has shown how successive generations are whitened in relation to those further down the racial pecking order. The Irish became white through their participating in racial discrimination of African-Americans, not least through their high representation in the police force. The word ‘lynching’ derives from that particular history. For more, look up David Roediger and Noel Ignatieff’s work. In settler colonies like Australia, the US, and Canada, an extra layer of legitimitation of authenticity exists due to the foundational illegitimacy of the original migrants who must constantly prove themselves as the most entitled inhabitants while they know the fundamental untruth that this represents. Newer racialised migrants must fight for acceptability among Anglo-Celts by, in part, proving their rejection of purportedly illegitimate ownership claims, foremost those of Aboriginals and, secondarily of so-called ‘boat people’. Rejecting the latter lends legitimacy to one’s own migration which is remythologised as having been done according to ‘the rules’, and thus legitimate (this goes for all non-Aboriginal Australians, though whites do not have to emphatically prove their legitimacy in the same way that non-white, more recent migrants do). Having said all this, I do not want to overstate the case as I do not believe that more than a minority of newer migrants participate actively in the scapegoating of refugees; this is first and foremost a white Australian phenomenon!!

  4. Kamala Emanuel
    “But the “current policy framework” that makes the acceptance of an asylum-seeker who arrives by boat “affect… the chances of a refugee who stayed in a processing camp” is a deliberate decision by the government to create a queue where there wasn’t one.”
    That’s a perfectly good point, but how does that show that *Bernard Keane* believes or supports the notion of a “queue”? He seems to just be pointing out the logical consequences of the govt’s policy, not endorsing it.

    Alana Lentin
    “If one becomes a migrant, or comes from a background of migration, it is fair to assume that one would not have negative attitudes towards migration before migrating.”

    Why should we assume that? That they don’t have negative attitudes towards other migrants from any other racial backgrounds, simply on the basis that they are all migrating to the same country? I think that assumption implies a belief that attitudes are created in a vacuum, and that there is no prior context in which migrants can interpret race before arriving in Australia.

    My own (limited, personal, anecdotal) experience has been that there are range of racial dimensions and prejudices that fly way beneath the radar of most white people – insofar as that, within broad homogenous labels white people tend to use, like “Indian”, “Sri Lankan” etc, there is a vast plurality of different racial and cultural groups with mixed views of each other. For example, someone in Australia, originally from a particular region of India, may generally display antipathy to “white Australians, but *also* towards Indian Australians from a particular region. (I have an Indian partner, and on a couple of occasions a waitress of Indian background has excitedly asked my partner what part of India she is from, only to get disdainful when she replied “Fijian Indian.”)

    I’ll definitely check out the David Roediger and Noel Ignatieff work, but based on the experiences (generally in the hospitality workplace) I’ve had, I’m not so sure where the notion that “newer racialised migrants must fight for acceptability among Anglo-Celts” fits into this equation.


  5. You haven’t mixed much if you haven’t met migrants (non-whites) that arrive fully loaded with racism and prejudice.

    However, I think an unspoken issue from our ministers our ministers and senior public servants is terrible fear of another future possibility of boat people that would be unstoppable. That is the 4th largest populated country on the earth having more 17,000 islands and an unknown number of boats (shall we say ‘superlative’ number) capable of reaching Australia’s northern coast. Lets consider as a fun exercise – If just a quarter of a percent of the 250 million Indonesians, in response to a man-made (civil war?) or natural disaster, jumped into tens of thousands of boats and headed for our shores how our armed services would round them up and send them to New Guinea. LOL This is the nightmare scenario that is never publicly discussed. Instead – “We will not tolerate refugees coming by boats!!!” is screamed over and over.

  6. Would any left leaning pro refugee person tell me this one thing……how many? How MANY do we accept into our nation to house,educate,fund etc.How MANY.If you are so fond of lecturing Australians who do not share your worldview as to WHY we should be opening our borders to be *compassionate* you should also be able to provide us with the figures that would make all this fiscally responsible,let alone the sociological impact of Muslim immigration en masse.So…how many? One hundred thousand? One million? Five million? No leftie BS avoiding the question please,that’s if you still persist in ‘speaking as the moral compass of us all’ in these matters

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