The ‘asylum seeker debate’ in Australia is not really a debate. In fact, it’s not really directly about asylum seekers. Let me explain.
Yesterday another boat carrying asylum seekers capsized north of Christmas Island. A small relief was that, unlike last week’s tragedy, the number of lost lives was put at only one. Last week around 90 people are thought to have drowned. This time the rescue was being carried out while a bill purportedly intended to break the partisan deadlock on refugee policy was being debated in the House of Representatives.
But this is a very strange kind of deadlock, because on all essential matters the major parties are agreed. That is, what they cannot agree on is how best to further exclude, demonise, mistreat and persecute people travelling by boat to seek a better life in Australia. As The Australian’s Dennis Shanahan pointed out:
The irony is that more than 95 per cent of the members of the House of Representatives and slightly less in the Senate support offshore processing, and the Greens are the only party against, yet agreement on some compromise cannot be made.
I am with the Greens in opposing offshore processing, but like many of the ‘burning issues’ during these interminable disputes (detention v community processing, children in or out of detention, push v pull factors, refugees v skilled migrants, international obligations v border security, the effectiveness of deterrents, how to deal with people smugglers, etc) even if the policy is stalled it leaves unchallenged the reasons the refugee debate proceeds in the first place.
Those reasons are defined primarily by the political needs of elites to create scapegoats and distractions for their failure to provide security to ordinary people already living here – not of borders, but of a social kind. That is, they seek to displace social insecurity into a defence of national integrity, here in the form of ‘border security’, in the process shifting blame for social ills onto an external ‘other’ that is threatening to invade and disrupt our livelihoods and cohesion. While previously the natural territory of the Right, the mainstream Left has been drawn into playing this game the more it has abandoned its traditional support base in favour of pro-corporate neoliberal policies.
Yet such exclusionary politics can rarely (if ever) be allowed to stop all migration. In particular, politicians have to attend to the demands of business for a reliable labour supply. Australia has allowed high immigration at the same time it has fashioned one of the cruellest asylum regimes of any rich country. This is simply at one end of an international pattern in this era of ‘globalisation’ – high economic migration alongside coercive targeting of specific minorities.
These competing domestic priorities help to explain several features of the ‘debate’. It becomes apparent that tough policies of ‘deterrence’ are aimed at a local audience rather than asylum seekers. Most of the latter will have uncertain information about Australian policies. Further, once a government identifies illegal immigration as a ‘problem’, then it must be seen to act on it and get results or lose even more authority. Thus, despite the handwringing about drownings being ‘above’ politics, in the current context dead bodies cannot be anything other than political ammunition and may even be taken as a sign of a policy ‘working’.
National politics also underlie arbitrary and ever-shifting construction of distinctions between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ migrants. Today political refugees arriving by boat are the ones to be deterred, while skilled migrants are induced to come through all manner of business-friendly schemes. Yet in times past there have been attacks on those who were ‘mere’ economic refugees, rather than the ‘real’ ones described in UN conventions. And, of course, until the 1970s Australian had a migration policy premised entirely on skin colour.
Then there is the futility of resorting to legal technicalities or ‘international obligations’ to gain justice. The meaning of these is open to different interpretations and so can be contested by different social interests. Such demarcations also have the effect of obscuring the agency of migrants themselves, reducing them to passive objects of a technical determination of ‘genuineness’ that is in fact deeply politicised.
Similarly, talk of toughening penalties for people smuggling does nothing to help those who choose to risk so much to come to Australia. Instead, it taints refugees with the implication of criminality for consorting with this ‘evil business model’ (whatever the hell that means). I personally support people smuggling as an essential service, part of the active networks people construct to help traverse the barriers put in their way by states. I’m willing to concede, however, that it’d be more humane and safer if it were run on a publicly funded, universal provision model.
Calls for a bipartisan resolution to the current impasse are, although sometimes well meaning, terribly misplaced. If such an agreement were to be stitched up by the existing political class, it would be based on a consensus that refugees pose a serious social threat. Any genuine solution would jettison all the key premises of the current debate and expose it for the cynical politics it represents. The current imbroglio is about who can make the cleverest move in this game, with both sides using desperate people as chess pieces. The sickening display in Parliament yesterday, with Gillard appearing to have a harder position than Abbott, is a direct result of the ALP trying to outflank the Liberals to the Right.
We should not be lulled into thinking that eventually political elites will see sense. While they do nothing to resolve domestic social conditions then such cynical manoeuvres will remain too tempting for them to avoid. The effect will be a further hardening of social attitudes among a large minority of the population. One possible outcome of such a process can be seen in Greece, where the fascist Golden Dawn party has been assisted by hard line anti-immigrant rhetoric from the pro-austerity mainstream parties, a rhetoric that only increased between the May and June elections.
Every concession to the legitimacy of the current ‘debate’ made by the Left weakens its ability to actually defend asylum seekers’ interests and undermine the influence of nationalism and racism. The Greens, for example, have lately been too willing to play a game of constructive engagement with a discussion that instead deserves bitter denunciation.
It is time that arguments for open borders – repudiating the absolute right of states to control the movement of people (even as they enable the free movement of capital) – were rediscovered as a consistent and, indeed, realistic response. The alternative is to stay trapped in the sadistic bread and circuses exercise that dominates official discussion today, picking at its worst excesses but unable to reverse its awful logic.