Corpses pile up

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.

Tad Tietze

Tad Tietze is a Sydney psychiatrist who co-runs the blog Left Flank. He’s written for Overland, Crikey and The Drum Opinion, as well as music reviews for Resident Advisor. He was co-editor (with Elizabeth Humphrys & Guy Rundle) of On Utøya: Anders Breivik, right terror, racism and Europe. He tweets as @Dr_Tad.

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  1. Another aspect of this is the extraordinary pressure being exerted to ensure an elite ‘consensus’. It’s reminiscent of the arguments in Europe: of how, precisely when politics really starts to matter (eg the imposition of austerity) there’s a concerted campaign to ensure a bipartisanship that excludes any non-mainstream positions.

    1. I agree 100 percent.

      The quest for such a consensus reflects the drastically weakened authority of all sections of the political class. They are simply unable to govern as normal, through building genuine social consent for their policies. We have to be aware this opens the space for a real left-wing political alternative to be built.

      However, and this is a big however, the sad reality of today’s mainstream Left (led by the Greens) is that it wants to rejuvenate that authority, not tear it down and replace it with something better. In doing so the Left gets caught up in being a prop for a political class that is dragging the debate in ever more dangerous directions.

      In my view this makes it easier for a hard Right to emerge in the future, outside the major parties, especially after Abbott and co also fail to resolve the multiple issues now being blamed on Labor (and the Greens). That constituency is being built already by the shenanigans of the “centre” of politics.

      Worrying times ahead.

  2. I was interested in your conclusion about presenting open borders as a realistic response — rather than, I guess, a utopian gesture or an abstract possibility. What do you think this presentation might look like?
    While I think the position is clearly right (both morally and theoretically), I do think it’s quite a hard argument to win, for all kinds of reasons. Interested to see how you frame it.

    1. The realism has to come from three directions, I think.

      The first is to keep pointing to the impossibility of attempts to finess some kind of border regulation to make it fair or even create true “deterrence”. We have to reject the political wonk/insider stance of arguing over the fine detail of policy or fantasising about “binding regional agreements”. There is massive cynicism about this debate among the wider population (even if a majority of people tend to be suspicious of migration) and we need to point to the fact that its function is not one that is amenable to a “realistic” solution because impossible terms have been set.

      The second is the need to deal with the fact that ordinary people actively choose to move around the world to seek better lives for themselves, but that these are not abstract choices made on a whim. Those determined to move will not be stopped by any border regime because people are not passive objects. This is being realistic about people as agents of their own destinies, but it does stand in contrast with common views of them as passive objects subject to the whim of state action.

      Thirdly we need to talk more about the reality of past and present mass migrations and open borders. It is telling that for all the hand-waving about how lax controls will lead us to be “swamped”, the alarmists will very rarely point to historical examples. Yet there were few seriously policed borders before the early 20th century without societies collapsing (on the contrary the US was built on such liberal border policy) and the opening of the EU’s borders to poorer Eastern European member states led not to a flood but the need for EU elites to actively encourage migration. Even post world war migrations were absorbed with surprisingly few horror stories. Yet the history of border regulation is one of unremitting horror and the opening of ugly divisions and tensions within the societies seeking to be more like fortresses.

      Of course a policy of open borders cannot stand alone — the Left should argue for it alongside genuine economic and political democracy, controls on the free rein of capital, and the vast expansion of public provision of needed social services and infrastructure; not to mention a foreign policy less likely to force people overseas to need to leave behind the homes and communities to which they feel the greatest affinity.

      1. Hmm. I reckon that’s a decent start.
        The final point is important, IMO, cos part of the hostility that some people have to immigration rests on a sense that services are already run down and overcrowded, and that the government will use new arrivals to run them down further.
        I do wonder, though, whether putting it in those terms renders it more like a transitional demand than something most people will see as an immediate possibility (in the way that your article suggests).
        The example of the EU (and, say, the US before the First World War) is interesting. But I think the argument we need to tackle is more to do with situations like the US border with Mexico. As the article in the latest OL makes clear, lots and lots of people cross that border now, even though it’s horrendously dangerously. If the border came down, seems to me that there’d be a huge traffic into the US, and so we need a response to that kind of scenario.
        Dunno. I wonder if, in the US situation, you could actually push the argument that opening the border, along with the kind of public works program you discuss, would be an alternative to the current economic doldrums, given that every study shows immigration creates jobs.

        1. The US actually does open that border, repeatedly, in retrospect, by granting amnesties on a massive scale. From my Drum article (

          From the 1940s large numbers of Mexicans enter the US as irregulars, many times more than are admitted through legal labour programs.

          Governments turn a blind eye to this source of cheap labour until 1973, the year of the Oil Shock, when the media and politicians suddenly start to talk of the threat posed by illegal immigrants. In 1978 the CIA Director claims that Mexican illegals pose a greater security threat than the Soviet Union!

          Despite this, the key economic role of irregular migrants leads to a 1986 government amnesty, allowing over 2.6 million to legally stay.

  3. A consensus “would be based on a consensus that refugees pose a serious social threat”?

    Really? I think the debate has moved beyond that.

    At the moment in Australia, we have a fixed number of refugees we take in each year (around 13,000). We take those refugees whether they come by boat or otherwise.

    There is no (mainstream) debate as to whether we should stop taking refugees.

    So we need to look at what the issue that we are debating actually is.

    Australia is an island. There are two possible ways to get here. Plane or boat. Planes are safe, no problem there and no debate about “stopping the planes”, or sending plane arrivals back, or to a third country. Boats on the other hand, have proven to be unsafe. We should discourage people from getting on them.

    The real debate is how to do that.

    Ideally, we’d be able to go to the root cause and make life ok for people in their own countries. Unrealistic.

    Opening the borders so anyone can jump on a plane without a visa is another option. Running our own shuttle service is another.

    In the absence of those two options, we’re left with what the *actual* debate is about – the best way to manage off-shore processing, and how to do that in a way that both assesses each person’s refugee status and re-settles them accordingly, while deterring them from making a potentially life threatening decision to get on a boat.

    Like Jeff, I am interested in your suggestion of an open border. I think it has merit, but can not see how it would work in practice.

    1. I think you’ve fallen into the trap of just repeating the increasingly tortuous figleaves used by the political class to justify its real intent, which is to identify an other, demonise that other, and protect “us” by claiming to erect a fortress at the borders. In practical terms this is done through the differential application of immigration controls to different groups of potential arrivals.

      Until you remove immigration controls then each of the issues you raise is really another argument based on the necessity of coercion, and nothing to do with saving lives, or being fair, or whatever.

      First, you say the mainstream argument has moved on from claims that refugees are a serious social threat. But if they are not then why on earth bother wasting such massive resources stopping them coming into our society? The very fact of the coercive immigration controls cries out that they must be a social threat.

      Second, people only get on leaky boats because (a) planes are not an option and (b) there is no safe, legal boat service for them. Both conditions are functions of various border control measures. Such an argument again only makes sense if you accept the need for coercive controls and then want to manage the fallout.

      Third, if there were no attempts to stop people getting here then processing would always be safe as an *onshore* activity. Similarly, if we dropped immigration controls we wouldn’t have to assess refugee status according to arbitrary guidelines. We’d just let these people stay. The onshore/offshore debate again rests on the premise that controls are a given.

  4. Great article. The consensus that seeking asylum is a problem that we (Australia) need to solve through deterrence is so entrenched it’s damaging my relationships. It reminds me of the build-up to war where everyone becomes convinced that a problem (evil dictator or whatever) exist and that we (the superior humans or something) are morally obliged to solve it. Once we start debating the solutions it is all over. Trying to bring the debate back to such principles as first do no harm or first deal with the problems we caused/are causing is near impossible. Telling people it is a distraction (however true that might be) is also ineffective.

    Open borders is where I’d like to see the discussion head. I have often said that citizenship is discrimination based on place of birth and I find it pretty hard to see how people on the left can support it. But apparently I can’t have that opinion unless I can solve every conceivable issue that it would throw up. The thing is, there are always problems, by definition, for the privileged when overcoming discrimination, such as men losing jobs (or pay) as a result of women entering the workforce or slave owners losing a cheap supply of labour.

    When discussing open borders though, I wonder whether we should get too caught up in the ‘how’ until there is consensus about the ‘what.’ Surely there’ll always be a new “but what if” thrown in and I tend to think the idea that a fully-formed, comprehensive solution to a complex problem can be formed by sitting in a dark room and thinking it through is misguided. Almost everything is done by trial and error, whether it is building the first bridge or aeroplane or constructing a welfare state.

    1. “But apparently I can’t have that opinion unless I can solve every conceivable issue that it would throw up.”

      Well put. Of course the political class whose policies fail again and again aren’t held to that standard. But then, that’s the whole point.

  5. I think your missing the nexus of the debate.

    The government has set a quota. The debate is not about the quota. Not yet anyway.Not one politician has debated the quota.

    The fundamental cause is a policy that says for each irregular maritime arrival a position in the quota queue of a asylum seeker in a UNHCR camp is bumped.

    An overwhelming consensus of Parliamentand thus assumed voters want the places to go to the most needy like DIAC trot out on that telly showwith Somalians who have trudged to Kenya et el

    If there is a underlying moral factor It’s Australian not sbeing able to stomach que jumping and support of the underdog, meaning that IMAs are seen as queqe jumpers .& wealthier than those stuck in the camps doing the right thing and waiting their turn.

    This paradigm is what’s underlying the current Parliamentary debate I would opine.

    I think the usage of argument about drowning and safety is just a distraction. After all, how many came via boat from Vietnam and Cambodia, when Mr Fraser was PM without such debates and bills?

    Oh yeah, we didn’t have to choose then, the ones in the camps were the same people and many other countries were taking them.

    Which leads to the next point. Who else is taking refugees in? Pakistan, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, China? They are neighbouring countries yet turn them back or move them on. ASEAN is not the third world anymore.There’s unfortunately another common perception, that is “If Thailand can show It’s compassion better thenit shows just who is being taken for mugs by our neighbours”

    This issue will only be resolvedby as marked change in voters perceptions,,or to scrap the policy of displacement.

    Excuse the typos. All done from my phone keyboard

  6. “To define” means “to set limits”. Schools without walls; worlds without borders: it’s that sort of de-limitation week at Overland.

  7. Dr_Tad, I am not trying to “identify an other, demonise that other” etc etc, and I take offence at the suggestion. Please don’t try to second guess my intentions.

    “why on earth bother wasting such massive resources stopping them coming into our society”

    You seem to forget that we also spend money actively encouraging refugees in their efforts to come here. We are signatiores of the relevant UN conventions, and take in 13-14 thousand refugees per year. As well, there is bipartisan support for increasing that number substantially (tri-partisan even).

    I tend to agree that open borders would be the ideal scenario, but in the absence of that, which you would have to admit, is very unlikely in the short term, we need to do what we can to work within our current system.

    The sad fact is, people getting on boats is dangerous. We *want* to take refugees, but we don’t want them to put themselves in undue risk to get here.

    1. I’m sorry I wasn’t clearer, I don’t think you are trying to “identify an other, demonise that other, etc etc”. I’m saying the political class is consciously doing that, or is caught up in perpetuating it. No offense meant.

      The issue I see is that their other arguments as presented, which you do replay, rest on that dynamic being left in place. So the whole debate is played out within the terms the political class sets: “Of course we need immigration controls”, “of course we mustn’t provide safe boat travel”, “of course there must be an orderly queue”, “of course we only want certain refugees to come to make applications”, “of course there must be an upper limit to our humanitarian quota, even if we’re willing to increase it”, etc, etc.

      If we don’t break from those limits then deterrence becomes something the Left accepts as necessary at some level “to save lives”, yet concretely it’s about denying certain desperate groups of people any hope of coming here because they don’t play by these rules. I maintain those rules are set up for the benefit of domestic politics.

      I’m saying that once you accept the limits the choice is a false choice, one constructed by those limits, which I oppose. It’s certainly no basis for the Left to devise a real alternative set of policies.

      Similarly, the stuff about increasing humanitarian intake has become a bargaining chip. Why not just increase it anyhow? Basically the “choices” presented in each round of this debate are: “We’ll do something a little nice if you let us do something really bad”. It’s a trap.

      I’m glad the Greens have held firm so far.

  8. Thanks for the clarification.

    While I had supported their position in the past, I’ve come to think that the position of the Greens is the least tenable. They still support limits on the refugee intake, but don’t seem to have a policy to mitigate the risky choice of people getting on boats. At least not as far as I can see.

    I agree with your comment that “we’ll do something a little nice if you let us do something really bad” 100%. It’s disgusting.

    1. It’s all very racist white though isn’t it?

      There is no limit or quota for the number of people who seek asylum because everyone is entitled to.

      And the boats are not that dangerous -99.2% of them get here.

      The pollies just don’t want the refugees and I know from experience Gillard actually despises them.

  9. As an aside, the only polls that politicians take notice of are in marginal electorates, and in states that determine who wins the senate.
    That’s why I got sixteen different polling phone calls this year to date as I’m in Hasluck. I’d like to see the results of these internal polls, but the parties will never publish.

    It would seem that both sides think they we want the boats stopped but are willing to take those direct from UNHCR camps, but only a limit.

    So now the only question to resolve, they determine is whether we send IMAs to a UNHCR signatory destination for processing it seems.

    I still think the whole debacle is wrong.

    Phil Barratt should head the expert panel I recommend.

  10. I see the queue being trotted out and how the boat arrivals bump someone out of the queue.

    That would be fine if the queue were orderly and those who come through it genuine in need refugees, in as much or more need than the boat arrivals. Alas that is often not the case.

    Many of those who get to the front of the processing queues in camps and centres do so by bribing, coercion and sometimes violence, and they are the ones getting to Australia. It is also one of the reasons there are boat people for these can be the refugees shoved out of the supposedly orderly queue by corruption, thugs and villains.

    There is an ABS stat somewhere on the crime rates committed by arrivals to Australia with, unsurprisingly, normal immigration being the highest and asylum seekers arriving by boat being the lowest, almost nil from memory. That is understandable as they aren’t going to crap in the nest they have risked so much for so long to get to.

  11. Tad said that the “political class” is setting the rules here:

    1. having immigration controls;
    2. not providing safe boat travel (presumably from Indonesia);
    3. wanting an orderly queue;
    4. being able to decide who gets admitted and who not;
    5. setting an upper limit to our humanitarian quota, which does not exclude increasing it;
    6. etc;
    7. etc.

    (I oppose Tad and support point 1-5).

    The steady arrival of boats at present would appear to indicate that the word has gone back up the people smuggler line that the Federal Government has lost control of immigration. Perhaps the perception encouraged is this: the more arrivals there are the more Australian voices will join the present minority chorus of ‘open the borders’.

    Of course this would make Australia the only desirable refugee and economic migrant destination with such open borders: which raises the question ‘why should Australia desire such a distinct policy?’

    Presumably a stable population equilibrium would be reached when the number arriving seeking a new and better life equalled the number leaving with exactly the same motivation.

    I would be interested in Tad’s estimate of what Australia’s population would have to rise to in order for this to happen.

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