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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.