Over the past few weeks the enormity of the global refugee crisis has truly entered the public consciousness of the West for the first time. For a moment, the image of Aylan Kurdi’s tiny lifeless body washed ashore on a Turkish beach reflected the reality of the suffering of hundreds of millions of people living in – or fleeing – war zones throughout the world. The mass exodus of Syrian refugees into Europe has elicited a broad spectrum of responses from governments and the public, from the razor-wire fences and internment camps in Hungary, to the mass outpouring of aid and personal acts of welcoming in Austria and Germany; and, in the midst of it all, the New York Times published a strongly worded editorial, publicly rebuking Australia’s unconscionable treatment of asylum seekers.

The editorial, and most subsequent commentary in the Australian media, laid the blame of the treatment firmly at the feet of Tony Abbott and his government. And it’s tempting to agree with this: the Abbott Government refined the increasingly entrenched Australian tradition of the maltreatment of the world’s most vulnerable people into an artform.

But the truth is, this is not an unpopular policy being foisted onto an unwilling or naïve public. It’s simply the latest in a long line of policies that cater to the popular and deep-seated xenophobia that lies at this country’s psychological core.

The Australian colony was established on the dispossession of its Indigenous inhabitants. The sole moral principle applied was that the strong shall do as they will and the weak suffer as they must. Failing to replace this founding principle with any sturdier narrative of national legitimacy, Australia has since lived in a perpetual state of fear that the dispossessors would inevitably become the dispossessed – and a pathological obsession with controlling our borders has flourished ever since.

For our entire national history, we have projected our own imperial impulses onto our Asian neighbours, and have endeavoured to insulate ourselves from the non-white ‘other’ that they represent. The impetus for the federation of the modern Australian state sprung from the desperate desire of our political founders to ‘keep the continent for the white race’, and the White Australia Policy was the first substantial piece of legislation to be passed by our federal government. Until the Second World War and the beginning of the regional Pax Americana, Australia obsessively encouraged Great Britain to colonise the entire Pacific, lest it should fall into the hands of some ‘foreign’ power (that is, non-Anglo-Saxon). When Britain refused, we endeavoured to accomplish the task ourselves.

Our current asylum-seeker policy and willingness to subordinate our international relations and rule of law to a hyper-inflated, or entirely illusory, threat is consistent with this historical ‘siege mentality’.

We have mobilised our armed forces, flouted international law, severely damaged our international humanitarian credentials, created our own miniature gulag archipelago in the Pacific, abolished freedom of information,  overseen the institutionalised rape and prostitution of vulnerable people, given tacit approval to child abuse, fostered an environment of conflict between asylum seekers and disgruntled locals which has seen people severely beaten and murdered, and , perhaps most heinously, bribed people smugglers to ply their trade elsewhere, providing a new revenue stream to the criminal networks who conduct the seaborne trade upon which the legitimacy of the entire operation was premised in the first place.

At the same time, the amount of money we spent on processing refugees in 2014 alone ballooned to almost three billion dollars.

We have done all of this to redirect toward our under-resourced neighbours what peaked at 20,000 refugees in 2013, a paltry number when you consider that Germany will process approximately 800,000 refugees within their borders this year.

Abbott’s reaction to the heart-wrenching image of a dead toddler was to use it as an opportunity to make a facile political statement in support of ‘stopping the boats’, ignoring the fact that Operation Sovereign Borders merely redirects the boats to other fates, and that to stop people fleeing Syria would merely change the scenery of their death from a Turkish beach to a rubble-strewn suburb in the aftermath of a bomb, or a dusty mass-grave on the outskirts of a village.

The Labor party is no better, of course. They have enshrined turnbacks as party dogma. After criticising Tony Abbott’s response as something that Europe was treating as a joke, shadow immigration minister Richard Marles confirmed that he would still turn back a boat of Syrian refugees seeking to pursue life and hope in Australia.

This meanspirited approach to the world’s most vulnerable people – who are fleeing warzones we helped to create through our unquestioning support of American military adventurism – is bipartisan for the simple reason that it is not unpopular. Indeed, it is the logical extension of our nation’s pathological fear of the kind of invasion and dispossession by which it was birthed, and our resultant obsession with maintaining absolute control of our borders regardless of the moral, reputational or financial costs that accrue.

The Abbott government’s commitment to accept an extra 12,000 Syrian refugees within a year occurred under great international duress, and in no way indicates a systemic change in our approach to refugees.

Changing which political party is in government, or who leads it, will not fix this problem. Only a reconciliation with our past, and a re-evaluation of what defines us as a nation will.


Stuart Rollo

Stuart Rollo is a researcher in international relations at Sydney University.

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