Beyond ‘refugees’?

Over the past month or so, we have seen a big shift in public opinion about people seeking asylum. Following the #KidsOffNauru campaign spearheaded by thousands of doctors and the Australian Medical Association (AMA), a vast majority of Australians now support moving children and their families off of Nauru. While the ALP have committed to keeping the offshore detention centres open, in fear of a (mostly) imagined backlash that could stop them from forming government next year, a new space and new actors have emerged that could stand to significantly alter border policy. This changing political situation should prompt us to look at the left’s political discourse in these debates, and to look beyond the categories of ‘refugees’ and ‘asylum seekers’ in formulating our political claims. And by the ‘left’ I mean all political groupings to the left of the ALP.

Tinonee Pym recently highlighted in this magazine that so much of the debate around people seeking asylum is framed in terms of benevolence. Australian nationalism is structured through a logic of white ‘governmental belonging’, whereby whiteness is something that can only be fully achieved when one can act, or think of oneself as acting, as a legitimate decision-maker in regards to ‘who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.’ As Ghassan Hage famously highlighted, the good white benevolent multicultural progressive who thinks ‘we should be more generous’ is not the opposite, but only the flipside, of the white racist who says ‘we have been generous enough, time to shut up shop.’ The social position of the two figures as prospective border guards stays the same.

The left, for the past ten years (with some exceptions), has faithfully tailed the benevolence and generosity line of liberals and ‘refugee’-NGOs. The spectacular nature of the cruel torture of people seeking asylum on Nauru and Manus Island has provided an obvious impetus to reinforce this narrative of vulnerability. The humanitarian line – that these are vulnerable people seeking safety and protection, and being treated as lesser human beings – is undoubtedly true. But it also fatally politically limited. If our demand is to ‘bring them here’, we have to ask: what will happen to them when then they arrive in Australia?

Currently, in Australia, there are at least 20 000 people seeking asylum on bridging visas in extremely precarious situations. Most have been living in Australia for years. Many have previously been imprisoned in onshore and/or offshore detention. Thousands are being forced into homelessness and destitution as income and other support is stripped from more and more people. They are in effect being starved out, as an inducement to leave the country. People in Australia are being regularly indirectly killed by the government through the exacerbation of serious health conditions and through suicide, but this receives almost no attention from the media, or from the left.

A good proportion of these people, as the system stands, are very unlikely to succeed in their claims for asylum. Many are going through appeals: drawn-out processes that normally amount to proceeding through successive stages of rejection. Those rejected will be deported or forced underground. Shouldn’t we be in solidarity with them and support their right to migrate to Australia whether their protection claims succeed or not?

This is not an abstract question. Thousands of people seeking asylum have had their claims rejected. Sri Lankan Tamils are the most obvious case. People have been routinely returned to Sri Lanka against their will because of the Australian Government’s close ties with the murderous ruling regime. They are no longer ‘asylum seekers’, their claims have been rejected. Are we in solidarity with these people or not?

This question is even more pressing when we consider the issue of NGOs that support people seeking asylum. Because of the strain put on them by government cuts, these NGOs are increasingly deciding, alongside the immigration department, who should be supported to stay in Australia and who should not, based on an assessment of their safety if they were to return home. At present, the left has no coherent political line that could halt this trend and open the political and material possibility of NGOs supporting all migrants in precarious situations, regardless of their chances of being granted protection visas. An exclusive political commitment to the categories of ‘refugees’ and ‘asylum seekers’, both legal categories of the government, makes us culpable in reproducing the operations of the border.

Sections of the left and the trade union movement are implicitly challenging the benevolence framing and the reinforcement of the state’s categories. The National Union of Workers (NUW) is organising farm workers on various temporary visas (and people who have overstayed), including people seeking asylum on bridging visas, who often do not have work rights. The NUW term them ‘undocumented workers’ and these workers are some of the most passionate and fearless organisers against their own exploitation.

Following their lead, we need to reframe our message to be one of solidarity with migrant workers – meaning members of the working class – rather than one of benevolence towards vulnerable people suffering. Only the former avoids reinforcing a white nationalist politics and can posit the nation-state border as an international tool of ruling-class exploitation (differential inclusion), exclusion and racialisation. The Australian border is not just something that sits at the edge of a territory; it’s a tool to create a racially hierarchised labour market based on meeting labour shortages and limiting the rights of migrant workers.

It is clear that people seeking asylum are not being treated in Australia as some sort of easily exploitable convenient labour force, as are other groups of workers. Although many people seeking asylum are working in Australia, they are principally targeted by the government for exclusion, punishment and deterrence rather than exploitation. However, in forming our political categories, seeking asylum should be understood as a legal process that someone undertakes as a (completely valid) strategy for migration, not as an essentialised identity. Solidarities and political identities can and must form across visa categories and residency status. Yes, we should support people to our utmost to claim asylum and we should advocate to make this process fair and timely (when at the moment it is completely the opposite), but we can’t let our solidarity fail when their asylum claims fail.

NGOs and legal advocates can only operate within the parameters of the possible. The left and the labour movement need to push to open further political space where a widespread amnesty and path to permanent residency for people who have been in Australia for multiple years becomes a winnable demand. In the longer term, such a campaign could and should expand to cover all workers in Australia with diminished rights on various forms of temporary visas, as well as those who no longer have valid visas. This should be on the basis that everyone who lives here should have equal rights: to stay, to study, to work, to bring family here, to healthcare and to welfare support.

To frame these campaigns we need an honest reckoning with the function of the nation-state border. We need a shift on the left from seeing ourselves as alternate, only more generous and righteous, national managers to one of class-based international solidarity. If we stop ‘seeing like a state’ and start seeing like a cross-border class, it will become apparent that the right to asylum is nowhere near enough.


This article is part of a special edition we are running, ‘If you’ve come here to help me: solidarity beyond borders’. See the other articles in this edition:

– ‘But what are we backing when we #BackTheBill’: Jordy Silverstein

– ‘How could it all have happened?’: Janet Galbraith

Editorial: Sian Vate


Image: Borders – M.I.A. / youtube

Max Kaiser

Max Kaiser is a PhD candidate at Melbourne University. He's currently researching histories of post-war Australian Jewish anti-fascism.

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