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What's the problem with asylum seekers?

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16 January 2013

Waleed Aly
Waleed Aly

by Waleed Aly

What is the problem with asylum seekers? I'm not asking rhetorically. It's a serious question - perhaps the most serious question in the entire debate that surrounds them. And yet it is the one least asked.

The axioms of the public conversation simply declare the existence of boat people to be a problem, demand that the boats be stopped, and concede sagely that this problem is devilishly complex.

It is worth interrogating this consensus. Not because asylum seeker policy is without its complexities. Not because the phenomenon of people smuggling is benign. Rather, because the repetition of such mantras conceals that fundamental question that bears repeating: what, precisely, is the problem we are trying to solve? Stopping boats, sure. But why? For whose benefit? In whose interests?

Is it the nature of the journey that concerns us, or the fact that these boats often arrive on our territory? The difference is essential. These are opposite concerns, present opposite problems, and invite opposite solutions. One approach is about protecting the rights and wellbeing of asylum seekers; the other is about protecting ourselves.

In this connection, the shift in our political discourse has been quite remarkable. The unvarnished rhetoric of the Howard era bristled directly at the asylum seekers themselves: casting doubt on their credentials as refugees, opining that they were not worthy of Australia because of their (entirely contrived, as it turns out) preparedness to throw their own children overboard, and intimating there might be terrorists among them. Today's debate, by contrast, has a different chief villain: people smugglers. It has been this way ever since Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister declared them "the vilest form of human life" who should "rot in hell."

The rhetorical difference is more significant than it initially seems. By making people smugglers proxy objects of our hatred on the basis that they exploit the human misery of their clients, Rudd brought the interests of asylum seekers into the picture, and it is a mould that has shaped public language since. Time, and a series of tragic events at sea have delivered us to a point where debate now proceeds on the basis, real or feigned, of compassionate concern for the fate of asylum seekers. Even the Coalition has generally played along, notwithstanding the odd clumsy attempt at a Howardian gesture - such as Tony Abbott's absurd recent declaration that boat people were "un-Christian" for queue jumping.

So it seems the boats must be stopped, not for our sake, but for theirs. This does not make our policy suggestions any less brutal - indeed, it may make them more so. Rather, it means that even the most apparently harsh or punitive policy is recast as ultimately benevolent.

If it means we send people to Malaysia, beyond our jurisdiction and certainly beyond our care, relying on nothing other than a non-binding arrangement to protect their human rights despite Malaysia's ghastly form in dealing with such people, it is because mercy demands such ruthlessness. Similarly, we justify sending people to what we can now uncontroversially describe asfactories of mental illness in Nauru. Ultimately such policies stand and fall on one assertion: they will work.

This approach necessarily relies on the logic of deterrence, and it is at this point that we run into an obvious problem. In order to deter boat people we must subject them to circumstances worse than those they are fleeing; place them in conditions worse than a detention centre in an under-resourced country that has not signed the Refugee Convention; give them less hope of resettlement than they have languishing for years in an Indonesian camp with no end in sight. These people get on boats fully aware that they may die. Their present plight must seem worse to them than the prospect of taking that awful chance. We can only deter them by manufacturing something even worse.

Such calculations are never made explicit, but they are central to this kind of policy making. Indeed, stripped of bureaucratic language, this is precisely the Government's argument against re-opening Nauru: that it's not horrible enough. But can this really be for the wellbeing of asylum seekers? Only if we believe two things:

  • that the thousands of asylum seekers who choose to board boats do so for no good reason and therefore need to be saved from their own incompetence; and
  • that there is no less brutal alternative way to stop people smuggling.

However, neither of these things is true. None of these policy contortions is necessary, at least not if our primary aim is to prevent further deaths of asylum seekers at sea.

We could, for instance, significantly increase the refugee intake from Indonesia. The people who get on boats do so because they see no prospects. Typically they have already joined a queue, already been processed by the UNHCR and already been assessed as refugees. What they haven't been is resettled. After a hopeless number of years of inaction, they get on boats because the only visible alternative is indefinite detention. Now, Indonesia has accumulated a backlog of people going nowhere - around 10,000 of them.

So far this year we've resettled around 60 refugees from Indonesia. If that figure was, say, 6,000, the number of boats would decrease rapidly and no one would need to be mentally destroyed in the process. The truth is we could absorb several times that number with barely a blip. We could make the humanitarian intake 100,000 if necessary, and we'd cope just fine. This would do more than break what the government likes to call "the people smugglers' business model." It would take away their clients altogether.

This will not happen. Not because it wouldn't work, but because it wouldn't work in the way we want. For all the gnashing of teeth and demonstrative compassion, our politicians have greater concerns than the lost lives of a few hundred asylum seekers. They have political equations to balance and shibboleths to preserve.

This is true, even of the Greens whose position is most explicitly about the rights of asylum seekers. One of the more intriguing manoeuvres of the last parliamentary sitting week was the Coalition's offer to increase the refugee intake to 20,000 per year and limit processing times to 12 months, provided it accompanied offshore processing in Nauru. The Greens had long called for such an increase, but offshore processing proved too much of a compromise.

There is certainly some ethical appeal in the Greens' argument that offshore processing is a breach of international obligations, but there is a political imperative here, too. The Greens appeal to a constituency for whom any backdown on offshore processing is unthinkable, even at great human cost. The net result is that Australia continues to process and detain asylum seekers onshore - which, don't forget, remains brutalising - at the expense of thousands more people who continue to languish, and unknown others who will perish at sea. This all-or-nothing approach, as political as it is principled, meant no compromise from the Greens was ever really a possibility. Asylum seekers' human rights must be protected, even if it kills them.

But the crocodile tears are most obvious in the case of the major parties whose political concerns are the opposite of human rights purism. For them, notwithstanding the rhetoric, this is and remains a question of sovereignty and security; of demonstrating the capacity to keep the boats out - not because people might drown at sea if they attempt the journey, but because they understand the hostility in the electorate toward asylum seekers. We must not simply stop the boats. We must simultaneously deny access. We must create the illusion of a secure fortress, girt by moat, not a thoroughfare.

This much was abundantly clear during the Howard era, which dispensed with even the pretence of compassion, and it shows up occasionally in Tony Abbott's often militaristic symbolism. This is why he wants the Navy to turn boats back, even though they think it is a bad idea and Indonesia won't let it happen. None of this matters because it sounds like something you do to resist the kind of "invasion" to which we are ostensibly being subjected.

Labor is similarly beholden to this political imagery thanks largely to the social politics of its now departed blue collar base. Thus it finds itself proposing a solution that is probably far harsher than the Coalition's, having once derided and dismantled the Howard government's Pacific solution for its inhumanity. But Labor's confusion in this area is not mere coincidence. Its central problem is that it has never been clear on precisely which problem it was solving. It wanted to act in the interests of asylum seekers, while looking as though it was defending a hostile electorate.

So, for all the rhetorical realignment, we are stuck with the perpetual division in asylum seeker policy between those who prioritise the rights of asylum seekers and those who see them as some kind of threat. If that division is obscured, it is for one simple reason: that however much our politicians want to protect asylum seekers, or protect the nation that so bizarrely fears them, they want most of all to protect themselves.

Waleed Aly lectures in politics in the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University where he also works within the Global Terrorism Research Centre. He is the author of People Like Us and What's Right: The Future of Conservatism in Australia.

This article originally appeared on ABC Religion and Ethics.