Birdshit and Batshit – a history of refugees

Detaining refugees on Nauru makes no sense when you first look at it, writes Brendan Byron, but when you search deeper, you find that yeah no to be honest it still makes no sense at all.

Nauru is a famous place these days, through ten years of offshore detention that, at its peak, involved twice as many detainees being held there than actual local residents.

But fewer people know that in the 1970s, the island of Nauru – far from being a holding cell for desperate people – had one of the highest living standards of anywhere in the world, thanks to its seemingly inexhaustible supplies of phosphates – specifically, guano.

Guano is the mineral name for what is more commonly known as bird shit. It’s one of the most potent natural fertilisers in the world, and by the 1950s, millennia of passing seabirds had plopped down 15 vertical metres of it onto the island of Nauru. This made it a prized colonial possession in the first half of the 20th Century. And when sovereignty was declared in 1968, the Nauruans celebrated the release of the colonial yoke by strip-mining their newly-independent homeland to the bedrock, netting the 1500 residents of the island roughly $100 million a year.

By the early 90s, 80% of Nauru’s bird-shit-landmass was mined out, and Nauru was looking at an uncertain future. Their multi-billion dollar savings fund was mostly squandered on a series of desperate economic measures: they invested in real estate, building hotels and skyscrapers across the world, they sued Britain and Australia for exploitative mining (which we kind of do have to cop to.) Most notably, in 1993 they plonked $4 million dollars on a lavish West End musical called “Leonardo the Musical: A Portrait of Love”, which ranks even today as one of the worst financial disasters in London theatrical history.

So for the Republic of Nauru, the 2001 Tampa disaster was an economic godsend. Finally, by becoming Australia’s largest destination for imprisoned asylum seekers, they could trade in an economy propped up by bird shit for one supported by bat shit.

I’ve thought long and hard about why we care so damn much about Asylum seekers. It never made sense to me why we have this aggression toward the desperate. Not because people who disagree with me are irrational or bad people, but because I fundamentally believe they’re not, even when they give me every reason to believe otherwise – the refugee debate being a case in point.

One answer was broadly put forward in Jonathan Haidt’s 2012 book The Righteous Mind. Applying moral psychology to politics, he argued that morally speaking we’re “intuitive dogs with rational tails” – and that the tail rarely wags the dog. We feel opinions instinctively and rationalise them logically – not the other way around. This is true no matter where you sit on the political spectrum.

So here’s my hypothesis. I invite you to prove it wrong. There is a fundamental emotional principle of protecting the interests of the tribe. I don’t endorse it, but it’s hard to argue it exists. You can call it patriotism, racism, jingoism, religious or social prejudice – but it amounts to the same “in-group” tribalism and it exists everywhere in the world. And in every different country, it has a corresponding public policy response: America has its fence to keep out Latinos; Britain has UKIP, the BNP, and Euro-scepticism.

But I’d argue that our status as a nation of immigrants means the Pauline Hanson-style anti-immigration rhetoric popular in other countries doesn’t ring as politically palatable here. First and second generation immigrants can’t rationalise complaining about immigrants, even if they have a gut feeling about protecting what’s “good” about this country from newcomers.

So it becomes a dispute about the means of arrival. America debates a wall to keep the Mexicans out, and we debate border patrols to “stop the boats.” Not because boat people are an actual threat, but because they challenge a mental construct of Australia as the nation of people who currently live here. Even the progressive case, founded on a moral-psychological basis that Jonathan Haidt would call Prevention of Harm, ‘stops’ the boats with little regard for the fate of the people those boats carry. After all, a stopped boatload of refugees doesn’t provide asylum to the seekers – it just shunts the problem elsewhere. I’m not comfortable with that.

The point I’d try to make is that you can have an opinion on a matter – even a matter as morally fraught as asylum seekers – and still make an attempt to understand why people disagree with you. Its advised if you want to have conversations in the real world, but if you want to change minds, build consensus, and move forward – I’d argue it’s a requirement.