Most of my columns tend to be about “topical” issues. Issues that have been discussed in the mainstream media and are being debated in bars and cafes across the nation. The issue of refugees is often topical, but it hasn’t been for a while. I decided that I don’t want to wait for The Daily Telegraph or the Liberal Party to make the issue topical, on their terms. It’s too important to only be discussed at the whims of bigots and reactionaries. I want to talk about it now.
Deterrence. That one word sums up the Australian political class’ entire approach to refugees. It’s a technocratic way of saying we will treat refugees, so badly that they will want to stay in countries where they are being persecuted and even bombed.
The question asked by many of us, following the passing of legislation by the Australian Labor Party and the Coalition to reintroduce offshore processing, was how did we get here? We threw out John Howard in 2007 and replaced him with Kevin Rudd, who was elected on a platform of abolishing the Pacific Solution and shutting down offshore detention centres.
What changed in the last five years? Why was offshore processing so abhorrent in 2007 but so necessary in 2012? The real answer is nothing. Nothing has ever changed when it comes to the movement of people fleeing persecution and injustice right around the world, and it’s incredibly unlikely things will ever change.
I have read too many columns written by well-meaning refugee advocates that focus on numbers, facts versus myths, international comparisons and “push and pull factors”. I can recite refugee arrival numbers for every year going back decades, I can compare Australia’s refugee intake to Italy’s and the United States’, and I can talk about how war, not immigration policy, is the bigger factor determining how many refugees seek asylum in Australia.
The truth is that all of these facts and figures are irrelevant. They’re irrelevant because the refugee debate is a smokescreen for much broader questions about our society and how we treat each other across the globe.
Xenophobia and racism play a strong role in shaping domestic attitudes to refugees. Racism explains to a certain extent why we are terrified of a few thousand (largely) brown refugees, but hundreds of thousands of European migrants barely cause a stir.
This helps explain why Australians vote for “tough” refugee policy but it doesn’t actually explain why the Australian government, and in fact most government’s in the developed world, endorse harsh refugee policies. I disagree strongly with Julia Gillard’s policy on refugees, but I find it difficult to believe that she has a personal aversion to brown people and that this is driving all her thoughts and actions.
The real reason why the refugee debate disproportionately dominates our political space is quite simple but incredibly depressing. Accepting the legitimacy of the right of refugees to move from one nation to another means accepting a couple of things that our political establishment isn’t quite ready for yet. It means accepting that the two biggest causes of human displacement, war and economic injustice, are actually quite awful things and we should do something about them.
You can see where the problems lie.
For a country (and this applies to most Western developed nations, not just Australia) that has a pretty solid history of taking part in overseas invasions and bombings and relies on the labour of millions of people in sweatshops around the world for our standard of living, accepting that our actions have incredibly negative consequences is tough.
So tough that it means we would probably have to stop going to war. So tough that we might have to treat the developing world as something other than a large-scale Dickensian textiles factory.
Viewed in this frame the refugee debate, although still abhorrent, begins to make a bit more sense. It’s not that surprising that a country that supports killing innocent men, women and children with drone bombs would indefinitely lock up innocent men, women and children fleeing those drone bombs behind razor wire on remote Pacific islands. It’s not surprising that a country whose standard of living currently depends on having a vast pool of cheap, overseas labour is preventing cheap, overseas labourers from coming here to improve their standard of living.
The refugee debate is about how to manage an orderly flow of asylum seekers into Australia, but only at the margins. At its core lies the fundamental question of how long can we continue to bomb and exploit the rest of the world while building the walls higher and higher.