Category Archives: Refugees

A year of contradiction

It has been a good year for modern conservatives. With the Murdoch Press and in particular The Australian completing its slow transformation from a grumpy, cruel but fair conservative masthead to a ruthless ideological manipulator of truth,  it has been easy for neoliberal ideology to seep into daily discourse, and from there into government across the country. But the sheer ubiquity of neoliberalism has brought its internal contradictions into sharp focus: 

This year, conservatives have insisted that free speech is so overarching that it includes a right to racially vilify, yet sought to crucify whistleblowers like Assange and Snowden and academics like Jake Lynch and Larissa Behrendt whose speech offended them, and to neuter what little of the media they cannot control, like the ABC.

This year, conservatives have claimed to despise elites, yet sided with the powerful. They freed global money to circulate, yet fortified borders against human movement. They opposed democratic state action even to soften harsh markets, yet thumped their chests for imperial wars and Orwellian surveillance. They upheld rights to property, but not to drinking water.

This year, conservatives have mouthed Enlightenment values like reason and personal autonomy, yet have rejected science and decried secularism. They have denied equal rights because of religious dogma. Of the three pillars of democracy, they have commandeered liberty for the purpose of commerce and even claim to have invented it, but discarded equality and fraternity.

Modern conservatism is a Frankenstein’s monster: radical-authoritarian, theocrat-capitalist, anarcho-imperialist. Traditional conservatives were consistent at least in holding that things were better in the old days. As far as conservatism goes, I’m inclined to agree.

Deterring asylum

Australian refugee policy is characterised by confusion and conflict. In its goals it is torn between protecting the world’s most vulnerable, protecting the country’s borders, and protecting political positions. Its treatment of asylum seekers is perceived sometimes as administrative necessity, sometimes as deterrence, sometimes as punishment, and sometimes even as a means to preserve the cultural status quo.

Below I look at the present state of the policy in general, and some of the confused motivations behind it. I will not look at offshore processing at all. Continue reading

Don’t mention the boats

Just two weeks after the election, “Stop the boats” has become “Don’t mention the boats”. The Abbott government hopes it can make the asylum-seeker issue go away by media-management. But keeping inconvenient reports out of the press is not as simple as, say, purging uppity public servants. Like every other regime that has tried to rule by disinformation, the Coalition will quickly learn that suppressing the free flow of information makes stopping boats look easy.

Cater Bulverises

Nick Cater (“New cultural cringe fears the eyes of the world”, The Australian, 27/8) dismisses international law as the concern of “denaturalised sophisticates” who worry about what the rest of the world might think of them. This is what C.S. Lewis called “Bulverism”: dismissing a point of view by ascribing a psychological motivation to those who hold it, instead of addressing the view itself.

Australia did not sign up to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to “appease” internationalists as Cater would have it, but because it enshrined rights which have long been fundamental to our democracy. These include the right not to be arbitrarily or indefinitely detained, and the right to know what we are charged with. Most Australians would regard these as essential to the rule of law, domestically or internationally. Yet in our treatment of refugees we routinely violate them, and we have been duly called to account. Contrary to Cater’s assertion, most Australians would see that as a fair cop.

Cater advocates a rugged-individual response: to ignore the law and the views of our global peers, and continue down the “sovereign” path to pariah statehood. Independent self-belief is one thing, but arrogant self-serving is another. If everyone is telling you you are wrong, at some point you have to ask yourself if maybe you are just plain wrong.

Not so difficult

Greg Sheridan (“Bleeding hearts ignore the complexity of the asylum-seeker issues”, The Australian, 1/8) defends mandatory detention and other punitive treatment of asylum seekers on the ground of its purported deterrent effect on others who may contemplate dangerous boat journeys. He speaks of “the difficulty of the simple assertion that human beings must always be treated as ends in themselves, not means to influence other human being”, implying that this assertion is not always true.

The only real difficulty is defending this founding principle of the rule of law from the morally corrosive utilitarianism Sheridan advocates.

Breaching the bases of our own polity is not the only way to prevent deaths at sea; nor is a petty focus on repelling refugees from our own back yard without concern for what happens to them next. A good start would be for the world’s rich countries to cooperatively empty the refugee camps as enthusiastically as they helped fill them, a least until the average wait is reduced to months instead of decades. Until we do this, desperation will continue to drive people across the world, and Sheridan’s complaints about “procedural unfairness” and Islamists-under-the-bed will continue to sound like weak excuses for cruelty.

Get your story straight

Can anti-asylum-seeker tough-guys please get their story straight? Is your problem that boat arrivals are economic refugees fleeing poverty not persecution, or is that that their ability to pay for passage means they are too rich to be refugees? If the former, can you explain why we receive no asylum seekers from many of the world’s poorest countries, except those affected by war? If the latter, can you explain how this supposed wealth protects them from persecution?

Marketing operation

The Coalition’s absurd militarisation of refugee policy is capped off by its grandiose title of “Operation Sovereign Borders”. Following the example of “Operation Iraqi Freedom”, code names aimed at keeping military campaigns secret from the enemy are replaced by marketing labels aimed at promoting them to domestic audiences.

However, the resemblance ends there. The illegal Iraq invasion was nonetheless a genuine military event, while the Liberals’ thought-bubble is the result of taking too literally their own hyperbolic rhetoric of “border security” and “sovereignty”. Those terms properly refer to military invasion, or at the very least, some kind of clandestine incursion. Australia’s response to people openly seeking asylum here belongs in neither category.

Sub lapidem

Nick Cater (“Still waiting for the Left’s condemnation”, 23/7) must have been living under a rock if he missed the criticism of the “PNG solution” from the Left – from refugee advocacy groups to the Greens to parts of the ALP, it’s been all over the news. You know, papers, radio, TV, the internet, stuff like that.

What has been notably absent is praise for the PM’s plan from the Right, or even just Mr Cater, who after all have got more than they could ever have dreamed of – just not from whom they they wanted it.

Carr plays to the peanut gallery

Bob Carr’s criticism of the High Court’s “Malaysia solution” decision  is clearly playing to the peanut gallery in the hope of pre-emptively shifting blame for any future failure of the “PNG solution”. An experienced legislator like Senator Carr would be well aware that Australian courts are bound to interpret legislation consistently with relevant international obligations – in the absence of clear words to the contrary. 

The senator points out that “it is the executive government…that ought to make the final decision on whether people be processed on Australian soil”. But if that decision breaches our obligations, then the supporting legislation must explicitly abrogate them, and its authors must then be prepared for the international and moral consequences. Unless Senator Carr is willing to do that – and let us hope he is not – he should let the courts do their job.


Comforting stories

Apocryphal stories of fake beggars who secretly buy mansions with their takings are popular, because they allow passers-by to feel relaxed and comfortable in the face of destitution by choosing not to believe it is real. Never mind that almost all who beg are in fact very poor.

Increasingly common assertions that asylum-seekers are “economic migrants” (for example, The Australian’s editorial, 8/7) are similarly untrue of the vast majority, but serve to soothe any discomfort caused by by our ongoing breaches of human rights obligations and the rule of law.