There was a Pacific Solution, a Malaysia Solution and, fleetingly, until someone thought to ask the Timorese, an East Timor Solution. But what exactly is the problem? I’m not asking rhetorically. It’s a serious question, perhaps the most serious question in the entire debate surrounding asylum seekers arriving by boat, and yet it is barely asked. The axioms of the public conversation simply hold that asylum seekers on boats are a problem and that their existence should cease. At the same time, all protagonists sagely concede the problem is devilishly complex.
Yet the repetition of such mantras conceals the fundamental question: what, precisely, is the problem we are trying to solve? Stopping the boats, sure, but why? Is it the nature of the journey that concerns us, or the fact that the 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.
The unvarnished rhetoric of the Howard government railed at the asylum seekers themselves; it cast doubt on their credentials, insinuated they might be terrorists and painted them as unworthy of residency for their (invented) preparedness to throw their children overboard. Today’s debate, by contrast, focuses on people smugglers as the chief villains. Ever since Kevin Rudd as prime minister declared them “the vilest form of human life” who should “rot in hell”, people smugglers have become the proxy objects of our discomfort. Time, and a series of tragic events at sea, have now delivered us to a point where debate proceeds on the basis, real or feigned, of compassionate concern for the fate of asylum seekers. Even the Coalition has generally played along, the odd clumsy attempt at a Howard-era gesture notwithstanding, such as Tony Abbott’s recent declaration that boat people were “un-Christian” for queue jumping.
It seems the boat people must be stopped not for our sake, but for their own. This does not make our policy suggestions any less brutal – indeed, it may make them more so. It means even the most apparently harsh or punitive policy is recast as ultimately fair and benevolent. If it means we send people to Malaysia, beyond our jurisdiction and certainly beyond our care, relying on nothing more than a non-binding arrangement to protect their human rights despite Malaysia’s ghastly form in dealing with refugees, it is because mercy demands it. Similarly we justify sending people to what we can now uncontroversially call factories of mental illness in Nauru.
Such policies necessarily rely on the logic of deterrence. Languishing in Indonesia or elsewhere, with minimal hope of resettlement, asylum seekers get on boats aware that they may die. We can only deter them by manufacturing something even more hope-destroying. Such calculations are never made explicit, but they are central to this kind of policy making. Stripped of bureaucratic language, this is precisely the government’s argument against re-opening Nauru: it’s not horrible enough.
The current debate presumes there is no less brutal way to stop people smuggling, and thus prevent the loss of life at sea. But this is not true. We could, for instance, significantly increase our refugee intake from Indonesia. Many people who get on boats have already joined a queue, been processed by the UNHCR and been assessed as refugees. What they haven’t been is resettled. Indonesia harbours a large backlog of people going nowhere – around 10,000 of them.
So far this year we’ve resettled around 60 refugees from Indonesia directly. If the annual figure were, say, 6000 (which would doubtless help Australia achieve more meaningful co-operation with Indonesia on surveillance, processing and policing), the number of boats would decrease rapidly and no one would need to be mentally destroyed in the process. More asylum seekers might pour into Indonesia, but their prospects within the queue would no longer be hopeless; they would surely be less likely to risk their lives on leaky boats.
After all, we could absorb several times that annual 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 repeat.
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 before the winter recess was the Coalition’s offer to increase the refugee intake by 6000 to 20,000 per year and limit processing times to 12 months. This responded to the problem directly and reflected much of the Greens’ own policy, but it came with a catch: offshore processing in Nauru – an unthinkable backdown for the Greens’ constituency. Consequently, Australia continues to process and detain asylum seekers onshore – which, let us remember, remains brutalising – at the expense of thousands more people who continue to languish, and unknown others who will perish at sea. Apparently, asylum seekers’ human rights must be protected, even if it kills them.
But the crocodile tears fall heaviest from the eyes of the major parties. For them, their ostensible fellow-feeling notwithstanding, the problem remains a question of sovereignty and security, of demonstrating their capacity to keep the
boats out, because they understand the hostility in the electorate towards asylum seekers. We must not simply stop the boats, we must deny access. We must create the illusion of a secure fortress, girt by a moat. Hence the invincible requirement to send the boat people elsewhere. The Coalition simply must have Nauru; the government must have Malaysia. The former knows the benefits of fortress politics and has long practised it. Meanwhile the latter wants to act in the interests of asylum seekers and simultaneously look like it is not – a confusion apparent ever since Kim Beazley failed to contest the Howard government’s contrived “children overboard” accusations days before the 2001 election, and further spelt out once in government by Kevin Rudd’s “hardline and humane” approach.
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 chasm is camouflaged, 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.
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