Asylum seekers

This is Not-Australia

The government is seeking to excise mainland Australia from the migration zone – but only for unauthorised arrivals. For the rest of us, Australia will still be here.

So, refugees won’t be able to seek asylum if they arrive by boat. Because no matter where their boat docks, they will never arrive in our migration zone. Because they’re in a boat.

But if refugees can’t arrive in the migration zone (which we’ll call ‘Australia’), because there is no migration zone (if you’re in a boat), then where are they arriving, if they arrive? And where are we, if we happen to bump into them?


It’s a linguistic, bureaucratic triumph. Not for the first time.

Once, it was relatively easy to write people out of Australia. When earlier unauthorised maritime arrivals sailed into ‘Australia’ in 1770, they came up with an equally ingenious, but far simpler means of taking control of its borders: they just called the land ‘terra nullius’ – land belonging to no-one – and claimed it for themselves.

The previous onshore entry persons, the no-ones, disputed the definition, but it took a High Court ruling in 1992 to overturn it.

Throughout most of the twentieth century, refugees and migrants were refused citizenship if they couldn’t dictate a 50-word passage of a European language: German, for example, if the applicant were an Indian, or Gaelic, if they were a Czech Jew.

But the mid-century rise of the human rights movement made such clear-cut discrimination untenable. New hoops were required. After a very brief period of bipartisanship, when governments did little to keep out refugees, Phillip Ruddock, the Howard Government’s mastermind, emerged. He introduced a new refugee lexicon, and built an infrastructure to house it: Temporary Protection Visas, mandatory detention facilities, migration zones and adverse security assessments.

The genius of Ruddock system is that it was infinitely complex and infinitely flexible. Arbitrary decisions and bureaucratic vehemence combined with commercial secrecy and increased national security powers. It was a heady mix.

The Liberal Party still argues that their Howard-era system has never been topped, and perhaps they’re right. Because in 2007, whether due to the election of the ALP or not, the boat arrivals started again, and they’ve been increasing steadily ever since.

Why doesn’t the government do something, Australians asked, to lock them up/save them from drowning/protect us from the hordes?

Current Immigration Minister Chris Bowen is no Phillip Ruddock, but he does have some tricks of his own. The Malaysia Solution’s five-genuine-refugees-for-one-boat-person deal was only scuppered by the High Court.

But perhaps the new migration excision plan will be his crowning achievement. You’ve got to admire the outlandish bureaucratic ambition of the government’s new plan:

The Bill amends the (Migration) Act to “provide that a person is an unauthorised maritime arrival if they entered Australia by sea at an excised offshore place at any time after the excision time for that place or at any other place at any time on or after commencement, became an unlawful non-citizen because of that entry and is not an excluded maritime arrival.” (My emphasis)

The influence of the Howard era is palpable.

The High Court will hear the inevitable challenges to this legislation, and decide whether a person can be a non-person in a country that’s not in its own migration zone.

But its success will depend on other things. For example, will it stop the boats? Who knows – and anyway, no more than a handful of boats have ever made it to the mainland. Can you claim to be stopping boats that weren’t coming anyway? Will it stop the other boats, the ones not trying to make it to the mainland?

Perhaps bureaucratic symbolism alone will stop people from arriving on Australian shores. Maybe refugees will hear there is no ‘Australia’ to come to, and change their plans accordingly. Christine Milne’s diagram (a map of the world without Australia) could come in handy.

We know from experience that non-Europeans aren’t great at dictation, so it’s unlikely too that they’ll be able to decipher the Act itself.

But when it comes down to it, the government’s main aim is to reassure the good voters of Western Sydney that it has a plan to stop queue-jumpers sponging off our welfare (or risking their lives at sea, if you prefer) and in this light, Bowen’s plan has a genius of its very own: why would boat-people jump a queue to nowhere? And if they do make it here, they won’t be here anyway. They can’t come to Not-Australia.

It may just work. Only history will judge how we stopped people coming to Not-Australia and the manner in which they didn’t come.



This article was originally published on The Drum (ABC).

Nick Feik

Nick Feik is the editor of The Monthly.


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