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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

Australia's refugee myths « Previous | |Next »
December 18, 2010

In Boat tragedy: How Australians became complicit in the horror of Christmas Island in The Guardian Richard Flanagan says that though Australia doesn't have a refugee problem (last year just 5,500 people sought asylum – less than 2% of the migrant intake) it does have a public policy problem with refugees.

BellSImmigration .jpg Steve Bell

The problem is with the genuine refugees seeking asylum from war torn countries, not the those overstaying their visas – such as 50,000 mostly British and US tourists. These are allowed to stay illegally. There is no public anxiety about these illegals. They are white are they not?

Flanagan says:

Australia does have a dismal public life largely bereft of courage or humanity, and it has created a national myth that now poisons all sides of politics. The myth is that of the boat people. It is the idea that hordes of refugees will overrun Australia unless harsh policies of dissuasion and internment are employed.How a nation in which one in four is a migrant embraced such a cruel and stupid idea is mysterious...But for more than a decade this myth, the issue of opportunism and electoral cynicism, has been a weeping sore at the heart of public life.

The myth has grown ever more powerful after 9/11 as refugees and terrorism were seen as the same problem by the conservative side of politics, with Labor's leadership capitulated to Howard's Fortress Australia vision and largely being in lock-step with his policies.

Referring to the Christmas Island tragedy in which a small wooden boat carrying about 70 refugees was smashed by a wild sea into a limestone cliff Flanagan says:

in the video footage of the tragedy it is possible to look down the cliffs of Christmas Island and in the spin-drift blown up from below to hear not only the screams of the women and children, to see not only the drowned and the drowning and a broken boat, but also to glimpse the promise of what Australia had once been. And with each wave that rolls in, it breaks apart a little more.

What Flanagan neglects to mention is the history of Fortress Australia being a racist one to keep out the non-whites.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 12:45 PM | | Comments (23)


Here's a fairly basic question...

At the hypocentre... at the very core...

What is it about the "boat people" issue (or non issue) that makes it such a rich vein for lazy, opportunistic politicians and clueless meeja commentators to exploit???

Clearly FEAR is what gives it traction... but fear of what?

Sadly, our treatment of asylum-seekers has joined a long list of issues where the conservative establishment has successfully stalled and obfuscated and lied until the bulk of the population has lost interest. Like climate change and water management and the fate of indigenous people, mentions of asylum-seekers are most likely these days to get an eye-rolling response of "God are you still on about that?"

Gillard's opportunistic East Timor 'solution' was a stroke of genius. She can pretend to be discussing it with the Indonesians and East Timorese for the next three years as a cover for doing more of exactly what our governments have been for 20 years.


re your comment: "FEAR is what gives it traction... but fear of what?"

Richard Flanagan says that it is a fear that the vast coast of Australia is under attack from a gathering tsunami of refugees.

The fear is that the hordes of refugees are from the Middle East, which is where the terrorists come from.

It really is just part of the overall way that news is put forward. The negative aspect of a story seems to be more popular than the positive. The amateur media is included in this too. For instance we have had a while without any boats. Has there been any stories in either media that highlight that the system is working? Has there been any stories that highlight the number of people that arrive by plane and overstay their visas is perhaps 100- 1 of those that arrive in boats? No
Same thing with the water situation. We have had some good rainfall that has greatly improved things but very few positive stories in either media.
Negative news must be more valuable.

That only BEGINS to answer my question, Nan.

It just prompts more questions... WHAT are these hordes going to do exactly? WHY would they do it?

And... HOW did a handful of scruffy boat people become an "existential" (i suppose) threat to this great nation?

I know... I know... logic don't enter into it. But I'm still interested in that makes my fellow citizens so susceptible to misinformation and horror stories.

Perhaps it's because they're aware of what a few boat people -arriving in Sydney Cove- managed to to 120-odd years ago.

I'm still waiting for people to figure out that if we don't like refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan, maybe we shouldn't be helping to destabilise the societies of these countries.

We are in the loony position of creating refugees at one end of the pipeline and then worrying when they pop out of the other end. Does it get sillier than that?

I'm sorry Les... but I haven't been paying much attention to the actual size of the "horde" streaming our way. Very slack of me really.

Anyway, you say that "we have had a while without any boats." Okay, fair enough. Then you conclude that "the system is working" Oh?

So how do you prove causality?

Fear of what? is a good question partly answered by some of the vox pop in the lead up to the last election. People were seeing your standard migrants moving into their suburbs and assuming they were all boat people.

It's a simple chain of logic really. Boats full of brown people on tv, brown people move in next door, boat people are taking over. It helps if you never actually speak to those brown people, or there's some kind of language barrier. The brown people interviewed were quite cross about being confused with boat people, but they couldn't make themselves heard because, well, they were brown. With funny accents.

The local Gold Coast rag had great fun a while back spreading alarmist stories about the awful mob from Canberra creating a new reffo camp RIGHT THERE IN OUR MIDST WITHOUT EVEN ASKING OUR PERMISSION. Locals responded with furious how-dare-they letters to the editor. The fact the government denied it just added to the credibility of the story of course. I'm sure lots of Miami Beach retirees go to bed now with a smug smile that thanks to the vigilance of the 'Gold Coast Bulletin', the Gillard socialists were forced to look elsewhere for their new terrorist motel.

And Gordon yes, the level of incomprehension is staggering. The muddled thinking from some people actually seems to be that the boats prove we were right to invade and occupy the country in the first place, or something.

Lyn... surely a few "brown people" moving into your suburb aren't going to threaten your way of life.... are they?

Part of "the system" that we have is to deter people from getting into crappy overloaded boats that dont even have the basic number of life jackets for passengers. Its been well reported that the government has been doing this in the countries that the boats set off from.
Until this recent event it seemed that the boat arrivals were slowing up.

The Gold Coast rag has 3 important uses.
1, identifying hand bag specials
2, lining a cocky cage 20 times
3,rolling up and using as a pretend telescope
any other uses should be confirmed by 3 reliable sources

The Australian govt made some ill-defined efforts to stop desperate people getting onto rickety boats... and... at about the same time... less boats were arriving in Australian waters.

Fascinating Correlation, no doubt.

As for myself... I've taken to wearing a "wiggles" band-aid on my right thumb... to ward off shark attacks. It's working very well so far.

Khalid Koser in Asylum tragedy demands something finer in our politics at the ABC's Unleashed says that:

restrictive policies drive more people into the hands of smugglers, as they can no longer get to their intended destinations through legal channels; and that smugglers in turn are adept at adopting their strategies to overcome new policies. And another reason that restrictive asylum policies are only a short-term fix is that they don’t address the root causes of the problem, namely the reason people are leaving their countries in the first place.

Those on the right are going to claim that the "boat people" are not refugees; they are illegal immigrants attracted to Australia's milk and honey; it is the pull factors of Labor's weak border protection policies that cause the illegals to come; we need to stop the boats; Australia should not accept them; Howard stopped the boats; Australia should dump the UN Convention on Refugees (so last century); bring the TPVs and the Pacific solution; these illegal asylum seekers (criminals) just want to want to live off our welfare system.

It sounds like those on the Right miss Howard and desire a strong leader to stand up and fight the hordes threaten to overwhelm Australia by asserting the authority of the state.

those of the Right who say that we need to stop the boats and that Australia should not accept refugees could volunteer to build a big wall along Australia's northern border.

re "HOW did a handful of scruffy boat people become an "existential" (i suppose) threat to this great nation? I know... I know... logic don't enter into it.

The rational bit is bring back Hoard's border protection policies; the irrational bit is the fear and loathing.

the unconscious emotions of the Right around refugees landing on Australia's shores by boat are those of hate, fear, and prejudice. The "Pacific Solution " is the mask for the unconscious emotions towards the Other.

I'm also waiting for people to figure out that refugees seeking asylum are a tiny proportion of our migrant intake. They are even dwarfed (I mean in terms of numbers, not bodily measurements) by the number of illegal stayovers whose visas have expired, let alone the total number of migrants.

The real issue is population, not asylum-seekers. But of course asylum-seekers are a lovely distraction from that thorny issue, aren't they?

Merry Xmas to all

To be fair, heather... I'm sure there are plenty of politicians and commentators on the Right (and the lazy, gutless Left) who ARE NOT acting out of fear and bigotry. To those people those few boats are just an opportunity to win favour with the nervous mob.

To those people, the rickety boats contain a helpless cargo which can be demonised and turned into votes.

The Wikileaks cables back you up there. For the right, it's purely a matter of politics.

All that stuff about brown people coming here to change our way of life is as stupid as the people who tend to believe it. People drop everything and come here by boat or plane because Australians are among the most spoiled brats on earth. Who wouldn't want to live like that?

"For the right, it's purely a matter of politics."

Oh really...? It seems to me that to just about ALL politicians it's just a point scoring tool. expected... there's our fine young Tony (on screaming that we need to "stop the boats" right NOW!

I read that Tony Abbott is calling for temporary protection visas to be introduced and the Nauru detention centre reopened. He says the boats should be turned back (to where? Indonesia?) where it is safe to do so.

Wasn't the issuing of Temporary Protection Visas by the Howard Government an admission that the boats could not be stopped. The Government issued the Visa's and claimed that the problem of arrivals had been stopped.

This Government then falsely claimed that their policy alone was responsible for the reduction in numbers. According to them the push factors played no role.

Since 2001 the ALP has been haunted by the refugee issue. The Coalition owns the issue with its rhetoric about our way of life being eroded by aliens. On the ground Coalition supporters say that if Australia doesn’t limit the number of migrants, then we will also have race riots, ghettos, no go areas, drugs, crime, home grown terrorists etc etc.

The boat people debate is a proxy for the immigration issue.---People arriving by boat and claiming asylum represent just 2.5% of Australia’s total migration intake. The anti-refugee position is one that wants less immigration, tougher border controls and is opposed to multiculturalism.