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

"Stop the boats" « Previous | |Next »
May 15, 2011

One of the most entrenched positions amongst Australian conservatives is "Border security". The backlash amongst the conservative white population to asylum seekers coming from Afghanistan (eg., Hazaras fleeing the Taliban in Afghanistan) and other places takes the form of the "Stop the boats" slogan, as if Australia’s survival and suburban way of life were at stake.

That populist backlash is part of xenophobia as a political discourse, a set of ideological parameters within which solutions to our pressing problems are being conceived. We are being invaded by illegal immigrants who are a threat to national stability, our social services, and the very fabric of our society.

Three streams of refugees arrive on our shores: those chosen by us in UN refugee camps, those who arrive by plane and boat people. Boat people are the smallest group. The latter are the target of hostility (demonized) and they are also the only people that Australia locks up for an indefinite time. Therein lies the politics of fear--the “deluge” of illegals is responsible for the current crime wave, rising unemployment and even the spread of diseases’.


For Australian conservatives "national security" means controlling migration and a Fortress Australia with narrow portals whilst downplaying the right to seek asylum. For them the 1951 Refugee Convention is an inadequate instrument for dealing with the “global people movement”, mass refugee outflows or migratory movements, or “forced migration”.

As John Howard put it, “We have the right to decide who comes to this country, and the circumstances in which they come.” The obligations to help refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention is seen as a substantial inroad on national sovereignty” and that is therefore unacceptable to conservative Australia.

Australia is built on immigration--ie., planned settler intake--- and its humanitarian intake is premised on a public expectation of a quid pro quo that the Government should and will control illegal migration. The Convention provides the sole legal basis for the protection of refugees worldwide. It codifies as a fundamental human right the right to seek asylum from persecution.

What appears to be happening since the 1990s is that Australia's asylum system has come under increasing strain through its use as a migration channel; and that the objectives of 'tightening up' and 'speeding up' processing determination of status procedures sufficiently to prevent asylum systems being a draw for migrants have not worked.

Maye, just maybe, the yet to be finalized refugee deal with Malaysia and Thailand may lead to the formation of a regional solution. At the moment it looks to be a quick political fix---political posturing as with the East Timor solution--- as it still has to be bedded down. It is a faint 'may' that Australia could take a leading role in pushing for the reform of the international asylum system.

Australia, like other Western governments, has been squeezed, between the pressures of a largely hostile public on the one hand, and their Convention obligations on the other, into awkward positions. Lip service is paid to honouring the 1951 Refugee Convention obligations and the right to seek asylum, while increasingly large amounts of money are spent on keeping asylum seekers out. The Convention has no mechanism for preventing mass migration outflows primarily caused by civil wars and ethnic, tribal and religious violence.

Currently, it is the countries in the developing world that have the bulk of the world's refugees. Australia could recommit to a sizeable annual offshore humanitarian refugee intake; and redirect resources currently spent on its onshore detention system to assist with the assessment of refugees in the camps within those developing countries (Malaysia and Thailand) who are the points of first asylum and transit centres.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 7:27 PM | | Comments (11)


the 1951 Un Refugee Convention has fostered simplistic and unfortunate characterisations of asylum seekers as either political and thus 'genuine' and deserving, or economic and thus 'abusive' and undeserving.

re the “global people movement”, mass refugee outflows or migratory movements, or “forced migration”.

The UN has estimated that 125 million people are, at any given time, outside their homeland in search of a more secure political environment or better economic future.

the 1951 Convention has institutionalised the notion of exile as a solution to refugee problems. Exile is an inappropriate solution to modern refugee problems in an age of globalisation and regionalisation.

Obligations under the Convention fall squarely onto the receiving state, and come into effect after the asylum seeker has entered its territory and made a claim for refugee status. The most basic principle, or core obligation, of signatory states is that of 'non-refoulement', i.e. not sending someone back to a situation where there they might face persecution. Another important obligation (and source of increasing tension with the rise of people smuggling) is not to penalise asylum seekers for entering a signatory country 'illegally'.

Western signatory states like Australia have, under the guidance of the UNHCR, established refugee determination processes. While administrative and legal systems vary, the central features are the same. Claims are assessed, on an individual basis, according to whether there is a 'real' possibility the claimant would face persecution, on a Convention ground, if returned. Decisions are made on a credibility of story basis, assisted by 'country information' gleaned from such sources as foreign affairs officials, Amnesty International etc.

The core criticism of the 1951 UN refugee Convention is that it is anachronistic. The treaty was developed in and for a different era--post WW2 Europe. While Western countries' asylum systems might have coped well enough until the end of the Cold War, they were not designed with today's mass refugee outflows and migratory movements in mind.

Therein lies the problem.

The Gillard Government is tacitly acknowledging that the asylum system under the 1951 Refugee Convention is 'broken'.

It is moving towards the lodging of asylum applications from abroad (Malaysia) to stop asylum seekers from purchasing organised illegal entry into Australia.

George I think you'll find the current global situation is nothing unusual compared to the mass migrations of the 19th and 20th centuries. The difference is that countries like the USA and Australia welcomed migrants in those days whereas these days everybody wants to pick and choose who is allowed to immigrate. The rest get consigned to camps in the third world, where they can be ignored. It reflects our national obsession with materialism, whereby nothing can be done unless it can be shown to please the great god economic growth.

The truly quaint thing is that the people who rail against asylum seekers and rant about turning back the boats are usually the same ones who cheer on endless war, which creates a lot of the problem in the first place. The Coalition of the Willing's refusal to accept responsibility for the refugee crisis it unleashed in Iraq was and remains disgraceful.

Sweden by the way leads the world in its per capita willingness to take in asylum-seekers. If they can manage it, why not Australia? All those godless socialists can't be more compassionate than us, surely.

Ken... Do you sometimes wonder how Robinson Crusoe must have felt? It can get lonely on this little island.

It seems there are very, very, very few of us who DON'T see a handful of scruffy asylum seekers, multiculturalism or the hijab as an overwhelming, unacceptable threat to ALL we hold dear. I sometimes wonder if I'm missing something.... because, clearly, I am not sufficiently hysterical about the whole thing.

The Liberals on this issue are making a crude win-at-any-cost calculation that makes little attempt to promote conservative ideals -- focusing instead on fear, smear, hate and attack to keep the party viable.

They've tossed away their Menzies conservatism in favour of embracing the politics of corporate-front groups that are run on a toxic blend of smear and vitriol. You can see this on other issues, such as the NBN.

The xenophobia in contemporary Australia is named conservative populism that encourages violent attitudes and hate speech towards ‘outsiders’.

The xenophobia is diverse or multiple--- feelings of hatred such as islamophobia; the hostility towards migrants; fears of an invasion by ‘foreign bodies’ ---and it is underpinned by fantasies about a Christian Australia.

There is a significant resurgence of xenophobia and the politics of fear in Australia based on the shifting boundaries between “us” and “them”.

For many politicians, immigration has become the ultimate resource for connecting with an electorate that is increasingly alienated from ‘politics as usual’.

Immigration is presented as part of a three-pronged argument: “immigrants are the cause of delinquency”, “immigrants threaten our welfare and reduce our opportunities for finding work” and “many immigrants are religious fundamentalists and potentially dangerous”.

The Liberal's leaders are playing on a fear of ‘the other’, with ‘the outsiders’ as a core element in their political manifesto.

The conservative populist position is to defend ‘Fortress Australia’ against ‘hordes of illegal immigrants’. The conservative press contribute to creating a climate of fear of migrants.

Their talking point is that ‘migrants “steal jobs”’, that migrants are mostly ‘illegal’, that they are ‘flooding into the country to find work’ and that ‘foreigners are unacceptably encroaching on the livelihoods of our huge number of Australian people’. The foreigners are her to take and not to give.

The conservative press has yet to explicitly link illegal immigration to the high rate of crime and violence – eg., gun-running, drug trafficking and armed robbery--- they say is destroying our cities.

I suppose another symptom would be the pittance we offer as humanitarian aid, or any aid (machine guns to guard detention centres?) to the unwashed billions- point zero something of a percent, as I understand it.
We haven't had starvation and tragedy here for generations; how would one expect us to understand the miseries of people living in shredded tents in dustholes, on a bowl of rice a day.
Having said this, I'll still query one line of thinking here and that's the one impugning the suspicions of ordinary working Australians to employer efforts to import cheap offshore labour.
Never forget the working classes ability to sniff out employer bullshit, even tho it's a long time from the Depression and 'forties "austerity" and lock outs.
Ordinary people still know well enough oral and written histories, what employers are capable of when it comes to playing off different elements of the working class against itself.
Howard handled this by widening the scope for offshore labour to be imported through visas, but played the race card also, winning both ways.
In the meantime, many Australians lived in actual dread of the horror budget we were told was coming from the government, after Cameron of once-great Britain.
After all, so many of us will never have a job again, also. What defence do we have to the systems attempts to "discipline" us?
Ideally, if we could see the "other" as working class, like ourselves, as we see our neighbours and other folk inthe street, we would begin to move to alleviating the horrors of the real Third World, that fill us with such dread and for good reason.
I personally don't "get" rudeness to muslims on buses, etc and am as happy to give up my seat to a pregnant muslim woman as an anglo saxon one. Both sets of smiles in return are equally phenomenal compensation for a moment's consideration, I've found.
But let's not be naive about employers and labour, just the same.
They'd have us all living like dogs.