Reflections on Australia’s regressive refugee policies

Stuart Rosewarne, University of Sydney

M. Crock. & B. Saul Future Seekers: Refugees and the Law in Australia, Leichhardt, The Federation Press, 2002 (152 pp). ISBN 1-86287-403-4 (paperback) RRP $24.95.

D. McMaster Asylum Seekers: Australia’s Response to Refugees, Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 2001 (272 pp). IBSN 0-52284-961-X (paperback) RRP $38.45.

D. Marr & M. Wilkinson Dark Victory: The Military Campaign to Re-elect the Prime Minister, Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 2003 (360 pp). ISBN 1-86508-939-7 (paperback) RRP $29.95.

H. Tyler Asylum: Voices Behind the Razor Wire, South Melbourne, Lothian Books, 2003 (288 pp). ISBN: 0-73440-536-7 (paperback) $24.95.

P. Weller Don’t Tell the Prime Minister, Melbourne, Scribe Short Books, 2002 (112 pp). ISBN 0-90801-176-8 (paperback) $14.95.

Australia’s treatment of refugees is a distressing chapter in our history. In the last decade and a half, both Labor and Coalition governments have done much to compromise our obligations as a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees. But the Howard Government has built on Labor initiatives with uncompromising zeal. It has maintained detention of asylum seekers, limited refugee rights to sanctuary through Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs), and created the ‘Pacific solution’ by excising Australian territory in the ‘migration zone’ and establishing offshore Pacific island detention centres. The rationale for these and other changes to migration policy has been to restore the orderly management of Australia’s refugee program as well as to defend the integrity of the nation’s borders from the threat of a supposed invasion of ‘boat people’.

The government’s tough approach to asylum seekers served it well in 2001. Whether the status of refugees will retain the purchase with the electorate as it did in 2001 is now less certain. This is in part thanks to the good working of the Australian public sphere. In Dark Victory, journalists David Marr and Marian Wilkinson have exposed the government’s deception about asylum seekers. Scholarly interventions, including Don McMaster’s Asylum Seekers and Future Seekers by Mary Crock and Ben Saul, have highlighted Australia’s retreat from its obligations as a signatory to the Geneva Convention. Pat Weller’s Don’t Tell the Prime Minister extends this analysis, considering the impact the refugee issue has had on the capacity of the public service to undertake its responsibilities ‘without fear or favour’.

These studies, which all contest the shift in Australia’s approach to asylum and granting protection to refugees, leave us much better informed about the plight of asylum seekers and refugees. They make it clear that official justifications for a restrictive approach to asylum seekers are largely rhetorical. They show that the oft-repeated arguments that ‘boat people’ are really ‘economic refugees’ and ‘queue-jumpers’ who enter Australia illegally—or simply seek asylum in Australia and not those ‘safe-haven third countries’—are untrue. It turns out that despite strict screening, most ‘boat people’ who appeal the initial rejection of their applications for asylum are found to be genuine refugees under the Convention. And refugees have a right to seek asylum even if this means crossing the seas to seek sanctuary. Indeed, many countries that first take refugees cannot offer asylum because they are not signatories to the Convention and, when they are, refugee numbers are often already burdensome.

Australia does not have a generous refugee program.

Arguments that Australia’s government has acted in the interests of domestic law and order or has prevented refugees taking unfair advantage of generous Australian welfare are also hard to sustain. Coalition refugee policy reveals further violations of the fundamental rights enshrined in the Convention, including the right to apply for asylum, the right to protection from persecution, and the principle of non-discrimination. And even when it comes to intake levels, Australia does not have a generous refugee program.

Each of the studies reviewed exposes the different ways Howard’s 2001 re-election strategy politicised refugees. The government argued that it wanted to defend the integrity of the nation from multitudes of illegal (and non-Caucasian) people. But its real motivation was to cut the political ground from under Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party. Dark Victory best presents the political story behind the government’s efforts to take advantage of asylum seekers by talking up the threat they posed. One intriguing aspect of this campaign was the abuse of the political process it entailed: Howard, Ruddock, and Reith all resolutely stirred the refugee pot and kept ‘boat people’ inanimate objects of border security ambitions. Media, lawyers, and others were all blocked from direct contact with asylum seekers and refugees. The whole design and administration of government policy was orchestrated to deny the humanity and dignity of refugees.

In identifying refugees as ‘the other’ in the dominant political discourse, Don McMaster’s Asylum Seekers carries the debate on the shift in Australian politics to a more critical plain. Heather Tyler’s Asylum: Voices Behind the Razor Wire is a deliberate effort to humanise this other by providing a voice to refugees. In post-modern terms, the politics of migration turns on a visceral opposition to ‘the other’—we confirm our identity by establishing our place in the world by excluding the presence of others. Mandatory detention is a potent symbol of this exclusion, such that the other is forced to literally stand outside civil society. The force of this politics, McMaster argues, first surfaced when the Howard government abandoned the principles of multiculturalism in its first term. With citizenship increasingly framed by national, cultural and racial homogeneity, the refugee issue offered another way of reviving the excluding practices of modern conservative politics.

Weller’s study is a telling indictment of the Government’s abuse of political authority.

McMaster’s postmodernist critique of the shift in refugee policy, however, itself raises important questions it can’t answer. This approach misses how the conservatives consciously sought to engineer and manipulate the discourse of exclusion. Focussing on identity helps us understand government rhetoric, but it does not explain why—or how—the Government, particularly the Prime Minister and the former Minister for Immigration, Philip Ruddock, pursued the ‘boat people’ so fervently, or how political power is exercised and managed.

In Don’t Tell the Prime Minister, by contrast, Patrick Weller investigates the political organisation and management of government, by examining in detail how the Government managed one episode of the Coalition’s refugee policy—the ‘children overboard’ affair. Weller’s study is a telling indictment of the Government’s abuse of political authority. His recount of events demonstrates the failure of senior public servants to question misrepresentations of fact, and their preparedness to kowtow to the agenda set by the political lieutenants of the Prime Minister and the Minister for Defence. Weller documents a dramatic transformation in the organisation of the state: governance has become inherently politicised. (Heather Tyler’s Voices Behind the Razor Wire also reveals the public service’s treatment of applications for asylum.) This corruption of state prompts Weller to call for the restoration of integrity in government, for the reinstatement of public administration in the spirit of Westminster traditions. It is not difficult to endorse Weller’s aspiration, but he offers little by way of practical advice about how we might get there, or which political agencies might be mobilised to effect change.

Fortunately, we get some clues from Heather Tyler. She documents how government policies have been challenged, exploring the freedom rides and actions by the Refugee Action Coalition to breach the walls of detention centres, refugee protests, the illegal filming of detention centres shown on the ABC’s Lateline program. Tyler’s work suggests that Australians can challenge the misuse of government and Australia’s retreat from its Convention obligations by building on the social movement that has emerged in defence of refugee rights. Political momentum could be developed further by empowering the voice of ‘the other’ and placing these voices on par with everyone else; that is, to breach the divisions that have been fanned by the conservative political program.

The purchase of the conservative rhetoric appears to be diminishing.

Another way forward is through the law and international arena. Judicial appeals against the rejection of asylum applications, and the defence of refugee rights in law challenge one important arm of the state. Campaigns that draw on institutional instruments outside the arena of national politics, either locally through State government sponsored or independent community welfare activity, or internationally, through Amnesty International or the UN Commission on Human Rights, will continue to weaken the legitimacy of Australia’s system of processing and detention.

All these endeavours to break down the razor wire of detention centres challenge the legitimacy of government policy. To be sure, interventions that challenge Howard’s refugee policy are heavy with despair, but they also ignite hope. And this hope is being felt. The purchase of the conservative rhetoric appears to be diminishing, and an emboldened Labor Party appears to be responding to the shifting public sentiment by pulling back from its bipartisan support for Howard’s tough policies. Even members of the Coalition are publicly questioning the economic sense, if not morality, of government policy.

These pressures have resulted in the recent changes to the Temporary Protection Visa regime, such that asylum seekers holding TPVs are now eligible to apply for mainstream visas. Although there is no guarantee that all applicants will be successful, this is certainly a welcome development. We can only hope that the remaining elements of Australia’s inhumane refugee processing regime will be dismantled in the near future.

Stuart Rosewarne is Senior Lecturer in Political Economy at the University of Sydney. His research and teaching interests are in environmental and ecological economics, critical socialist ecology, international political economy, and the political economy of gender.