Sydney, 15 June 2011 – I was watching the May 9th edition of ABC’s Q&A television program when, during a discussion about the Australian government’s proposal to send irregular maritime arrivals – “boat people” to most Australians – to Malaysia for processing, a Tweet at the bottom of the screen caught my eye: “My aboriginal mate still defines ‘irony’ as one wave of boat people complaining about another.”
Perhaps underlying the fear of the “Other” that seems to be behind the hysteria about boat people is a fear of the reflected “Self”. Could it be that the sight of boats carrying unfamiliar-looking people stirs up some kind of ancestral memory in the dark corners of Australian brains?
Is there an implicit acknowledgement in the current anxieties that in fact the first boats to arrive on Australian shores did indeed bring foreign interlopers who proceeded to settle here, and who then gradually imposed on this land alien cultures and values, destroying in the process much of the indigenous culture of Australia and relegating the indigenous population to the ragged margins of national life?
Perhaps the most powerful riposte to the refugee advocates who say that refugees can and will make a valuable contribution to Australia is this: the ancestors of the White Australian establishment came over on boats, and took over this country; the present wave of boat people can do the same.
An absurd proposition? Perhaps, but there are many ironies and absurdities surrounding the current debate about asylum and boat people.
Politicians of all stripes are aware that a few thousand irregular migrants are not going to make a dent in the prosperity of this country; and given the current labour shortage these arrivals may even give Australian productivity a boost. Nevertheless the arrival of these boats on Australian shores is frequently characterized as no less a threat to Australia’s survival than the Spanish Armada was to England in 1588. Politicians pander to the irrational fears of voters, not because the politicians are irrational but because the voters are.
Refugee advocates can be as absurd as those who want the boats pushed back.
The Labour government’s attempts to ramp up a regional solution to the problem of irregular maritime arrivals by negotiating with Malaysia (and possibly other Southeast Asian countries through which the major flows of irregular migrants pass) have been met with near-universal condemnation by refugee advocates.
Australia should not be cooperating with countries which are not signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention, we are told. These tired refrains ignore the reality that if this principle were to be adhered to, then Australia would not be able to work on a regional cooperation framework with any country in the region: Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia are all non-signatories, and seem nowhere close to signing the Convention. Moral superiority and principled hand-wringing may be fine poses to strike, but they do not help any of the refugees currently living in limbo in Malaysia or Indonesia. The emotive and gruesome phrase, “people trading”, is being bandied around by many, and this effectively obscures the fact that Australia is in fact proposing by this agreement to increase its annual intake of refugees while Malaysia is for the first time ever agreeing to work with UNHCR and engage in the process of determining refugee status, thereby implicitly recognizing refugees as legal entities with all the attendant protections. These are good outcomes, and we should not fall into the trap of making the best the enemy of the good.
We need to engage in broader and better-informed debates: about Australia’s moral obligations as a rich nation and its legal obligations as a signatory to the Refugee Convention; about the possibilities of regional cooperation; about the irrational fears of Australians that ineluctably affect Government policy and Opposition posturing. Australians need to realize that the issues are complex, and that posturing, principled or cynical, cannot be a substitute for reason and sense.