boat people

Boat People and The New Racism

Media message manipulation.
If you’ve read a newspaper recently you could be forgiven for thinking that the Coalition has solved the problem of asylum seekers (aka the boat people) arriving by boat, and refugee advocates are just trying to drag Australia through the mud by harping on about non-issues like human rights and our obligations under the Refugee Convention. According to these “news” papers the Coalition has succeeded in ‘stopping the boats’ once and for all (since it has been months since a bedraggled boatload of asylum seekers arrived to beg special treatment), and Labor was wrong, having made fraudulent claims about the viability of the ‘turn-back-the-boats’ scheme. We are reminded ad nauseum that the future of Australian sovereignty looks bleak should Labor ever reclaim government, advocates for asylum are irresponsible and inhumane because the policies they seek to remove are in fact in place for the asylum seekers’ protection.

Asylum seekers are widely vilified in Australia and the political heft of the issue is undeniable. We have faced international criticism for our reluctance to offer humanitarian assistance to onshore refugee arrivals, most notably the Tampa affair in 2001 and most recently, criticism from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees for the inhumane conditions of offshore detention centres (The UN High Commissioner in June noted that Australia’s visceral reaction to boat people is ‘very strange’).

The detrimental impacts of mandatory detention on mental and physical health have been well-documented. Couple these with the high rate of those in detention who ultimately have their refugee status validated (~95%) and you have to ask why, from a purely economic standpoint, that sets aside any ethical considerations, we risk imbuing future citizens with health issues that our welfare and medical systems will ultimately pay for. All of this means that any argument attempting to guilt-trip advocates for asylum for opposing mandatory detention warrants serious interrogation.

boat people-2
Manus Island regional processing facility in 2012 Image credit: DIAC

Our new racism.
In this article I’m going to go right ahead and say that when used in a certain context, the deaths at sea argument is racist. This means a quick run-down on contemporary racism is required. ‘Old’ racism, which discriminated against groups on the basis of biological differences, is out (for the most part) and ‘new’ racism is in. Coined in the 1980s, ‘new’ racism describes the shift away from traditional racism and toward prejudice based on cultural difference. In addition, a vehement rejection of ‘old’ racism is a defining feature of ‘new’ racism. This means that introducing accusation of ‘racism’ into a debate, however deserved, will be met with hurt disbelief and considered to devalue your entire argument. Conservative columnist and incendiary political commentator Andrew Bolt’s devastation at being labelled ‘racist’ earlier this year is a prime example of this (also, witness his flabbergasted expression when called a ‘racist’ by Craig Emerson on his own show.

If you think it’s sounding hard to identify when certain arguments are racist and then to make that point, you’re right. It can be exceedingly difficult to determine when a newspaper article, televised news story or blog is manipulating perceptions of cultural differences to justify the exclusion of particular out-groups. When we’re talking about deaths at sea, we’re talking about the tragic loss of human life. The Australian government doesn’t keep a record of the number of asylum seeker who drown on their way here but Professor Susan Pickering and Dr Leanne Weber of Monash University created the Australian Border Deaths Database in an attempt to do just that. According to the Database, since January 2000 there have been a recorded 1, 437 deaths at sea, most of these since 2009 (that bloody Labor party, right?). This is a base estimate, and for every body found it’s predicted that at least two more are never recovered. It’s a truly awful statistic and the loss of life in the pursuit of a secure future is nothing short of tragic.

boat people-3
On the boat towards Australia. Image credit: Hussein Khoder

What belies the underlying racist motives of the deaths at sea argument is that it is never used to promote increased aid to refugees arriving by boat. We hear ‘the drownings must stop’ and ‘the only way to stop the drownings is to stop the boats’ but never ‘the only way to stop the drownings is to improve the processing and resettlement of refugees in Indonesia and Malaysia’. Fewer people would drown at sea if there were, say, a government initiative to ensure people smugglers carried adequate safety equipment, but that’s ridiculous (I’m chuckling at the notion as I write it) because it’s not actually about saving lives, it’s about asserting Australian sovereignty and making sure we aren’t seen as a soft touch by the international community, and keeping out a group of people who are poorer than us, have different religions, and will probably try to make us poor and have a different religion too. Oh, it’s also about not encouraging law-breakers, even when the circumstances of their ‘crime’ are clearly exceptional and permitted by law, like speeding to get to the hospital in an emergency (it’s called the Refugee Convention, which Australia ratified by the way). But at least saying it’s about saving lives keeps the refugee advocates off your back and wards off accusations of racism.

Researchers at the University of Western Australia identified an interesting phenomenon that appeared last year, during the media furore over the treatment of ‘Aussie’ cows in Indonesia. Australia, which set a deplorable example of human rights treatment and was called out on it by the UNHCR, suddenly became preoccupied with the welfare of animals overseas. This involved firstly constructing the cows as ‘Australian’ and secondly being outraged by the manner in which they were slaughtered in Indonesian abattoirs. This raised the question of how we could be so worried about cows yet so unconcerned about the experiences of the asylum seekers – actual human beings – imprisoned in Indonesia, denied work rights while awaiting humanitarian visas, who find the conditions there so intolerable the only solution for many is to spend their savings and risk their lives on a boat to Australia. Or, similarly, the conditions of asylum seekers in our own detention centres who receive little information on the status of their humanitarian visa during processing and are not informed of their right to contact a lawyer. Or as we have seen recently, in the tragic case of Hamid Kehazaei, not even granted adequate medical treatment for injuries.

boat people-4
The first group of “illegal” immigrants arriving at Manus Island, PNG for processing. Image credit: DIAC

The conclusion of the researchers was that Australia used the issue of animal welfare to re-assert our humanitarianism when our treatment of asylum seekers had called it into question. Similarly, opponents to asylum use the deaths at sea argument to re-assert their humanitarianism in the face of accusations of racism and inhumane policies by advocates for asylum. However, this method of asserting that you’re in fact the good guy has a flaw. In setting up your argument to demonstrate that you ‘care’ about cows, or asylum seekers, you first have to demonstrate why you care about them. In the instance of the welfare of cows in Indonesia, it was because they were ‘Australian’ cattle. In the instance of asylum seekers, it’s because they are human beings.

So, if they’re human beings and don’t deserve to drown at sea, then why don’t they deserve the opportunity and security that would come with being granted asylum in Australia? It’s time for Australians to stop hiding behind pseudo-humane excuses to exclude asylum seekers and face up to the real reasons why they don’t want them here. To turn on advocates and accuse them of being selfish and irresponsible for encouraging people to risk their lives is laughable. Reasons like ‘asylum seekers are queue-jumpers’ or the one I hear most often from friends and family, that ‘if they can afford to spend all their savings on a boat here then why can’t they afford to come through the proper channels?’, just don’t cut it anymore. Most ‘proper channels’ form a twisted and limited system that necessitate becoming a ‘queue-jumper’ to escape dire circumstances. So, next time you hear someone argue that ‘we don’t want people drowning at sea’, ask them how far they are willing to go to ensure that doesn’t happen? Would you be willing to rescue the asylum seekers by intercepting them at sea and bringing them back (we are ruling out ‘turn-back-the-boats’ on humanitarian grounds here), or support them in Indonesia to improve their lives and lower their desperation? You will quickly find out whether their argument is motivated by compassion for fellow humans, or a desire to exclude those who are ethnically and culturally different.

Stevie Hallett is a Flint contributor. Based in Perth, Australia.

Media message manipulation.
If you’ve read a newspaper recently you could be forgiven for thinking that the Coalition has solved the problem of asylum seekers (aka the boat people) arriving by boat, and refugee advocates are just trying to drag Australia through the mud by harping on about non-issues like human rights and our obligations under the Refugee Convention. According to these “news” papers the Coalition has succeeded in ‘stopping the boats’ once and for all (since it has been months since a bedraggled boatload of asylum seekers arrived to beg special treatment), and Labor was wrong, having made fraudulent claims about the viability of the ‘turn-back-the-boats’ scheme. We are reminded ad nauseum that the future of Australian sovereignty looks bleak should Labor ever reclaim government, advocates for asylum are irresponsible and inhumane because the policies they seek to remove are in fact in place for the asylum seekers’ protection.

Asylum seekers are widely vilified in Australia and the political heft of the issue is undeniable. We have faced international criticism for our reluctance to offer humanitarian assistance to onshore refugee arrivals, most notably the Tampa affair in 2001 and most recently, criticism from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees for the inhumane conditions of offshore detention centres (The UN High Commissioner in June noted that Australia’s visceral reaction to boat people is ‘very strange’).

  The Worm & The Peacock

The detrimental impacts of mandatory detention on mental and physical health have been well-documented. Couple these with the high rate of those in detention who ultimately have their refugee status validated (~95%) and you have to ask why, from a purely economic standpoint, that sets aside any ethical considerations, we risk imbuing future citizens with health issues that our welfare and medical systems will ultimately pay for. All of this means that any argument attempting to guilt-trip advocates for asylum for opposing mandatory detention warrants serious interrogation.

boat people-2
Manus Island regional processing facility in 2012 Image credit: DIAC

Our new racism.
In this article I’m going to go right ahead and say that when used in a certain context, the deaths at sea argument is racist. This means a quick run-down on contemporary racism is required. ‘Old’ racism, which discriminated against groups on the basis of biological differences, is out (for the most part) and ‘new’ racism is in. Coined in the 1980s, ‘new’ racism describes the shift away from traditional racism and toward prejudice based on cultural difference. In addition, a vehement rejection of ‘old’ racism is a defining feature of ‘new’ racism. This means that introducing accusation of ‘racism’ into a debate, however deserved, will be met with hurt disbelief and considered to devalue your entire argument. Conservative columnist and incendiary political commentator Andrew Bolt’s devastation at being labelled ‘racist’ earlier this year is a prime example of this (also, witness his flabbergasted expression when called a ‘racist’ by Craig Emerson on his own show.

If you think it’s sounding hard to identify when certain arguments are racist and then to make that point, you’re right. It can be exceedingly difficult to determine when a newspaper article, televised news story or blog is manipulating perceptions of cultural differences to justify the exclusion of particular out-groups. When we’re talking about deaths at sea, we’re talking about the tragic loss of human life. The Australian government doesn’t keep a record of the number of asylum seeker who drown on their way here but Professor Susan Pickering and Dr Leanne Weber of Monash University created the Australian Border Deaths Database in an attempt to do just that. According to the Database, since January 2000 there have been a recorded 1, 437 deaths at sea, most of these since 2009 (that bloody Labor party, right?). This is a base estimate, and for every body found it’s predicted that at least two more are never recovered. It’s a truly awful statistic and the loss of life in the pursuit of a secure future is nothing short of tragic.

boat people-3
On the boat towards Australia. Image credit: Hussein Khoder

What belies the underlying racist motives of the deaths at sea argument is that it is never used to promote increased aid to refugees arriving by boat. We hear ‘the drownings must stop’ and ‘the only way to stop the drownings is to stop the boats’ but never ‘the only way to stop the drownings is to improve the processing and resettlement of refugees in Indonesia and Malaysia’. Fewer people would drown at sea if there were, say, a government initiative to ensure people smugglers carried adequate safety equipment, but that’s ridiculous (I’m chuckling at the notion as I write it) because it’s not actually about saving lives, it’s about asserting Australian sovereignty and making sure we aren’t seen as a soft touch by the international community, and keeping out a group of people who are poorer than us, have different religions, and will probably try to make us poor and have a different religion too. Oh, it’s also about not encouraging law-breakers, even when the circumstances of their ‘crime’ are clearly exceptional and permitted by law, like speeding to get to the hospital in an emergency (it’s called the Refugee Convention, which Australia ratified by the way). But at least saying it’s about saving lives keeps the refugee advocates off your back and wards off accusations of racism.

Researchers at the University of Western Australia identified an interesting phenomenon that appeared last year, during the media furore over the treatment of ‘Aussie’ cows in Indonesia. Australia, which set a deplorable example of human rights treatment and was called out on it by the UNHCR, suddenly became preoccupied with the welfare of animals overseas. This involved firstly constructing the cows as ‘Australian’ and secondly being outraged by the manner in which they were slaughtered in Indonesian abattoirs. This raised the question of how we could be so worried about cows yet so unconcerned about the experiences of the asylum seekers – actual human beings – imprisoned in Indonesia, denied work rights while awaiting humanitarian visas, who find the conditions there so intolerable the only solution for many is to spend their savings and risk their lives on a boat to Australia. Or, similarly, the conditions of asylum seekers in our own detention centres who receive little information on the status of their humanitarian visa during processing and are not informed of their right to contact a lawyer. Or as we have seen recently, in the tragic case of Hamid Kehazaei, not even granted adequate medical treatment for injuries.

boat people-4
The first group of “illegal” immigrants arriving at Manus Island, PNG for processing. Image credit: DIAC

The conclusion of the researchers was that Australia used the issue of animal welfare to re-assert our humanitarianism when our treatment of asylum seekers had called it into question. Similarly, opponents to asylum use the deaths at sea argument to re-assert their humanitarianism in the face of accusations of racism and inhumane policies by advocates for asylum. However, this method of asserting that you’re in fact the good guy has a flaw. In setting up your argument to demonstrate that you ‘care’ about cows, or asylum seekers, you first have to demonstrate why you care about them. In the instance of the welfare of cows in Indonesia, it was because they were ‘Australian’ cattle. In the instance of asylum seekers, it’s because they are human beings.

So, if they’re human beings and don’t deserve to drown at sea, then why don’t they deserve the opportunity and security that would come with being granted asylum in Australia? It’s time for Australians to stop hiding behind pseudo-humane excuses to exclude asylum seekers and face up to the real reasons why they don’t want them here. To turn on advocates and accuse them of being selfish and irresponsible for encouraging people to risk their lives is laughable. Reasons like ‘asylum seekers are queue-jumpers’ or the one I hear most often from friends and family, that ‘if they can afford to spend all their savings on a boat here then why can’t they afford to come through the proper channels?’, just don’t cut it anymore. Most ‘proper channels’ form a twisted and limited system that necessitate becoming a ‘queue-jumper’ to escape dire circumstances. So, next time you hear someone argue that ‘we don’t want people drowning at sea’, ask them how far they are willing to go to ensure that doesn’t happen? Would you be willing to rescue the asylum seekers by intercepting them at sea and bringing them back (we are ruling out ‘turn-back-the-boats’ on humanitarian grounds here), or support them in Indonesia to improve their lives and lower their desperation? You will quickly find out whether their argument is motivated by compassion for fellow humans, or a desire to exclude those who are ethnically and culturally different.

Stevie Hallett is a Flint contributor. Based in Perth, Australia.

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