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The Poverty Incentive


The poorer you are, the more likely you need to shoulder more. This axiomatic rule of social intercourse, engagement and daily living is simple and brutal enough: the poor shall hold, conserve, preserve. The rich will thrive on that principle and forge ahead on backs, shoulders and general supports. History is replete with that principle: tithes, feudalism, taxes, excises, tariffs, the consumer tax provide the sweet rescue for the wealthily insecure. It is not those who have who must give – they, rather, demand that those who don’t have take their place in answering the question.

States follow that guiding rule as well. The wealthy are the psychological wrecks who need comfort, a regular dosage of security pills to reassure them that their earnings, however gained, need shoring up against others who may want a share.

The international regime is characterised by structured inequalities. Sovereignty is merely a caption, a cover, a cloak for disparities and vast differences. Territorial boundaries are there to be ignored; rules to be flouted. Beneath that regime lie an assortment of hypocritical contexts. The Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty is an example of preserving while preventing. Its twin objective is to create a norm of allowance and prohibition simultaneously – that countries who have nuclear weapons retain them, and those that do not never get them.

Most conspicuously, this regime of inequality finds shape in the refugee debate. The Refugee Convention of 1951 lists various rights and obligations. What is fundamentally subversive about reading its application is how states with greater wealth feel entitled to control, disperse and remove individuals at the behest of those who do not have the same means of coping with asylum seekers. The swift in emphasis is important: it is the asylum seekers that are the problem, along with their trafficking facilitators.

Indeed, a nationwide poll in Australia published in January by UMR Research showed that 60 per cent of respondents felt that boat arrivals should be treated with greater savagery. Prime Minister Abbott was not wielding the stick vigorously enough. Thirty per cent of the sample believed that such arrivals were genuine refugees (as if belief about authenticity was any yardstick about a legal determination), while the rest were unsure. When asylum makers do make it to Australia, governments must take the lead in punishing them for having made the journey to start with. 59 per cent of respondents opposed the idea of refugees receiving government welfare at all. Inequality should beget inequality, not amelioration.

The refugee non-solution centres are the outgrowth of this approach, with neo-colonial appendages used as a means of assessing people you don’t want: asylum seekers in Nauru, or those in a law challenged Papua New Guinea, the second poorest country in the South East Asian region. What is obscene is the suggestion that such individuals be told to settle there after they are found to be valid refugees. Poverty and oppression is simply being substituted by similar poverty and a different form of oppression.

This is justified by such rich propositions as the “no advantage” principle – all asylum seeker shall have no advantage in taking the boat, as opposed to “queuing”. The effect of that is not whether asylum seekers have an advantage, but whether states retain the advantage of disposing of them in certain ways they deem fit. It is no accident that the Refugee Convention has been regarded by politicians from Europe to Australia as more millstone than entitlement. Individuals like former Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, have voiced changing it, seeing it as a creature of anachronistic excess. The moral here: Asylum seekers and refugees don’t matter; state prerogatives do.

Cambodia is the latest target in the refugee wars, or, to put it differently, a prime example of the poverty principle in action. Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, and Immigration Minister Scott Morrison have been doing the rounds in getting their latest impoverished processor. Morrison registered his satisfaction with the progress. “We’re very pleased to have been getting support from PNG and Nauru that we’ve had and we look forward to further support from other countries in our region, including Cambodia.”

For it is Cambodia that will be added to the refugee network, the processing system that is designed to immunise wealthy states from taking asylum seekers while filling processing centres in developing countries. The hysteria from states who actually can afford it, compared to states who can’t, is striking. Presumably, if you have little and have been robbed by history, another tally on the drawing board doesn’t matter too much. The star studded principle in the Australian diplomacy code is clear: we are wealthy, and can’t afford it. You are poor, and can.

Cambodia’s legal problems are even more complex than PNG. It is rife with law and order issues, a crony state where money goes far even as rights are stymied. Business elites flourish in collaborative ventures with police authorities. The rule of law is scantly exercised, at best. Not even the CIA thought it appropriate to keep al-Qaida detainees in its detention centres. Things must be in a stink when the CIA gets points for being morally discerning.

Even if an accurate or appropriate determination is made of an asylum seekers’s application, the outcome is likely to be grim. Elaine Pearson, Australia’s director at Human Rights Watch, pointedly called Cambodia “an especially poor choice to resettle refugees, because it has bowed to pressure before in forcibly returning vulnerable asylum seekers such as Uighurs to China and monks and activists to Vietnam” (Guardian, Apr 4).

Such policies have left Australian radio and television personality Father Bob perplexed and disgusted. Effusive with passion, he tweeted: “Why in God’s/Good’s name, does the biggest, richest, emptiest place in the region, bribe, bully the poorest to ‘take’ our refugees?” He must know the prerogative of power, which is to speak down to those who look up, to molest them, to violate them and to exercise control over them. On a smaller scale, states, being the monsters of control that they are, backed by compliant populations, always shift the emphasis from rights to bad behaviour. It is not so much their obligations but the irresponsibility of those who demand equity that proves so trying. Whatever you do, don’t boat it to the Antipodes.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email:

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:

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