Was this a debate that had to be had again? In August 2001, the grotesque spectacle of the Norwegian vessel, the MV Tampa, being boarded by Australian SAS troops, and detained off Christmas Island was a sight to behold. How such a wretched ensemble of asylum seekers might constitute a military threat to Australia was hard to see at the time. Even with the change of government last year, officials in Canberra, instead of reshaping the debate, have decided to fumble with old formulae.
The recent round of slurs against refugees in Australia has come in light of the Ocean Viking vessel with its cargo of 78 rescued Sri Lankan citizens. The Australian customs ship had done its humanitarian duty on the high sees, in the hope that the Indonesian authorities would be more receptive. The asylum seekers are now refusing to leave the ship and board Indonesian soil. Jakarta, not being a signatory to the Refugee Convention of 1951, feels no compunction to remove them.
The case has become an international incident, with neither Jakarta or Canberra keen to deal with this supposedly recalcitrant baggage of human cargo. Jakarta has more or less palmed off the Tamils, hoping the Australian government will compose itself and get rid of the problem with a money deal. Canberra is hoping the case can be resolved with its newly devised ‘Indonesian’ solution – Australia provides the funds to Indonesian authorities who will then process the asylum seekers in a network of detention centres. International refugee politics is as much about pimping as anything else.
Effectively, the Rudd government is using the strategy of the previous Howard government, desperate to keep refugees from getting to Australian territory, in the hope that they might be processed on offshore, distant facilities. Instead of a ghastly guano-producing enclave like Nauru, it has opted for the world’s largest Muslim nation with infamously squalid ‘prison’ conditions. Supporters of the previous ‘Pacific’ solution, which involved bribing island states to do the same, are now calling that formula the more just one.
This nervous, near-hysterical reaction is nothing if not familiar. Australia is a country transfixed by fantasies of invasion. Its borders are vast and virtually indefensible. It relies on the invisible and improbable notion that US forces would aid it in the event of an attack, citing the now toothless ANZUS treaty as support. Since federation in 1901, racial ‘exclusion’ has been a persistent feature of this Asian ‘white tribe’. The lines of the Australian delegate Colonel White at the 1938 Évian conference on refugees (more specifically, Jewish refugees), still comes to mind: ‘As we have no real racial problem we are not desirous of importing one.’
One familiar strategy includes demonising those seeking refuge via ‘people traffickers’, the eager facilitators of dangerous ocean voyages that might, and do in fact, lead to death. Best then, to attack both the baggage handler and the baggage. This prompted a comment from the audience at the national broadcaster’s Q & A program (29 Oct): if ‘overstayers’ and ‘illegals’ were, in vaster measures, coming by air, did that make Qantas a ‘people smuggler’? No one cared, or dared, to answer.
Another strategy is the ‘terrorist’ card. Those on board are Tamils, which has inspired suggestions that they might be terrorists awaiting their next chance to cause a bit of bomb-blowing mischief. Consider the comment of the perennially unhinged and paranoid member of the opposition, Wilson Tuckey, who was, to Rudd’s credit, attacked in the House: ‘If you wanted to get to Australia and you have bad intentions, what do you do? You insert yourself into a crowd of 100 for which there is great sympathy for the other 99 and you go on a system where nobody brings their papers, you have no identity you have no address’ (ABC News, Oct 22). Such repetitive nonsense took place in August 2001 and the lead-up to the election a few months after that: there were, many argued, Bin Laden supporters hoping to infiltrate Australia on derelict vessels.
The current mantra is that the refugee policy is ‘balanced’ yet humane, another obscene description pilfered from the previous government’s treasure trove of spin. In truth, it is neither. The reactionary paper The Australian, Rupert Murdoch’s terrier-like representative of Australia’s media landscape, was chortling in its joy. ‘Despite its political discomfort, exaggerated moralism and diplomatic scramble, the Rudd government emerges with more credit over the boatpeople surge than do its opponents on the Right and Left’ (Oct 24). It only took issue with the fact that Rudd might be firmer in his stance. Surely, the human flood was imminent if more stringent measures were not taken?
The election of the Rudd government was meant to be a watershed in various policies adopted and practiced by the previous regime, keen practitioners of ‘fear’ strategies.
But as countries are given complete freedom to determine how the 1951 Refugee Convention applies, we should not be surprised. There is no international tribunal with set authorities to determine the matter. Domestic implications, and fears, continue to play their poisonous role.
It has been shown that these boat people have an extraordinarily high rate of being accepted as refugees once they are processed. It has also been shown that such ‘solutions’, be they Indonesian or Pacific, are far more costly than home processing. But the lingering effects of such fictitious narratives as ‘queue jumpers’ and ‘terrorist sleepers’ remains. The bureaucratic indifference that has infected governments globally means that Indonesia and Australia are far from being alone in this lamentable affair.
BINOY KAMPMARK was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: email@example.com