Refugee retrospectives: Who to hate next

Refugee retrospectives: Who to hate next

The divisive excesses of the recent US election will be analysed for generations to come. One thing has been made clear: there is a broad base of ‘individuals of a non-brown hue feeling imperilled by demographic change’ (we’re not supposed to call them racist anymore).

By spreading disinformation and creating an atmosphere of crisis, a political candidate can mobilise this group to their advantage. The key to capturing their attention is to become the champion for a symbolic race-related policy.

In France, Nicolas Sarkozy’s popularity soared after he promised, and proceeded to, ‘ban the burqa.’ Trump won the election after promising he would ‘build a wall.’ Meanwhile, in Australia, the ever-escalating obsession to ‘stop the boats’ has served both parties in their bids for power.

The downward spiral of Australia’s refugee policy

There is a saying that in a slow heating bathtub you’ll be boiled to death before you know it. In October of 2001, not long after the September 11 attacks, and two weeks before the Federal election, Prime Minister John Howard made a defining, election-winning speech in which he promised that,

“We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.”

Once elected, the Howard Government proceeded to embed the idea that stopping the boats was intricately connected with maintaining Australia’s security, integrity and way of life. Rhetoric around the risk of being swamped by ‘boat people’ intensified.

The Howard Government presented an answer to the perceived threat in the form of the ‘Pacific solution’ in 2001, shunting boat arrivals of asylum seekers to Pacific Island locations for processing. Critically, these islands were not signatories to the UN Refugee Convention and could not guarantee the protection of asylum seekers’ human rights.

The implementation of the Pacific Solution represents the moment Australia veered away from the rest of the developed world in its approach to refugees. Over the next fifteen years we would evolve a way of treating and speaking about refugees that is uniquely our own.

This measure was justified with loaded language. The terms ‘illegal arrivals’ and ‘queue jumpers’ were used repeatedly and often by Ministers in the Howard Government when discussing asylum-seekers.

There is another saying that springs to mind, this time from Hitler’s Minister for Propaganda Joseph Goebbels: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”

We are very good at the propaganda game. The term ‘illegal arrival’ as a descriptor of asylum seekers who arrive by boat is a lie, plain and simple. Under the 1951 Refugee Convention, a person who arrives either by boat or plane seeking asylum without a valid visa is in fact a lawful arrival. So long as we remain a signatory to this Convention, there is no argument to be made to the contrary. And yet both parties have embraced this terminology.

The notion of ‘queue jumping’ is also a political creation. Australia is unique in debating the relative merits of ‘onshore’ versus ‘offshore’ visa applications as though these are competing groups. Or more to the point, as though one group are nasty, shady migrants and the other group are patient, orderly migrants.

The general approach by the international community to asylum seekers is one of triage. In relation to unauthorised border crossings, there is an assumption that someone who comes to a country, with no safe way to transport their belongings or indeed their person, is by definition a vulnerable person. Processing of asylum seekers is about determining the validity of claims to being a genuine refugee, and assessing vulnerability and need.

Despite drawing international criticism both domestically and internationally, Howard and his successors have persevered with their project of saving us from the ‘boat people.’ Within a decade both major parties had committed completely to the narrative.

Taking a page from John Howard’s book, in the month leading up to the 2013 election Prime Minister Rudd upped the ante on asylum hard lining when he promised,

“As of today, asylum seekers who come here by boat without a visa will never be settled in Australia.”

Rudd did not win the election. However no Australian Prime Minister since has been willing to back down from Rudd’s election promise.

So as not to have to backtrack, we have tried to send them to places like Cambodia and Malaysia with generous cash offers to those Governments. These countries are not signatories to the UNHRC and do not provide basic services like welfare, education or even work permits to refugees.

So what we have on offer is a Dickensian beggar like existence in third-countries, which are neither UNHCR, nor a ‘safe third country’ in international law.

We have been in upside down land for so long, that our debates on asylum seekers today would, to someone who has been abroad for the past fifteen years, would read like a dystopian sci-fi novel. We have close to 1500 brown people in our care that are living in conditions of ‘deliberate and systematic torture,’ caught in a political trap made of rhetoric and one-upmanship.

We are so used to it that we don’t even see it or feel it, unless it is personal.

The search for a new villain

We have ‘stopped the boats’ and shown ourselves willing to do so by any means necessary, even if it meant sliding into excesses of human rights violation that would have been unthinkable two decades ago.

If we are to continue to ride the wave of racially motivated populism, the Government needs a new menace, and a new symbolic policy. Recent events suggest they are more than up to the challenge.

No doubt emboldened by developments in the United States, this week Minister for Immigration Peter Dutton announced that in his opinion, mistakes were made in the humanitarian programme ushered in by Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser in the 1970s.

An attack on Prime Minister Fraser’s legacy is significant not only because it is the cornerstone of our current refugee policy, but because Fraser removed the last of vestiges of policy that allowed for country of origin discrimination. That is, the White Australia policy.

In a statement that seems to foreshadow a debate on a return to country of origin based discrimination, Dutton said:

“We do review the program each year, and if we feel there are problems with particular cohorts, particular nationalities, particular people who might not be integrating well and not contributing well, then there are many other worthy recipients who seek to come to a country like ours and make an opportunity their own.”

Minister Dutton has repeatedly raised concerns about gang activity within the Sudanese refugee community, and the possibility of visa revocation as a solution to ‘the problem.’ Perhaps even more frighteningly he recently extended his concerns to the children and grandchildren of Lebanese Muslim refugees on the basis that some 23 have joined militant groups abroad.

As a post 1970s humanitarian migrant, the statement reaffirmed all my worst fears. Namely, that the Inquiry is going to be the thin end of the wedge to reintroduce racial discrimination as a basis for immigration decisions.

It is unclear exactly what the next racially motivated rallying cry will be. But in the wake of Minister Dutton’s comments and the scope of the Inquiry into Migration Outcomes, many migrant groups feel like they are sitting in on an uneasy game of duck, duck, goose.

My refugee story

I have refugee ancestry twice over. My father travelled to Poland on a scholarship visa in 1972, in the midst of the Bangladeshi war of Independence. The Bangladeshi genocide is widely considered the worst genocide since the Holocaust. From 1971-1974 the Pakistani forces and associated militias killed up to 3 million people and raped between 200,000 and 400,000 Bangladeshi women in a systematic campaign of genocidal rape.

Poland at the time was offering assistance to the fledgling state. Like many countries it offered scholarship refugee pathways. My father aced his high school exams and was selected for a prestigious program in shipbuilding engineering.

Art provided by Stacey Purcell at

In Poland my father completed his studies, met and married my mother, and they had me. My family fled Poland in 1981, following the failed Solidarity rebellion to the authoritarian communist government. Operating under the auspices of the USSR, the Polish Government drastically restricted normal life by introducing martial law in an attempt to crush political opposition. In order to escape the oppression my parents crossed a border (yes, fleeing means crossing a border) into Austria. Fortunately the Austrians did not sent us to a remote island for processing. Eventually we were resettled in Australia.

In Australia, my father worked as a shipbuilding engineer for a company contracted to the Royal Australian Navy, and my mother worked as an operating theatre nurse.

My father is Muslim and my mother is Catholic.

Having participated in the rituals and holidays of both religions, I can tell you now that the differences are not worth getting excited about. In my opinion, the core values of the Abrahamic religions are pretty much the same. In my personal experience the main substantive differences are the food and the commercialisation of Christmas.

It is easy enough to point to examples of extremism. Most religions can lend themselves to terrifying and extremist interpretation in the right circumstances. This is particularly the case in places of economic inequality (be it the US bible belt or the oil rich Middle east) or conflict zones.

A racist escalation in the making

The rhetoric I see on television about migrants is so far removed from what I know to be reality that I used to think it laughable. Now I know that there are people who believe a range of absurd and frightening things. This year, people shouted racist epithets at me from their cars because of my skin colour for the first time since 1994. I remember what it was like to be brown in Australia, to never be able to fully breathe out, and feel deep anxiety that we are returning to those dark days.

The demographic profiles of Trump supporters are very similar to those of Australians with negative attitudes towards asylum seekers. Predominant features are low education, being male, living in a rural location and being on a lower income. These are the groups most likely to fear change in the status quo. The point about education is one that stands out to me particularly. It makes sense that the less education one has, the more imperilled one feels by demographic change.

Fear of difference is sensible. It stopped our prehistoric ancestors from running toward strange new animals that may have wanted to eat them. You can’t make a well-informed decision about how something new impacts your survival until you observe, assess and become educated about what it means for you.

Similarly, individuals with little education and little exposure to different cultures will naturally feel anxious about difference. It is up to our politicians to provide leadership that will facilitate understanding, cultural literacy and community. I fear for all of us if they continue down the path of hatred, scapegoating, and fanning the flames of white racial dispossession among the gullible. All to score electoral runs on the board.

I would like to leave this article with a message of hope. But instead I will leave you with a message from Secure Freedom, the news channel run by Frank Gaffney, who is reportedly advising the Trump Transition team.

This is a compelling five minutes vision of fear that could easily be co-opted by Australian politicians, if we let the rhetoric of hate go unchallenged.

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