Australia's 20 years of asylum seeker dog whistling


Lips blowing a dog whistleThroughout the electoral fracas over boat arrivals and the PNG solution, Tony Abbott has been keen to isolate Australia's border control challenges from any international context: in his terms they are 'Australia's problem'. Of course this is language designed to reinforce a sense of crisis and threat, popular intuitions that he plays upon without remorse. 

But Abbott knows that Australian border control policy has always been influenced by international policy trends and forced migration realities. He may deny it, but the Opposition Leader understands that the Australian discussion is part of an international debate about national regional responses to people movement. 

A historical perspective helps to illuminate this. Take mandatory detention. As a policy it was developed and debated in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the moment when the curtain rose on a two decades long Australian political and cultural drama over the issue of asylum seekers in boats.

As is well known, in 1993–1994 the Keating Government introduced mandatory detention of irregular migrants, with the strong support of the then Liberal opposition. Indeed, then, as now, the Liberal Party made it their business to place political pressure on the Government on the issue of migration and borders. During an interview in 2011, Philip Ruddock acknowledged that in the early 1990s the Liberals were deliberately making the matter of boat arrivals a political malignancy for Labor to 'cure'.

But where did the Liberal Party look for inspiration? Their advocacy of mandatory detention emerged at the same time as other Western nations were introducing stringent border measures.

Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, as European countries aspired towards greater economic and political unity, policymakers negotiated a framework of laws and organising principles (the Schengen agreement) which would structure Europe's immigration and border control system. This framework construed migration as a security issue linked to challenges such as terrorism, illegal trafficking and transnational crime.

European discourse on migration during this period became 'securitised': it conceptualised transnational people movement as a threat that required enforceable policies of exclusion. UK Prime Minister John Major even referred to European borders as a 'perimeter fence', language that evokes plagues of pests rather than human beings.

Anti-immigration parties gained electoral successes across Europe — the term asylum seeker became associated with African, Eastern European and Middle Eastern identities that formed a distinct 'other' and were in turn associated with anti-social characteristics such as criminality and welfare dependence. It's hard to imagine how Australian policymakers, architects of mandatory detention, would have ignored developments in Europe.

And not only in Europe — this was a global moment when, in India, the US, Europe and Australia policymakers were pushing for stringent border controls. In the United States, a sequence of Acts (1986, 1990, 1994) were passed in an attempt to stem the influx of illegal immigrants from Mexico. In India, Major's language of fences was turned into a reality when in 1987 the military began to erect a 1790km guarded fence along its border with Bangladesh to prevent irregular border crossings.

At the same time Australian delegates were traversing the world — appearing at international seminars in Geneva, for example — emphasising the importance of reinforcing 'the sovereign rights of governments to control entry across their borders'. 

This reality is deliberately obscured by the Federal Opposition. For two decades they have been eager to develop a sense of Australia's isolation in the face of a growing migration crisis. In the 1993 parliamentary debates on mandatory detention, the then freshman MP Christopher Pyne emphasised 'the depth of the immigration crisis this country faces'. This despite the fact that in 1993 only three boats carrying a total of 81 people arrived in Australian waters, and that Australia's refugee visa quota was around half of today's volume.

Today the Liberals are again in Opposition and the language of 'deep crisis' is being used just as it was two decades ago. And again they are keen to reserve this crisis for the Australian electorate. But one glance at our recent history shows that refugees have never been just our problem — nor indeed our 'crisis'. We have always been influenced, for better or for worse, by international developments. We share with the rest of the world certain global realities. We need to find ways to share the solutions.

Benedict Coleridge headshotBenedict Coleridge has been working as a policy analyst with the Jesuit Refugee Service in Brussels before beginning graduate study in political theory later this month. Follow him on Twitter @Ben_Coleridge 

Topic tags: Benedict Coleridge, asylum seekers, refugees, PNG, Tony Abbott



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Well we do have this isolated little minded country with little minded pollies and media. Leigh Sales finally got to the point with Christine Milne who was talking on about accepting 30,000 refugees a year when she said ""that is a pittance compared to Jordan". Sales finally said something important that our self important pollies and media won't talk about. Here they whinge about regional solutions which is just code for everywhere but here, because we do the least of most countries in the region. Then they call it people smuggling even though our courts have said since 2000 that it is not people smuggling, no one is being brought in against their will. Again the lazy media refuse to read the protocols and law as they babble on about non-existent smugglers. Paul Toohey finally pinned down the AFP in Jakarta who pointed out that it is just a few corrupt business men, and of course corrupt Australian funded immigration and police officers. Jordan has sucked up 600,000 Syrian, we are deporting them to Nauru. To be equivalent to Jordan Australia would need to accept over 2 million refugees but we whinge about 20,000.

Marilyn | 05 September 2013  

Abbott will be Australia's biggest International embarrsment if he gains government

BBS | 06 September 2013  

Well said Benedict! Sadly neither of the major parties hears you. We all wondered who the bogeyman would be after the Cold War and now we know. Its those refugees who arrive by boat. They block up our roads, take our jobs, turn into terrorists and soon will cause the sky to fall on us all. Thank goodness that Mr Abbott will save us come Saturday!

Carol | 06 September 2013  

If "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel", to quote Dr Johnson,then refugees are the perfect scapegoats for the scoundrels who masquerade as protectors of our native shores but who are in reality exploiters of our weaker selves.

Uncle Pat | 06 September 2013  

Richard Ackland's piece in the Sydney Morning Herald today adds to Benedict's very good assessment of the issue, giving a practical and sensible means of resolving some of the problems. See

ErikH | 06 September 2013  

As I Christian I believe people in need should be helped. However it is often difficult to define who it is exactly is the neediest - for whom one should exercise the preferential option for the poor. When I hear of the rapacious greed of the people smugglers and of the capacity of the 'boat people' to pay them, forgive me, but I do ask some questions as to whether many some or all of these people are the neediest of all. As a child of refugees, my parents waited in refugee camps for 5 years as if in limbo but their situation and their utter poverty was clear. They came to Australia and became fine loyal Australian citizens. I cannot fathom that 'refugees' would have tens of thousands of dollars to pay for air trips to Indonesia or Malaysia (which is the route of most of the 'asylum seekers') and then some more thousands to pay people smugglers who regularly seem to drown their passengers at sea. I think the people smuggling criminality must be stopped and a focus on the refugee camps must be the way that the poor and neediest are helped. I think many Australians are being conned by the undue focus on boat people and the inaccurate portrayal of them as those in greatest need.

Skye | 06 September 2013  

The comment "Abbott will be Australia's biggest international embarassment if he gains government" - sounds like BBS!

john frawley | 06 September 2013  

Good article Ben. You are right. an international as well as domestic race to the bottom. . And the same is true of rescue at sea - there has been a hardening of application of the UN Search and Rescue Convention obligations, in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean as well as here, leading to sometimes lethal outcomes for asylum-seekers phoning in distress or waving in distress from unseaworthy boats at imminent risk of sinking . Such calls are sometimes not promptly acted on, there as here, and people go on to die. As Peter Mares wrote, stateless refugees without a functioning state citizenship have no rights - they are regarded as non-people, so UN Conventions need not apply to them. Of course that is not what the Conventions say - they say the right to maritime search and rescue is universal , regardless of nationality or race or creed or circumstances of distress at sea - but this is how maritime rescue agencies in the developed world are coming to re-interpret their rescue responsibilities. It is appalling . It is happening. . The evidence was there in the SIEV 358 inquest - out of AMSA's own mouth - "normal refugee patter", "illegals"., AMSA's "efforts in providing search and rescue services to the Australian community'.

tony kevin | 06 September 2013  

There you go again Skye, confusing refugees with the people who provide transport. With two crew and up to 200 refugees on the vessels who do you think has the power? The two illiterate Indonesian crew? Everyone is equal, there is no such thing as deserving poor and undeserving poor.

Marilyn | 06 September 2013  

It may have been benificence that led Mr Rudd to do it, but it was our PM who inadvertently opened the flood gates to the 50,000 boat people arriving in Australia in recent years. This number does not include the unknown hundreds who died at sea. "Hard cases make bad laws" and the making of bad immigration law is the result of the hard case that Mr Rudd has created. "You dug the hole, now you fill it" principle can not be directed to our current government. Tomorrow it will be gone. Plato wrote that "only the dead know the end of war" and the political death of the ALP on September 7th, will bring an end to its internecine warfare, but will leave the teatment of the brave asylum seekers to the mercy of a conservative government driven by its xenophobic constituency. | 06 September 2013  

By and large, Australians don't give a damn about desperate people seeking a safer and better life. Most of us have never set eyes on a "boat person". And most just don't want to know what goes on in the big wide world out there. It's easier just not to care; not to know. Shameful.

Louw | 06 September 2013  

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