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Europe's more humane approach to on-water matters


North African immigrants in Sicily More than 800 people died at sea whilst migrating from Libya to Italy’s shores last week. The horror has been described in the media as ‘Europe’s Shame’, with inadequate migration processes and maritime rescue operations being blamed for this unnecessary loss of life.

What struck me watching the media coverage from afar were the simple differences between the language employed in Europe versus the language Australia uses to talk about borders, migrants, and deaths at sea.

The words we have become accustomed to using regarding migration are propagandist in nature: by containing legal and moral judgement, they serve a political agenda.

‘Stop the boats’, despite containing the seeds of one of the world’s most brutal border regimes has been sold as some kind of humane appeal to ‘saving lives at sea’. (Australia is the only nation in the world to detain migrants who arrive without visas, and the only country to explicitly prohibit genuine refugees from settling). But Volker Turk, the UNHCR's director of international protection, describes the situation in the Mediterranean differently:

If you look at some of the displacement numbers, we are talking about a global displacement crisis that is playing out at the doorsteps of Europe. It is clear, then, that the European political leadership will need to provide the appropriate response, which is built on the fundamental European values of human rights and human dignity.

Which translates not into policies of deterrence that endanger, imprison, and limit the freedom of migrants, but supporting maritime rescue operations, improving immigration processes.

‘Boat people’ is simplistic and offensive; ‘queue jumper’ inaccurate and moralising; and even the term ‘asylum seeker’ has become politically complicit.

Using the term ‘asylum seeker’ over ‘migrant’ has become a political necessity, a defence against the barbarism of our border policy. The coverage of the Mediterranean boat tragedy described the victims and survivors simply as ‘migrants’. This is an open, rather than closed, description of a person on a boat crossing borders. Certainly some of the people on board would have sought asylum on Italian shores, but others may not have. Others may have become undocumented migrants, people fleeing man-made disasters that fall outside the legal parameters of seeking asylum.

In defending the lives and dignity of people moving across borders perilously, we have been forced to describe every boat migrant as an ‘asylum seeker’, but in doing so, we have effectively defended a very narrow understanding of rights and borders. By falling on this legalistic defence for a person arriving at a border undocumented, we are writing out of history the circumstances which lead people to take drastic measures cross borders in the first place, circumstances that any one of us might come under at some point.

By hoping with all our hearts that people living in tents on Manus Island are indeed ‘legitimate’ refugees, we are forcing people to perform their trauma before the state, perhaps even exaggerate it, in order to be deemed legal subjects at all.

When you think about it, this request is perverse: in order to prove yourself a legitimate subject, you have to suffer, but suffer correctly, according to our legal definitions.

Surely we can’t reduce the world’s history of undocumented migration – quite a long history, I’m told – to the narrow parameters of ‘seeking asylum’ and a human rights charter written in 1948. This all plays into the hallowed status of borders themselves. Where one in seven people worldwide are migrants of one kind or another, this legalism does not give us an adequate framework to understand migration.

An aside: the number of undocumented people living in Australia illegally is over 62,000, with the majority having come from China, Malaysia, the US, and the UK. Those people who have overstayed their visas from wealthy, Anglophone states, or have overstayed their student visas – after having contributed vast amounts of money to Australia’s fourth largest export, tertiary education – does not figure into our national narrative about illegal immigration. Our story about legal and illegal, legitimate and illegitimate, is reserved for the flattened out narrative of ‘stopping the boats’.

While Prime Miniser Abbott claims to have ‘stopped the boats’, he has certainly not prevented further border deaths. Monash University’s Australian Border Deaths Database continues to record the number of suicides, murders, and other deaths occurring in immigration detention facilities, for which there will certainly be a Royal Commission at some point in the future. Since the year 2000, more than 1970 people have died at Australia’s border. We should name this what it really is: Australia’s Shame.

Ellena Savage

Ellena Savage is the Editor at The Lifted Brow, commissioning Editor at Spook Magazine, and a graduate student in creative writing. Tweets @rarrsavage

Image: North African immigrants in Sicily - Creative Commons


Topic tags: Ellena Savage, asylum seekers, migration, Mediterranean, human rights, refugees



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Existing comments

Until Ellena Savage apportions at least some blame for this mass migration to the brutal regimes that cause people to flee their homelands, I will not take her seriously. Until she even mentions the human traffickers and their callous indifference to the lives of the people they squeeze into unseaworthy boats, I will not take her seriously. Until she considers the economic and social consequences of potentially uncontrolled millions of people overwhelming Europe, I will not take her seriously. There are a whole welter of problems that she simply does not raise. It's so much easier to blame ourselves, do away with borders and let into the West anyone who arrives here.

John McLachlan | 23 April 2015  

Please EUROPEAN Union and Human rights really have to help the migrants.

Amadou Masri | 24 April 2015  

An excellent and timely reminder. "The words we have become accustomed to hearing regarding migration are propagandist in nature: by containing legal and moral judgement, they serve a political agenda." The eternal divide between the "haves" and the "nots' show up everywhere. Those who Have should use what they have to better mankind, not for selfish divisive motives. "Haves" are usually better educated and resourceful, better at using "spin" and " weasel words" to achieve their self-centred interests, and generally indifferent to other points of view. All this is prevalent in the Government's deplorable attitude to those fleeing wars, persecutions and economic hardship, and in those who accept their agenda.

Robert Liddy | 24 April 2015  

Thanks Elena for a very insightful article. The debasing of the nomenclature to demonise desperate people wanting asylum in Asutralia is a grim stain on our politicians, of both parties but mostly on Abbott from his most negative and aggressive opposition days, I`m afraid. He , with the Greens, destroyed the Malaysia (and what could have been an Indonesian) solution to hold asylum seekers in those counties until processed, and for crass political motives and spurious reasoning. All for votes; what a reason to imperil your soul!

Eugene | 24 April 2015  

A word from the Pope (perhaps not PC, but definitely on the point): “When we are healthy and comfortable, we forget about others ……. their sufferings and the injustices they endure … Our hearts grow cold .……. Today, this selfish attitude of indifference has taken on global proportions, to the extent that we can speak of a globalization of indifference.” In Australia successive governments (from Pauline H and John H) have legitimized the language of indifference. Hurt and wounded people fleeing for their lives have been turned into “Irregular Maritime Arrivals” – nasty things rather than people. Australia needs urgent coronary care to warm the nation’s heart and lift us out of indifference.

Tony Pearson | 24 April 2015  

Sadly - and tragically - the label "illegal queue jumpers" has embedded itself into our national psyche. Even some of the most informed people I've spoken have justified their xenophobia (and closeted racism) using those terms. They truly believe that the only way "those people" can "legitimately" enter Australia is through the country's migration intake program. They also believe that most of "queue jumpers" are economic migrants; i.e. if they can fork out tens and thousands of dollars to people smugglers, they can enter Australia "legally", so they believe. And others, like John McLachlan, believe that giving refuge to refugees is like opening the proverbial floodgates. Refuges have existed long before Christendom dominated our modern lives; it's the nature of human condition. Australia's mean-heartedness is anathema to solving the root causes of refugees.

Alex Njoo | 24 April 2015  

John, I think you demonstrate Ellena's point with your choice of language. The point surely is that the one group of people that are not to blame are those poor souls seeking a better life. We can blame who we like, it does not change the plight of the refugee's, nor should it frame our response. As we reflect on the meaning of ANZAC, we should not forget our brothers and sisters that find themselves in such circumstances. Lets reach out to them and share what our ancestors fought for all those years ago.

Andrew Teece | 24 April 2015  

Exactly right, John McLachlan. Also note that Australian Border Deaths data base shows that, if there's any "shame" for deaths, it lies fairly and squarely with the Rudd/Gillard/Greens/Independents regime, precisely when their policies mirrored those of the "more humane" Europe. I urge everyone to consult that database and see the boat deaths plummet to zero when the Abbott government arrives on the scene.

HH | 24 April 2015  

Ellen raises an issue of great importance: the human dignity of all people and the propensity to negate it by Australian Government policy. That some would decry any criticism of that policy as an abandonment of any control over its borders is simplistic in the extreme. It is high time for not just regional arrangements but for global ones in response to the mass movement of people seeking refuge from violence or poverty. In the meantime (or should that read mean time?), I applaud those who like Ellena prick our consciences by their words and actions.

Ern Azzopardi | 24 April 2015  

It's very sad that some people who claim faith in a god, will resort to cheap party politics on the other hand when dealing with people's lives. It's obvious that when people's lives are threatened, they will do anything to flee. The Africans risking their lives crossing the Mediterranean had already crossed the Sahara and risked their lives, many dying, even before coming into contact with people smugglers. Stopping boats may stop the problem for us, but history will judge our smug self-righteous and cruel political fixes harshly.

AURELIUS | 25 April 2015  

I was humbled when I heard that the Italian Parliament stood for a minute's silence in respect for the recent, terrible loss of lives of migrants (the the name they dignify 'boat people' with). The Italian prime minister said the problem must be tackled at its source, not by stopping people fleeing from unbearable conditions.

Anna | 27 April 2015  

Ellena and her supporters have managed to comprehensively skirt the major problems of adopting a virtual open-borders approach to those desperate people fleeing the turmoil of North Africa and the Middle East. And I for one have far more sympathy for them than those well-heeled asylum-seekers who were seeking to force their way into Australia till 2003 and again from 2008-13. At least most of the former don’t seem to tell repeated lies to claim asylum and second they are far poorer and more desperate than the latter. But in saying that the question is how many millions more will pour into Europe (and thousands die trying) if more “humane” policies are adopted by EC countries? It seems that tens of millions from the above war-ravaged regions want to get to Europe. How is Europe going to process and resettle them? Will they be detained in vast refugee centres till countries can be found to accommodate them? Or will millions of them be permitted to settle in Europe? And if so what of the millions already subsisting in refuge camps in the Middle East? Should we not be helping these people first who have clearly lost everything, even though the West has made little progress in resettling most of them? Whatever the answers to these vexing questions using the dire plight of the Mediterranean refugees to again whack the Abbott government’s turn-back-the boats policies further demonstrates the intellectual bankruptcy of Australia’s asylum-seeker lobby. .

Dennis | 28 April 2015  

If all the money Western and Mid-East countries spent on weapons went into development projects, education, etc - and if the West focussed on development rather than military campaigns - African and the Mid-East might be more stable and ISIS non-existent. But there's a lot of money to be made in the arms race. There's never going to be a right way to deal with migration/asylum seekers until we look beyond military interventions.

AURELIUS | 29 April 2015  

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