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Labor excises its moral compass

  • 31 October 2012

In politics, hypocrisy is a natural condition, a symptom of being economic with the vérité, to use that famed expression of Tory MP Alan Clarke. On Tuesday, it became evident that refugee policy is the last thing that should be made by the Australian government, be it this scrambling outfit, or any successor regime.

Officials, obsessed by sovereignty, slandering an Opposition that tried to do the very same thing when it was in government in 2006, decided to excise the Australian mainland for purposes of processing refugee claims. All arrivals on the mainland by boat will be sent to either Nauru or Manus Island for processing. Currently, arrivals are processed on the mainland and receive bridging visas and an assortment of working rights.

There has been a surge of numbers coming to Australia since the re-introduction of the Pacific Solution (5700 arrivals since 13 August), suggesting that offshore processing is hardly a disincentive. As one of the underlying rationales for the Pacific network is to deter people smuggling and their paid-up human cargo, Canberra is rapidly running out of ideas. Desperation has become the motivator of government policy.

It was already clear in the 1990s that Australian governments were seeking a solution to discourage the arrival of individuals to the mainland by sea. One of their precedents was the 1981 interdiction of Haitian asylum seekers heading to the United States under the Haitian Migration Interdiction Program.

The program was significant for spawning a processing system involving facilities in Guantanamo Bay, and ad hoc arrangements with Caribbean and South American countries. US President Ronald Reagan had described the arrivals as 'a serious national problem detrimental to the interests of the United States'.

Europe and Australia followed suit. The EU has undertaken measures to restrict the access of migrants and refugees, using a 'de-territorialised' regime of technology, verification and surveillance.

As noted by a student of ex-territorial processing in Europe (Carl Levy, in the Refugee Survey Quarterly in 2010), 'From 2005 and 2010, the advancement of exterritorial zones became bi- or multilateral projects of various constellations of member states and partners in the European neighbourhood or among South Saharan African countries.' Keeping people in distant processing camps has become a global philosophy.

By no means is Australia singular in its treatment of refugees in that respect. But it is distinct in its classification of zones of entry and arrival, a 'leader' in that practice of qualified sovereignty.

The Gillard Government