The war on asylum seekers


Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison in Parliament (Fairfax Media)The current dispute with Indonesia over border incursions by the Australian Navy is symptomatic of a deeper problem — the militarisation of political discourse. Von Clausewitz famously claimed that 'war is politics by other means': in other words, that military force is employed in service of political ends. In Australia, as elsewhere in the West, this is being taken to an extreme not previously seen outside authoritarian societies.

It is true that the Westminster tradition of politics has always viewed the deployment of the armed forces as a matter for the executive (with the governor-general being head of the military). Nevertheless, there were two clear understandings underpinning this tradition.

The first was that military actions were international, involving other states. Secondly, the military was always to remain subject to strict civilian control and oversight — demonstrated, for example, by the fact that control of the military's purse-strings is a matter for the elected parliament alone and not for the executive.

The rhetoric of the 'War on Terror' has undercut these assumptions and thereby opened the way for military action to become a blanket invocation by which Western governments (like their traditionally more authoritarian counterparts) could shield their less appetising workings from inconvenient scrutiny. Thus, even Members of Congress are petitioning the US Government to reveal to them how its US$52 billion 'black budget' is spent.

The spying scandals which have rocked the West in the wake of the Snowden revelations have revealed just how much power has been surrendered by democratically elected legislatures to their militaries in the name of 'security'. This growing militarisation of the state not only affects domestic human rights policy but cuts across government operations and philosophy more generally, tainting all aspects of democratic life.

So it is that in Australia the militarisation of refugee policy under the guise of international conflict (which names like 'Sovereign Borders' is obviously designed to connote) is used as a device for concealment. Even the once-weekly press conferences on boat interceptions have stopped and Parliament itself (which, under the Constitution, funds the military) is denied answers to straightforward questions about refugee policy on the basis that these have become military operational matters.

In a perverse twist, refugees — themselves often the victims of war — are now an enemy to be fought with all the might of the nation's armed forces. Even Melbourne's Herald Sun, not traditionally known for its outspokenness on refugee issues, notes that government secrecy on this issue has little impact on genuine people-smugglers, falls short of democratic standards of accountability and harms relations with Indonesia.

And, as the news of recent days demonstrates, this military rhetoric in the service of secrecy runs the risk of generating the very international conflicts against which the armed services are supposed to defend. When even the most routine border patrols are removed from oversight, it is scarcely surprising that abuses should occur.

While Australians seem generally to have become inured to breaches of international refugee law (such as return of asylum seekers to persecution), the last few days indicate that even such breaches of individual human rights can have international consequences affecting the most fundamental areas of relations between states. Where these include the violation of another state's 'sovereign borders' (such as with the incursions into Indonesian territory by Australian craft), we are dealing with the most basic attack on international norms.

Yet, in Australia, state sovereignty (at least where the 'sovereign borders' are those of other states) seems to have become yet one more piece of 'collateral damage' in the war on refugees.

Justin Glyn headshotJustin Glyn SJ is a student of philosophy and theology in Melbourne who holds a PhD in international and administrative law.

Topic tags: Justin Glyn, asylum seekers, war on terror, Edward Snowden, Indonesia



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Existing comments

What on earth is a genuine people smuggler? There are no smugglers bringing anyone here and there never has been. Ruddock made the lie up and the mindless academia and pollies and media accepted the lie as a fact.
Marilyn | 21 January 2014

"the militarisation of political discourse" - precise, concise ... War on drugs, War on terror, War on smugglers. What a sad state of affairs we have brought on ourselves. Thank you Justin for this thoughtful contribution.
Evagrius | 22 January 2014

With social media slanging by defence personnel and fresh allegations of abuse, with refugees being compelled by sailors to cling to hot engine pipes, the misuse of the military is just warming up. So, too, the misrepresentation of events. Anyone remember the 'Children overboard' fiasco? Johnny's little boy Tony is all grown up now, and Abbott's playmates are just as dodgy as Howard's ever were.
Barry G | 22 January 2014

An astute analysis Justin. After the war on drugs and the war on terror, each of which has no end because neither can ever be 'won', we now have the pitiless war on asylum seekers. The 'enemy' in this latest war can't fight back, and Australians don't know what's happening in their name on those far flung outposts, There must be a question as to whether extended engagement of our armed forces in these non-soldierly exercises against defenceless people has a deskilling effect.on our military capability.
PaulB | 22 January 2014

There is no war on asylum seekers. Australia is merely seeking to deny residency to often middle class and cashed up people who have no right to be here. Also, many of them turn up in Indonesia not to stay there but with the plan in mind to go to Australia. That doesn't seem fair dinkum to me. Most Aussies do not want to alter our racial mix any further but wish to maintain our culture and the proportion of Anglo and Celtic as a majority.
Michael Webb | 22 January 2014

Australia’s donation of two gunboats to Sri Lanka as part of a “regional response to asylum seekers” is another parallel to the militarisation of politics theme in Justin Glyn’s article. People in powerful and privileged positions are tempted to use all means available to maintain their status and to manage perceived threats to their way of life. Militarisation is like the (frightened) bully picking up a rock or stick during a playground brawl – just more technologically and socially powerful. People can change this and other awful trends by electing political leaders who demonstrate core values consistent with the goals that most people would espouse – feeling safe and secure, having a wholesome society in which to raise children, maintaining a good relationship with the natural and built environments and holding dear the practices of freedom of expression, democracy, equity, fairness and equality before the law. Leadership is ‘the process of influencing others in order to gain their willing consent in the ethical pursuit of a purpose or mission’. Leadership embraces humility, integrity and moral courage. Ethical behaviour is simply ‘what one ought to do …..’. Easily said, but requiring serious introspection and self-knowledge and a strong and sometimes brave will to carry it through.
Richard Heggie | 22 January 2014

I was back in Australia over Christmas and was appalled by the ugliness of the commentary over so many things: asylum seekers, relations with Indonesia and East Timor, aboriginal issues .. the list was almost endless. The self centredness (dare I say hatred) expressed in so much commentary was truly depressing. These are dark days for Australia and there seems little hope while our politicians from both sides are unwilling to lead us to a future of compassion and hope. I was glad to come back (to Indonesia!) but I worry about my grandchildren who are growing up in an environment of hate and anger.
ErikH | 22 January 2014

" refugees" are for a long time (up to a few years) in Indonesia fed and financially supported by UN. Then they have several thousands of dollars to pay for a rickety boat, Indonesia does nothing to prevent these boats to breach the sovereign borders of Australia, but gets upset if those same boats return to where tey came from. One of the "organisers" of this dangerous business actually lived in Canberra and organised this business! Eureka seems to me rather biased.
Theo Verbeek | 22 January 2014

Marilyn, people smuggling is a crime and a number of people have been charged with that offence, and it is a disgusting way to make money.
angela | 22 January 2014

Sadly we are becoming a warlike nation. We are practicing with the weakest, and who knows where we will go after that. I am becoming less and less proud of being Australian. This is not what my great grandparents set out to build.
Name Margaret McDonald | 22 January 2014

The claim that these are all economic migrants has been clearly shown to be incorrect even with the Government's own statistics. Over 90% of asylum seekers are found to be genuine. Indonesia is not a signatory to any treaties about asylum seekers and it is impossible for asylum seekers to work here. Therefore there is no life for them except dependency on handouts and the kindness of others - how would you like to live under those circumstances? Let us not forget that many of the asylum seekers are seeking refuge from conflicts Australia has been a willing part in. Have Iraq and Afghanistan become safer places because of our involvement, despite the brave efforts of our servicemen and women?
ErikH | 22 January 2014

The current Government of Australia is getting a lot of respect for its efforts to stop people smuggling. The term “war” is often used when additional resources are needed and if organised criminal gangs are involved. The well organised gangs have their active supporters hidden in churches and welfare organisations. The multimillion dollar people smuggling industry had almost collapsed during the Howard area, but regained it gory glory and profits during the Rudd rule. The term “war” is also used in conflicts where a lot's of people have been killed. Hundreds of people died because of they were lured to Australia by promises and transported by greedy smugglers. Slavery and people smuggling are crimes against humanity and do not deserve any support.
Beat Odermatt | 22 January 2014

It's true we have dug ourselves into a hole(getting deeper every day) when we militarise the asylum seeker issue. It's no wonder that almost daily there's another complication to deal with - violence inflicted on asylum seekers by the navy, further legal compilations in Nauru, growing Indonesian anger over the 'tow-back' policy. This situation will only degenerate further if we fail to see this as a humanitarian not a military / security issue.
john bartlett | 22 January 2014

Doesn't it seem a bit strange that we are actually saving the lives of those we are, in Justin's eyes, militarily warring against? John Howard stopped the boats. He saved lives thereby. Labor/Greens stupidly reopened the floodgates, and killed many people (not intentionally, I'll warrant.) Had not the Rudd/Gillard/Greens regime intervened, we might not even be talking now of cases of hapless seafaring immigrants. Be that as it may, the Abbott government has, it seems, reclosed the gates. And saved "enemy" lives thereby...with it's "militaristic" strategy! According to Justin, the Abbott government is with militaristic policies "at war" with the asylum seekers. Yet on all sides it is accepted that the more asylum seekers, the more deaths at sea, and Abbott has drastically reduced that number. So, who is really "at war" with asylum seekers?
HH | 22 January 2014

Beat, "The current Government of Australia is getting a lot of respect for its efforts to stop people smuggling". Yes, from the xenophobic and the vested interests! As has been continuously pointed out around 95% of asylum seekers are genuine refugees. The people who bring them here are not smugglers. The refugees have been dehumanised firstly as boat people and then simply as 'boats' to be turned around. We are are a community lacking in basic humanity and compassion.
Evagrius | 23 January 2014

Michael Webb seems to want us to go back to the White Australia policy. This at a time when hundreds of thousands of African and Middle Eastern refugees are being accepted by European countries, the very countries that can most genuinely be thought of as white majority countries. 250 years ago Australia was 100% black. Then we Anglos and Celts almost wiped them out. And now we think we have a claim to be the majority.
Gavan | 23 January 2014

To “Evagrius”. If the defender of people smugglers fail to find valid arguments to support the people smuggling industry, they resort to slogans like xenophobia, racism etc. There is no good argument to defend the deadly trade and the people smuggling industry knows it to well. Therefore they start hiding behind avatars and use old stupid slogan recycled from the early 60th.
Beat Odermatt | 23 January 2014

It seems that our Governments want us to believe that we are being humane - that our policies re Asylum Seekers are for their own benefit!! Rubbish! how shameful that this country refuses help to those for whom our young men and women were sent to war - Iraq, Afghanistan!! to say nothing of others from countries devoid of human rights!Being "caring" by treating people as we do is to our great shame. JT
Jan Taylor | 23 January 2014

Angela, who people pay to be safe and how they travel is not people smuggling and there are no gangs making money out of bringing refugees to Australia as it is a legal right to come to Australia. What we do though is actually trafficking of humans to Nauru and Manus while rich private foreign companies and our so-called charities make small fortunes out of locking them up.
Marilyn | 23 January 2014

This is an excellent article but what can we do about this matter? I have chipped in to GetUp to try to gain public outrage but will that help?
Zia | 23 January 2014

Thx Justin. well done. Well written. Well discerned. Useful piece to forward. xP
patricia bouma | 24 January 2014

When are the places that refugees are held going to be correctly called "Concentration Camps" and bear the stigma that the term implies?
Peter Harrigan | 24 January 2014

Another week. No dangerous boat journeys. More boat people deaths averted, thanks to what the Left wants us to believe is a "war".
HH | 24 January 2014

Beat... the current Govt. is also causing a huge amount of shame in the Australian people. I know of avid Libs. who are now sorry they voted Mr Abbot int power. And unscrupulous power it is. I am waiting for Cardinal Pell to call his friend into line, by questioning if his actions are in compliance with Church 's social justice teachings.
bernie Introna | 24 January 2014

get up is an international organisation designed to create discontent - be aware that such discussions are being driven by people with their own agenda - Australia take more refugees than any other country - we will take them on our terms not on smugglers terms
Sue | 27 January 2014

To HH. Ever snore at the cinema? Forget your girlfriend’s birthday? Probably both. Well, don't worry. Instead of just screwing up, what you did was commit a solecism. The origin of solecism comes from a Greek word meaning "speaking incorrectly". If you say something incorrectly, or, make, a, grammatical, error, in, writing, that's also a solecism... That a thing which is a Sin to one is a Blessing to another, no more than we count it a Solecism to say, that what is one Man's Meat is another Man's Poison... A General Treatise of Monies and Exchanges three times gives us a similar phrase to the junk: treasure comparison ( one mans junk is another mans treasure) in the context of the net wealth of the nation / kingdom / commonwealth remaining the same:... one private Man's loss in that Case is another private Man's Profit, ...for one Man's loss becomes another Man's Gain; Very true, Sir, one Man's loss is another Man's Profit. Sooner or later, we sell out for money and a solecism: Australia is under new management and once more open for business- Tony Abbott.
Annoying Orange | 02 February 2014

AO, I must confess I'm not really across your point. Meantime, yet another week (yawn). No boats. More deaths avoided. No thanks from bleeding heart lefties to Tony Abbott. Plus ca change &c. You know, I get the distinctive impression that if and when the Coalition policy results in deaths somehow, I'll hear a clinking of champagne glasses somewhere.
HH | 03 February 2014

My point? Is it 'really' about saving lives? Or saving Mammon, n.: The god of the world's leading religion.
Annoying Orange | 04 February 2014

HH, it was Tony Abbott who first compared stopping asylum-seeker boats to war. Shalom.
peter bohm | 04 February 2014

Granted, Peter. But not, note, a "War On Asylum Seekers" as the article has it. It's the contest with the people smugglers - people Rudd and Gillard referred to as "scum" and as deserving to rot in hell - that Abbott likens to a war situation. But "The War On People Smugglers (Which Has Prevented Deaths of Would-be Asylum Seekers)" isn't nearly as provocative a title, even if it's much closer to the truth.
HH | 05 February 2014

To HH. Watch the video Peter Bohm posted- from 3.00...The vast majority of these (in detention centres) are economical migrates ...Abbott has only ONE ethical system of measurement: $’s
Annoying Orange | 06 February 2014

They hit them over the horizon in the nocturnal hours on the tide. The puss has been operating in the Persia Gulf for over 2 decades. In which maritime borders are dodgy and a shootout with IRAN is likely. So it is not plausible it is an accident any any enquiry that does not attribute blame is a further insult. So it is either the captain, the general or the minister. Who does the sword fall on. If it no one and it is an accident it is better not to have an enquiry. It will just make things worse.
Matt | 15 February 2014


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