Monday, October 19, 2015

Punitive Policies: Australia’s Engagement with Asylum

Sana Yasmin Chaudhry.

Sana Yasmin Chaudhry of University College of London can be reached at

Australia’s engagement with international humanitarianism is continually undermined by mean-spirited national policies toward asylum seekers. This took a turn under Hawke-Keating in 1992 when delayed legal access and court amendments of the Migration Acts severely impeded the assimilation of Cambodian asylum seekers (Manne 2013: 19). Since then, callous policies have continued despite Australia’s open programme of accepting refugees during World War II, at a time when political leaders espoused multiculturalism as a bedrock policy for the nation. However during the 1990s, appeals to xenophobia were proving to be politically profitable, therefore punitive policies were introduced for all those who arrived without proper documentation (Kipnis 2004: 262).

Today, “those seeking asylum who make it to Australia are sent to detention centres where conditions are harsh and access to legal aid and the media is strictly limited, if not curtailed completely” (Mares 2002). What is more, these detention centres are geographically located in “marginal spaces where social ‘unmentionables’ and dangerous wastes are located and removed from mainstream society” (McLoughlin and Warin 2003) thus stripping asylum seekers of their rights to a strong network of social capital. Furthermore, Howard’s creation of a ‘temporary safe haven’ VISAs means those asylum seekers continue to live in limbo, constantly fearing forcible repatriation. This temporary status “legalizes the ambiguity through which asylum applicants are positioned outside the nation-state” (Mountz et al 2002: 340), consequently leading to further marginalisation.

Australia's approach remains unparalleled when contrasted to other industrialised countries: “in terms of the sheer length of detention, the blanket nature in which undocumented asylum seekers are detained, and the lack of independent review of the system” (Silove 2003). Australia has the capability to do better. And it should do so by primarily tackling the media, in terms of its divisive language, in order that the veil of ignorance may be lifted. The fact of the matter is that “boat people are around 1% of total migration and have 100% of the media’s attention” (Vivani 2010). Sorrowfully, “a quarter of century ago, asylum was a matter of trust, in which the applicant was presumed to be telling the truth; today, asylum is set in a climate of suspicion, in which the asylum seeker is seen as someone trying to take advantage of the country’s hospitality” (Fassin and d’Halluin 2005: 600), because refugees are still largely regarded to constitute a political form of migration, as opposed to skilled labourers to appear to offer greater economic opportunity (Malkki 1995: 496).

The hysteria surrounding Australia’s intake of boat arrivals, particularly during the Tampa incident, was marinated in narratives of national interest, domestic politics and the grim shadows of the White Australia Policy during the 2001 elections which played “on populist fears and hatreds of an uncontrolled flux of Asians” (Barker 2011: 23). Although there should be some deterrent, “our expectation that Indonesia should hold all boats so that we don’t have to process them is completely unrealistic” (Vivani 2010) especially as Indonesia isn’t a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. Ironically the Malaysia solution was fired down as illegal because it also isn’t a signatory to the convention; however this double-standard severely undermines Australia’s diplomatic relations. It ill behoves Australia “to wrongly criticise or arrogantly disrespect Indonesia when it has saved [them] from very large numbers of Vietnamese boat arrivals in the past” (Vivani 2010). Australia should not strain relationships with its neighbours, particularly as they are cooperating. This only seeks to undermine its engagement as a humanitarian middle power and exemplary citizen within the Asia-Pacific.

Unfortunately, the politicisation surrounding ‘bogus’ asylum seekers only seems to be hardening as years pass, yet there is hope that a changing demographic within the country may sway Australia’s engagement toward a more positive light. A key barrier to public understanding is that it is widely perceived “mass migrations create domestic instability, generate interstate tension and threaten international security” (Loescher 1992: 4-5). This white noise conceals the fact that “most refugees are not poor people. They have not failed within their homeland; they are successful, prominent, well-integrated, educated individuals who fell because of fear of persecution" (Stein 1981: 322). Somehow, refugees have become, instead of a mixed category of people sharing a certain legal status, a socially constructed homogenous cultural identity in themselves (Stein 1981: 323) and are demonised through an underlying rhetoric that refugees “are simply too different to be assimilated” (Kipnis 2004: 273).

Australia is internationally regarded as an advocator of human rights, however over the past two decades public policy has been cruel and ineffective in its engagement with asylum seekers. Australia has a moral responsibility to engage with refugee regimes because “there is such a thing as international citizenship which has its rights, which has its duties and which implies a commitment to rise up against any abuse of power, whoever its author, whoever the victims” (Macey 1993: 437-8). The fact of the matter is that “the more we seek to deter asylum seekers and refugees through harsh treatment, the more Australia comes to resemble those repressive nations from which they flee” (Mares 2001: 202). Ultimately, Australia needs to divorce its asylum policies from the politics behind illegal immigration.

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·         Vivani, N. (2010) Immigration: Taking the Long View, the AsiaLink essays, 2(2).

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