lunedì 10 agosto 2015

Europe must not mimic Australia's tough talk on asylum seekers the worst thing it could do now is to start acting like it

The Guardian
Language is not an afterthought or addendum to policy. Increasingly militaristic rhetoric about asylum seekers drives governments in only one direction

An Indonesian police officer carries an exhausted boy during 

a rescue operation after a fishing boat carrying mostly 
asylum seekers to Australia sank off Indonesia's Java
Language is important. Words are powerful, especially when discussing people who have no voice of their own, no place in the debate, and whose identities are shaped by the words others use about them.

The language that is used now by governments to describe asylum seekers who arrive on their borders, is a demonstration of why the debate has become so polarised, so emotive, and so intractable.

The evolution of Australian government language on asylum seekers has been a tortuous one.

In the late 1970s, when the first post-colonial asylum seekers (“boat people”) turned up on Australian shores fleeing conflict in Indochina, the then-immigration minister Michael MacKellar publicly welcomed them, drawing attention to their “harrowing” ordeals in their home country and promising “Australia would offer sanctuary”.

He publicly read statements prepared by the asylum seekers, which asked Australia to “please help us for freedom”.

The issue of asylum, MacKellar and then-foreign minister Andrew Peacock said in a statement, must not be politicised “because the basic question of human suffering involved transcends partisan advantage in an election context … we will not risk taking action against genuine refugees just to get a message across”.

“That would be … utterly inhuman,” they said.

As the 70s drew to a close, and as more boats continued to arrive, public unease with the arrivals began to grow louder. Echoing it, government rhetoric began to change.

Against the backdrop of the success of the Orderly Departure Plan – the multilateral UN-run program which, in 1979, began intercepting boat-borne asylum seekers in their first country of refuge and resettling them all over the world, including Australia – there emerged a sense that for people to turn up on boats was the “wrong” way of arriving.

It was improper if not unlawful, a “soft” invasion of a complacent Australia. New boat-borne arrivals began to be dismissed as “queue jumpers” and “economic migrants”.

In the 1990s, the term “illegal” – previously used to describe a person who had overstayed a visa (still a far larger number) – was re-fashioned to refer to boat arrivals in the country (by now, coming from post-war Cambodia).

It was a crucial semantic shift: the “illegal” construction gave the government the imprimatur, almost the obligation, to enact more punitive policies against asylum seekers.

Australia also saw the introduction of mandatory detention. Originally intended as a temporary policy for time-limited administrative detention, it has since been converted to a permanent policy involving indefinite detention.

Any boat-borne asylum seeker is now referred to as “illegal”. However, Australia is a party to the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which affords any person the right to present to the country’s borders – by any means and without a visa – and claim asylum.

In 2001, asylum became terror. Within 48 hours of al-Qaida’s attack on the World Trade Centre, government ministers claimed terror groups were using asylum boats to infiltrate Australia.

Defence minister Peter Reith saidunauthorised boats “can be a pipeline for terrorists”: parliamentary secretary Peter Slipper claimed “there is an undeniable link between illegals and terrorists”.

The government’s most senior security adviser, Asio chief Dennis Richardson, dismissed the concerns as “extremely remote” and said he had “not seen evidence” of terror links – but the rhetoric remained, and consciously so.

The government was anxious to present those coming by boat as an undifferentiated mass (of potential terrorists), not as individual people; the defence department issued a diktat that “no personalising or humanising images” be taken of asylum seekers, lest they find their way into the public domain.

By 2013, the language of asylum had become conflated with that of war: the Australian government was “engaged in a war” with those organising boat journeys.

This became the justification for the government keeping secrets from its own people: “if we were at war we wouldn’t be giving out advice that is of use to the enemy, just because we have an idle curiosity,” Tony Abbott said.

Australia is held up by some as an exemplar of how to deal with asylum seekers – and how to speak about them. The federal government is promoting itself as such. Abbott counselled in April that Europe must “urgently … adopt very strong policies” like Australia’s.

What exactly is Australia offering? Australia’s avowal to stop the boats is untrue. The boats have not stopped, they are still coming, they are still being stopped: 46 Vietnamese asylum seekers were intercepted at sea last month and secretly returned to Vietnam, some reportedly to detention; undenied allegations the crew of an asylum boat travelling to New Zealand were paid (in US dollars) by Australian officials to turn around; a boat forced back to Indonesia crashing and breaking up on a reef.

Offshore processing is mired in scandal – two deaths, including a murder, on Manus Island; allegations Australian workers raped a local woman and were spirited off home to escape prosecution; yet another parliamentary inquiry into child sexual assault and other abuses on Nauru.

And in onshore detention, healthcare failures, hunger-strikes, and deathscontinue to plague a broken, benighted system.

All this, despite Australia only ever dealing with a fraction of the numbers of asylum seekers of European countries. Who would want to buy a suite of policies with these outcomes?

But the UK and Europe appear to be following the Australian lead. Certainly, they are beginning to sound like Australia.

David Cameron’s “swarms of people” comment this month echoes Australian immigration minister Phillip Ruddock’s warnings years earlier of a “pipeline” of asylum seekers and of “whole villages” bound for Australia.

When Theresa May wrote that most of those on boats in the Mediterranean had come from Eritrea and Somalia as “economic migrants who’ve paid criminal gangs” she used the exact terminology of Australia’s foreign minister Bob Carr three years earlier, who dismissed Tamil asylum seekers as “a whole bunch of … economic migrants”.

The EU, similarly, is adopting militaristic and secretive language to outline its response to irregular migration across the Med.

Leaked documents out of the EU show proposals for a “military operation” to “seek and destroy” boats and “disrupt the migrants smuggling business model”.

It is familiar rhetoric to those who’ve heard a succession of Australian government ministers propound a “military-led border security operation” to “disrupt the people smuggling trade”.

The Australian government has long refused to “comment on operational matters”. The EU is proposing an “information strategy” which includes no information at all: “rescue operations should not be publicised”.

This language is significant. It is not an afterthought or addendum to policy. Rhetoric establishes an agenda. The problem with aggressive, oppositional language – beyond the crude political distortion of a complex global issue – is that it drives policy in only one direction, leaving no option of more humanitarian policies.

Aggressive, militaristic rhetoric constrains governments (or supra-national organisations like the EU), forcing them to respond with aggressive, militaristic action.

The issue of asylum is no longer one of humanitarian responsibility, or international legal obligation. It frames the issue as a threat to national security or a violation of sovereignty.

By speaking in such a way, governments make a rod for their own backs, and are forced, by their own hand, into more and more punitive actions, to make the policies match the threat they’ve created.

Stoking domestic fears of disordered migration is electorally successful, but it leaves governments with few policy options.

Solutions do need to be found to the current crises around the world. Where it can be, order should be brought to the current disorder.

The chaos that has been seen at Calais, the drownings on the Mediterranean, or the forcible push-back of boats in the Andaman are problems too acute to be allowed to continue or reoccur.

And a perfect solution to the world’s forced migration issues may be an impossibility. But governments that believe their unilateral actions can “solve” the problem are being wilfully ignorant. The forces that drive people to move are far greater than any power they have to stop them.

By talking tough against asylum seekers – by abusing and dehumanising them, by casting their movement as some amorphous threat rather than a natural and rational human instinct – political leaders are doing nothing to solve the problem, and are only making it worse.

Europe is starting to sound like Australia on asylum, the worst thing it could do now is to start acting like it.
Guardian journalist Ben Doherty is a 2015 Thomson Reuters Fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. During Oxford’s 2015 Trinity term he studied the way governments and the media in Australia have changed the narrative and language around people arriving by boat. His paper, Call me illegal: The semantic struggle over asylum in Australia, can be read here.

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