Yesterday a friend of mine, a young, professional migrant, confronted me about the legitimacy of asylum seekers. He brought to my attention reports about the 18 Sri Lankan men who ‘chose’ to go back home instead of to the camps in Nauru. He concluded that if the men volunteered to go home, they must not have had a real fear of persecution, and indeed, must not be refugees. Leading on from this argument, he went on to make a another claim. He said something to the effect of, “this is the problem with these asylum seekers….imagine if we allow every poor person in India (read: economic migrant) to get on a boat and come here, there would be chaos.”
Why indeed, would someone fleeing persecution choose to return to the root of their fear if they were being offered, in Julie Bishop’s words, a “safe haven” in Nauru? It is a fair question.
The answer is not as clear-cut as many Australians, my friend included, make it out to be.
For these Australians, the sanctity of the nation-state in its current demographic, socio-economic, cultural and moral equilibrium cannot be compromised. Citizenship and its perks cannot be handed out on a platter to undeserving foreigners. Thus, we must be inherently suspicious of asylum seekers because they could be trying to unjustly access these perks – to take advantage of the system. Logically, a genuine fear of persecution cannot be presumed, it must be proven. In this context, anyone who makes a conscious “choice” to return to place of persecution has to be an opportunist, or a cheat, or worse still, a terrorist, because there is clearly nothing “genuine” about their fear of persecution.
As mentioned, this embedded narrative of suspicion is far from uncommon. What drives its widespread proliferation is the fact that it is actively promulgated by self-interested politicians and an uncritical, parrot media.Richard Jackson, Director of the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Otago, suggests, “for public officials, what could happen in future acts of terrorism now assumes greater significance than what has happened in past centuries of terrorist violence or what might, in all probability, happen.” The same logic applies to the question of the (terrorist) “asylum seeker”. For most people, the underlying fear of being overrun by an undesirable, culturally and socially foreign immigrant population, is at the very least, a recurring thought. It is easy to forget that contemporary Australia is a nation built by boat people, and that immigrants have played a long, and illustrious role in this country’s growth and development.
An Alternative Narrative
My alternative answer suggests that the 18 genuine asylum seekers who “chose” to return to Sri Lanka over Nauru, only did so because they thought Sri Lanka to be the lesser of two hells.
At the outset, this questions Julie Bishop’s assertion that Nauru is a “safe haven.” And there is evidence to illustrate that whilst Nauru may offer Tamils protection from the Sinhalese dominated Sri Lankan government, it throws up other, potentially more troubling dangers. There is extensive research into the severely adverse mental and physical health consequences of indefinite detention, a condition which will be in effect on Nauru. Indeed, inmates have previously spent over three years on the island under Howard’s Pacific Solution. What is more, the rudimentary conditions on the remote island, and the lack of any health or education services make Nauru close to uninhabitable.
If it can be argued that a detention centre in Nauru is an inhospitable environment for anyone to live in, it can certainly be argued that conditions in Sri Lanka may be more hospitable. This assertion questions the dominant understanding and application of the term “persecution”. Can persecution only amount to an immediate threat to one’s life through torture, execution or mass killing? Indeed, this is the definition applied when supporters of dominant narratives argue that it is ludicrous for a “real” asylum seeker to choose to return to the root of persecution. What if the definition of persecution was broadened to include generalised, less severe forms of harassment, mistreatment and abuse of the minority Tamils, as is currently the case in Sri Lanka? This kind of abuse or harassment might include housing Tamils in detention camps for security purposes, restricting mobility, and obstructing the right to education, healthcare, and access to basic government services. This is also persecution. It is also arguably less severe than living indefinitely on a remote, foreign island without family and devoid of access to these services anyway. Hence the choice to return.
Lastly, the oft-repeated assertion that boat journeys are highly dangerous and extremely expensive suggests that only the most desperate people, not economic migrants, or scheming opportunists, would undertake such a journey.
It is possible to construct an answer to the question of why an asylum seeker might “choose” to return to their place of persecution without calling into question the legitimacy of their asylum claim. It is important for us to understand that these narratives exist, and that they lie buried beneath other subjective but overwhelmingly dominant perspectives.