Leaky Boats and Sinking Feelings

Last weekend I was watching QandA (my mistake, I know) when Janet Albrechtsen decided to weigh in on the Australian debate over asylum seekers. She claimed that the Australian government’s solution, stopping the boats with what is as close to a brick wall as they can get without actually building one, produces an essentially humanitarian consequence. Because at least asylum seekers aren’t drowning.

Now I know that I am talking to a largely converted audience when I start with Janet Albrechtsen as my piñata, but there is a logical fallacy here, and it actually only really hit me when this particular exchange was occurring. For reference, let us return to the transcript of the episode:

Janet Albrechtsen: This is about stopping the people smuggling model,  alright?
Dave Hughes: [Tony Abbott] said it was a good humanitarian outcome, what’s going on now. So, what, do they get to take their lifeboats back to Afghanistan, do they? What goes on? I mean, these people are still –
Janet Albrechtsen: I think it’s better that people are not drowning at sea. I think that’s a good humanitarian outcome.

The exchange is at 45:12 to 45:27 on the iView video recording, for those who are interested. As soon as anyone talks about “stopping people smugglers” my hackles are already raised, but that’s a distrust of rhetoric more than anything else. I accept that there may be some people smugglers out there who are in it for the money at the cost of human life and dignity. I don’t see how this is any worse than Chinese companies recruiting 457 visa construction workers, taking their passports and forcing them to live in overcrowded housing while they work for seriously substandard wages – none of which has generated any media or government attention at all, really – but that’s beside the point. The role of the people smuggler is in many other cases essentially to facilitate escape from horrific conditions of war and persecution. Robin de Crispigny’s The People Smuggler is a very good account of this, if you don’t trust my scummy pinko credentials.

The assumption underlying Albrechtsen’s argument here is that there is some other, infinitely more kind option awaiting refugees who either wait for processing, or maybe wait it out at home. The fact is that we are not talking about a litter of puppies that have been put in a sack with a brick, and that might have escaped drowning if only they had been given to the RSPCA for rehoming. Puppies given over to the RSPCA tend more often to get euthanised; and while I am of course not suggesting that the UN is killing refugees they can’t get rid of, the essential point in both cases is that refugees and unwanted animals stay in captivity because someone has to want them, if they’re going to get out. The Australian government clearly doesn’t want refugees. If there’s little to no chance of being wanted, and escaping a life of semi-incarceration, why wouldn’t you try the back door instead? It is because they don’t want them that we see Scott Morrison resorting to thin arguments about “economic refugees” in an attempt to convince everyone that they really didn’t need to come here anyway.

Most refugees who cross through several national borders risking famine, separation, incarceration and death are not doing this on the off-chance of higher wages in Australia. To me, this line of thinking sounds eerily similar to American commentators during the 1840s. They decried the immigration of Irish refugees from the potato famine as both a new wave of unskilled labour unequipped to support itself in the America of the day, and as a clear and present racial threat. It didn’t help that the most obvious thing to such Americans about the Irish was that they had been sponsored by the British government in their hundreds of thousands to fuck off and die somewhere else. Nor do asylum seekers take these incredible risks because they might eventually reach a firmly democratic nation and have the chance to convert exactly no one to the cause of violent jihad.

Mostly, they attempt this nigh-suicidal journey because if they stay at home they are going to be killed. That or their families are going to be killed, or split up after the deaths of some family members, and the fate of children in such a situation is anyone’s guess. If they choose to go to a refugee camp, they’re looking at at least six years just hanging around waiting for some overworked UN caseworker to get around to them. At this point, their children will be sent to a country where they like as not won’t know the language and will receive minimal education. These are the kinds of situations that produce a life of poverty people like Albrechtsen simply cannot imagine. That’s if they don’t commit suicide out of sheer despair, or someone in a gigantic camp with its own hierarchies of power and violence doesn’t kill them first.

My point is not so much that refugees are dying, or being sent to die somewhere else as a result of government policy. Neither is it that people like Janet Albrechtsen are paid upwards of $250,000 per year to spout the kind of bullshit that sends fertiliser factories out of business. It’s that it took a white person being wrong on TV, after I was already keyed up for self-righteous umbrage by discussion of the Daily Telegraph for me to wake up and realise that this situation is absolutely indefensible. I didn’t care that much about refugees before this episode. I understood intellectually that what was being said by the Liberal Party (and the Labor Party) and their supporters was wrong. But that’s not the same as the gut realisation that people are dying needlessly, or being incarcerated for years on end without a hope of release, because good gender non-specific individuals are doing nothing.

As a result, much to my surprise, I have decided to go to the next meeting of the ANU Refugee Action Committee. I’ve been asked to before. I have said “probably”, and then conveniently forgotten that this organisation even exists. But this is not good enough. Someone who claims to speak with my voice is shouting loudly across the Asia-Pacific to these ungrateful foreigners, “Fuck off because we’re full; and you were going to die anyway.” The genteel phrasing of a “humanitarian solution” is fooling nobody. If you’re concerned as well, come along to Union Court on Monday the 25th at 12 pm. If you’re not concerned, listen very hard to the aspects of this debate that seem fine and reasonable – they’re probably not.