The Politics of Xenophobia in Australia

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On the last weekend of February this year, over 750 candlelight vigils across Australia were held in honour of slain Iranian asylum seeker Reza Barati.  The detail of events that lead to Reza’s death remain hazy; the official version is that Reza died as a result of rioting inside a detention centre on Manus Island, an offshore processing site for refugees who reach Australia. It currently remains unclear if there will be an inquest into Reza’s death.[1]

The topic of asylum seekers polarises Australians; it is fair to say that for every person who attended a vigil to remember Reza, there could be another Australian who agrees with the Australian government’s zero tolerance stance on refugees. The sad fact remains that Australian governments can win elections by pursuing policies that persecute the already persecuted, and for over thirteen years, Australia breached various conventions by the United Nations in its treatment of refugees.

The language used to describe asylum seekers both colloquially and in the media is often dehumanising; they are referred to as “boat people” or “queue jumpers”.  There remains a perception that anyone who arrives on a boat is merely circumventing immigration laws and is doing something wrong and unfair; this perception seems to drown out shows of empathy and compassion such as the vigils for Reza. This perception has penetrated policymaking and manages to often be a major issue contested in federal elections.

It may be easy to point the finger at current Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his immigration minister Scott Morrison but the reality remains that both of Australia’s political parties, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and the Liberal Party, have pursued policies that have effectively imprisoned people who have not committed any illegal acts; according to Amnesty International, it is not illegal to seek asylum.  It is a human right to seek asylum by boat in Australia (UN Refugee Convention and Australian Migration Act 1958).[2]

Is the suffering of those from distant lands something Australians cannot comprehend? History suggests that over time it seems that the evolution of the policy of mandatory detention corresponds with a deterioration of empathy for asylum seekers from Australian voters.  The first wave of “boat people” were Vietnamese refugees fleeing the aftermath of the Vietnamese War and were welcomed by a sympathetic population, however, the Australian government which was headed by Malcolm Fraser at the time had a more cynical motive.

While the Fraser government claimed that by 1977 5600 refugees were being resettled every month in Australia, the reality was that in total, only 2753 refugees and 979 asylum seekers arriving by boat had arrived.[3] The initial sympathy expressed by the Australian people seemed to have faded and while it may have been initially in the interests of the Australian government to grant asylum to those seeking a regime it had previously fought in a war, staying in power became more important.

During the 1977 election, Fraser took a tougher stance on refugees stating that some Vietnamese refugees may have to be turned back, and claimed it was in the interests of the refugees who were arriving on dangerous vessels. This reasoning would later resurface when other Prime Ministers would attempt to make tougher stances on refugees seem more benevolent, rather than a means of winning votes. In the course of the 1977 election, six asylum seeker boats arrived in one day which fed into the growing fears of Australians however, external pressure from its Asia-Pacific neighbours, such as the US, who had already taken a large number of Vietnamese refugees meant that the Fraser government was obliged to expand its resettlement of Vietnamese refugees.

By the 1980s, the shift in Australian attitudes towards Vietnamese refugees was palpable, with then Immigration Minister Ian McPhee warning the Australian Parliament that boat loads of illegal refugees were approaching Australia under the guise of being genuine asylum seekers.[4] And so, the perception of the “queue jumper” was born.

In 1992, the Australian government (led by Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating) passed a policy of mandatory detention for refugees with bipartisan support. This effectively meant that new arrivals would be divided into two categories; those who were “lawful” and those who were “unlawful”. Those who were deemed unlawful were to be detained, and due to the high costs of mandatory detention, any individual deemed “unlawful” would be liable to incur costs for their detention.[5]

This policy laid the foundation for what would become of the legacies of John Howard’s time as Prime Minister. The Howard government took an even harsher stance on refugees; an example of this is the now infamous “Tampa” incident of August 2001. The Tampa was a Norwegian freighter that contained refugees from Afghanistan, and the Howard government seized the opportunity to use the boat and its passengers to score points in the lead up a federal election it was set to lose.

Despite the ship being in dangerous condition, the Australian governed refused its request for permission to unload passengers on Christmas Island, an Australian territory.  As a result, the Tampa and its passengers who were now ill with dysentery and hypothermia, was strained. Over the course of five days, the Howard government made it clear that no passenger on the Tampa would be allowed to set foot on Australian soil and rushed to pass the Border Protection Bill (2001) which gave the government the authority to remove any unauthorised ship in an Australia and to be able to use reasonable force to do so.

Eventually, the refugees were rescued and sent to offshore detention centres on the island of Nauru. The Tampa incident, combined with an increased fear of the other after the September 11 attacks helped the Howard government win the 2001 election. Howard followed the Tampa incident up with the Pacific Solution; not only were asylum seekers now to be detained mandatorily, but they would be detained in centres outside Australian territory, on island such as Nauru and Papua New Guinea.

The Tampa incident is not an isolated event. Last year, in the lead up to the 2013 federal election, ALP Prime Minister Kevin Rudd released a hard-line policy; no asylum seeker who arrives by boat, even if they were deemed genuine, would be allowed to settle in Australia and would be sent to Papua New Guinea for processing and resettlement.[6]

While Rudd claimed that this was a move to discourage people smugglers taking advantage of refugees, the timing of this policy suggests it was a cynical position taken by a government facing a humiliating defeat at an upcoming election. Over time, voters have pitted both major political parties against each other in a race to the bottom; with a poll last month revealing that 60 per cent of Australians surveyed wanted the Australian government to increase the severity of its policies towards asylum seekers,[7] a result which can be interpreted as being a by-product of fear and/or hatred. The issue extends far beyond the legal status of seeking asylum in Australia; the real issue lies in the xenophobia that is pushing these policies to the forefront of every Australian election campaign. The fact remains that asylum seekers arriving by boat make up less than 3% of Australia’s annual immigration,[8] so what are Australians afraid of?

As one of the developed world’s wealthiest and most prosperous countries and a willing participant in a number of military interventions and supporter of sanctions, it can be argued that Australia is obligated to provide asylum to those who are fleeing the aftermath of these actions.  Every election, a fear of the other dominates the agenda sometimes at the cost of more pressing issues for Australians such as healthcare, education and its aging population.

The majority of Australians, whether in the form of the media, the government, or voters, are complicit with the questionable morality of the country’s policies on asylum seekers. It is wrong to generalise and say that all Australians lack empathy or even an understanding of exactly how many asylum seekers reach Australian shores; the vigils held for Reza Berati suggests that there is a very large number of Australians who object.

However, the fact remains that both major parties have used asylum seekers as pawns to gain political leverage, and this would not be happening if the majority of Australian voters scorned such policies. It is easy to blame successive Australian governments for creating a haze of xenophobia in order to win elections but Australian voters are also complicit in a prolonged and sustained campaign against the human rights of asylum seekers.

Written by Keshia Jacotine