WEEKLY DISPATCH: Various perspectives on the asylum seeker debate

Posted on September 16, 2010 by


BY BEN HABIB.

Regular readers of Our Voice: Politics Albury-Wodonga will note that the asylum seeker debate has received regular attention on this blog.  With the race card well and truly back on the poker table of Australian politics, now seems as good a time as any to examine the many different angles on the asylum seeker story.  Like all complicated public policy problems, this issue is far from black and white (no pun intended).

The Border Security Angle

All sovereign countries are responsible for maintaining the integrity of their borders and protecting their territory and citizenry from potential external threats.  From this perspective, unauthorised arrivals of asylum seekers are a problem because their intrusion into Australian waters challenges the sovereignty of the Australian state, and because unscreened individuals of unknown background and integrity could potentially be a security risk.  There is an imperative to deter the hideous trade of people smuggling.  There is also a necessity to ensure that unauthorised arrivals do not pose a health risk to the Australian population.  From this point of view, it makes sense to quarantine unauthorised asylum seekers until health and security checks can be completed.

A key point of debate is whether the quarantine procedure should be carried out on the Australian mainland or in an “offshore” processing facility (such as the Howard-era detention facility in Nauru).  The key difference is this: if new arrivals are processed in Australia, by international treaty they are afforded certain legal rights and their claims are subject to oversight by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).  If they are processed offshore, these protections do not necessarily apply.

The Xenophobia Angle

From this angle, anyone of remotely exotic appearance probably arrived here illegally on a boat.  The xenophobe sees and Indian taxi driver and thinks “boat people”.  They see a Muslim woman wearing a hijab and think “terrorist”.  They see a Chinese student or a Sudanese teenager at a bus stop and think “illegal immigrant”.

Now it is normal for people to feel some unease when confronted with people who are obviously different.  However xenophobia goes much further, turning nervous curiosity into fear and fear into hatred.  We’ve all heard the crass ethnic stereotypes and the cringe-worthy racist jokes—obvious markers of the xenophobic mentality.

Let’s face it, there are many more xenophobes in Australian society than we care to admit.  If this were untrue, we would not see the regular recurrence of race politics at election time.  Such politics exposes the unfortunate cultural ignorance of people who espouse these views, as well as the callousness of the politicians who exploit it.  Nevertheless these views do proliferate in some sections of the community and they are part of the mix in the asylum seeker debate.

The Skills Shortage Angle

This perspective stems from the chronic under-investment of successive Australian governments in the tertiary education sector—both vocational and university—over the past two decades.  Unfortunately, neither the government nor the business community wants to properly invest in training a skilled workforce, which has led to the shortage of skilled labour that has capped Australia’s economic productivity in recent times.  The cheap solution is to imported skilled labour from other countries through a special visa category called the 451 visa.

It is true that skilled workers from abroad have filled important niches across the Australian economy where properly trained workers were lacking.  These immigrants have been integral to the productivity of many vital sectors of the Australian economy.

However, by outsourcing the training of our workforce abroad, we forestall the need for proper investment in the skilling of local talent.  It also brings a swath of foreign faces into our community and gives fodder to the brute imagination of the xenophobes who think of all immigrants as “boat people”.

The Overpopulation Angle

The asylum seeker issue also slots into discussion about an appropriate population for Australia.  From an ecological point of view, the Australian continent has a limited population carrying capacity.  In his seminal book Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, William Catton defined carrying capacity as the maximum persistently feasible human population load which a given environment can support indefinitely.  The ceiling for carrying capacity is set by the stock per capita of the least abundantly available indispensable resource, such as water, food or energy.  When the population load is less than the carrying capacity of a particular environment, there is room for population expansion.  If the population load exceeds the carrying capacity, overuse of resources and excessive waste products can unleash forces that reduce the population load to a sustainable level to match the decreased carrying capacity of that system.

An argument can be made that the Australian population has already exceeded the carrying capacity of its natural resource base, particularly with regard to water.  Groaning infrastructure pressure, under-supply of housing and urban traffic congestion adds weight to the ecological argument against further growth of the Australian population.

If one subscribes to this view, the annual immigration intake is an obvious place to start trimming the population numbers.  While carrying capacity is rightly gaining attention as an important policy consideration, particularly in light of climate change and peak oil, this type of argument can be dangerous to the social fabric if expropriated and bastardised by the xenophobes.

The Extortion Racket Angle

Many different people and organisations make money from the authorised movement of people into the country.  To “legally” enter Australia, foreigners must obtain an appropriate entry visa.  Depending on the visa class, these range in price from several hundred to several thousand dollars, generating millions of dollars of income for the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.

From this perspective, border security is less about legitimate quarantine and more about government rent-seeking.  The government is able to generate revenue by erecting barriers to the movement of people across its borders, setting itself up as the gate keeper collecting a toll.  This is not necessarily a bad thing.

If one is partial to a conspiratorial argument, illegal immigrants such as those who arrive by rickety boat are discouraged because by arriving outside of proper channels they sidestep the rent-seeking apparatus of the visa system.  There is logic to this argument although personally I find it too simplistic.

Because Australia’s visa conditions are quite complicated by global standards, short and long-term migrants often pay migration agents to take care of their visa arrangements for them.  The positive view of migration agents is that they expedite the processing of visa applications because they understand Australia’s immigration legislation and visa regulations.  A cynic would claim they are legal people smugglers, earning a parasitic living at the expense of a vulnerable group.

The Refugee Angle

To describe this point of view, I will tell the story of a 25 year-old Afghan asylum seeker called Mohammad, who I corresponded with while he was detained on Nauru between 2001 and 2006.  Afghanistan is made up of many different ethnic groups, though it is dominated by the majority Pashtun group.  Mohammad, however, was a member of the persecuted Hezara minority.  He was also a member of a secular democratic organisation campaigning against the Taliban.  This political affiliation led him to flee Afghanistan in fear of his life, leaving behind his wife and 3 year-old son.

Mohammad arrived in Australian waters illegally by boat and was detained on Nauru.  His initial claim for asylum was rejected yet he was forced to stay in Nauru because it was deemed too unsafe for him to be returned to Afghanistan.  As months of limbo turned into years, his incarceration, uncertain future, fear of retribution if returned to Afghanistan and isolation from his family took its toll on his physical and emotional health.

In 2006 Mohammad was granted a temporary protection visa and was allowed to live in the Australian community while his claim was re-evaluated, finding work in a small town south of Perth.  Upon arrival in Australia, Mohammad wrote to me with great joy, appreciative of the opportunity to live free and safe, and be treated as a human being for the first time in four years.

[Journalist Michael Gordon wrote a moving book called “Freeing Ali: The Human Face of the Pacific Solution”, which describes the plight of Afghans detained on Nauru during this period.  Mohammad’s story is included in this book.]

The Final Analysis

There is no simple way to analyse the asylum seeker debate and this is by no means an exhaustive list of the many different perspectives on this topic.  It is complicated.  It is messy.  It requires and deserves examination in all of its gory detail.  I have described some of the different ways in which the subject can be viewed.  I leave it to you to make your own mind up how you think the dominoes fall (and your mature thoughts in the comments section of this posting will be greatly appreciated).

My personal feeling is that all of these viewpoints are relevant to some degree.  Because of this complexity, it is both analytically lazy and morally disgraceful that this issue is kicked around like a political football for cheap political gain.  We, as a nation, are better than this.

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Benjamin Habib is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at La Trobe University, Albury-Wodonga. Ben’s research project projects include North Korea’s motivations for nuclear proliferation, East Asian security, international politics of climate change, and methodologies for undergraduate teaching. He also teaches Australian politics.  Ben undertook his PhD candidature at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, and has worked previously the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship.  He has spent time teaching English in Dandong, China, and has also studied at Keimyung University in Daegu, South Korea.

Ben welcomes constructive feedback.  Please comment below, or contact Ben at politicsalburywodonga@gmail.com.

The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of Our Voice: Politics Albury-Wodonga.

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