Why do our governments treat asylum seekers with such cruelty - and why do we give them permission to? Our behaviour masks a failure our politicians dare not admit to, writes Simon Copland.
If it weren’t clear already, it has to be by now. Last week, polling conducted by the Sydney Morning Herald showed that:
A strong majority of Australians, 60 per cent, (also) want the Abbott government to “increase the severity of the treatment of asylum seekers.”
It has confirmed everything many have thought for a long time. Australians are clearly just a bunch of racists who want to punish asylum seekers for the sake of punishing them. No matter how harsh we are, whether it is denying asylum to anyone who comes by boat, or locking people up in cruel conditions in detentions centres, all we want to do is hurt people more and more. We clearly hate asylum seekers.
Clearly the question we need to answer is ‘why’? It is the question I, amongst many others, have been asking for ages. Why are we so disposed to hate people whose only crime is to come to Australia by boat? Why are we so determined to treat people so cruelly? Why is this such a defining issue for Australian politics?
Looking into it however, I cannot help but think that we’re asking the wrong question. Because when I ask the question, ‘why do we hate asylum seekers’, the only response I can come up with is ‘we don’t’.
Let’s just have a look at some evidence. Because if you look around you can see that whilst of course racism exists in Australia, it is hard to find it to be the only or even the overwhelming cause of our policies directed towards asylum seekers. Richard Cooke explains it like this (a long quote I know, but Cooke explains it better than I could):
Take Europe as a control group – it’s often favourably featured in those infographics – and the contrast is telling. Political parties far to the right of a One Nation wet dream hold serious political sway in Austria, the Netherlands, France, Finland, Italy, Greece, Belgium, Denmark, Hungary and the Baltic states. In many of these places they have the power to make or break governments, or even challenge for presidencies. Cynics might say Australia’s political system dealt with the lunar right by incorporating its ideas, but there is little in the Liberal or Labor platforms that would placate supporters of the Front National.
There’s a simple reason that other Western countries have more anti-immigration political parties than Australia – their populations are significantly more racially intolerant. In Italy 94% of people say immigration is a ‘big problem’. Three-quarters of the French say Islam is incompatible with their values. In 2003, at the height of ‘we will decide’ fever, Australia was the country polled second most favourably disposed to immigration, behind only Canada. More than 60% of us said we wanted immigration to increase or stay the same. In Germany that figure was 22%. These are not cherry-picked figures, but representations of a long-standing and broad trend. For a bunch of racists, we are unusually tolerant.
This ‘toleration’ can be seen in anecdotal evidence around the country. For example, a petition to stop the deportation of Pakistani man Ali Choudhry last week amassed over 140,000 signatures within a matter of days, whilst organisations such as the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre have amassed so much non-Government funding that they can hire 45 staff members. Clearly there is some compassion out there. The recent concern for ‘deaths at sea’ is the mainstream expression of this compassion. Whilst many (including myself) have seen it as simply a cover-up of real reasons for new policies, it has clearly captured the emotions of many – emotions I simply cannot argue are fake.
This is not to say that racism doesn’t occur in Australia, nor is it to deny the experiences of racism that immigrants often face. Racism and just general hatred are clearly part of the picture. But I just don’t think it paints a full picture at all.
So what is the answer then? If we are so tolerant, why do continue to treat asylum seekers with such cruelty, and then demand even more. Well, to quote Bill Clinton, “it’s the economy stupid.” Tad Tietze explains it like this:
Those reasons (for the continued asylum debate) are defined primarily by the political needs of elites to create scapegoats and distractions for their failure to provide security to ordinary people already living here – not of borders, but of a social kind. That is, they seek to displace social insecurity into a defence of national integrity, here in the form of ‘border security’, in the process shifting blame for social ills onto an external ‘other’ that is threatening to invade and disrupt our livelihoods and cohesion. While previously the natural territory of the Right, the mainstream Left has been drawn into playing this game the more it has abandoned its traditional support base in favour of pro-corporate neoliberal policies.”
In a neoliberal world, in which economic insecurity in particular is on the rise, our politicians have used asylum seekers as scapegoats to deal with their economic failures. They’ve used them as scapegoats to avoid any backlash for the problems their neoliberal policies are causing.
We can see good examples of this from around the world. In Greece for example, there has been a strong correlation between the recent economic crisis and opposition to immigration. The right in Greece, in particular the far-right as represented by Golden Dawn, have targeted immigrants as the reason for the country’s economic problems. This has represented a potential failure of others to clearly articulate the real issues going on (noting of course that the far left SYRIZA have grown in Greece as well) – the failures of neoliberalism and the EU economic policies that have become part of that.
If you want to find some of the best evidence for this in Australia, you should go back and look at the poll I quoted at the start of the article. As well as finding that 60% of people want the Government to treat asylum seekers more harshly, it also found that 59% of people thought that those coming by boat were not genuine refugees.
The statistic is telling as it reflect a concerted campaign by Governments, both ALP and Coalition. We know the stories. Asylum seekers are simply economic refugees. They spend ‘thousands of dollars’ to come here, which clearly shows that they are rich and are just doing this for economic gain. They are here to ‘steal our jobs’. It has always played part in the asylum narrative – a narrative that recently expanded out targeting people on 457 visas. The asylum, and immigration narrative in general, has become one about economics.
And this is on purpose. It is a concerted campaign. Asylum seekers, and now immigrants in general, have become scapegoats for our economic insecurity. Shielding ourselves from the economic concerns we face today, we have placed the blame on immigrants – whether it is asylum seekers or those on 457 visas.
So what is the solution?
Whilst the work and campaigns done by advocates should continue – work that taps into our values of compassion and concern for others – a new angle also needs to be taken. We cannot just think of asylum and immigration politics as just being about race and compassion anymore. It is also about economics. And that means that the left needs to do a better job at attacking our economic realities. We need to target the real causes of the problems we face – the neoliberal economic agenda and the Government policies that have supported that.
The right has done an excellent job of targeting asylum seekers using economic means and what we need to do now is turn that around – showing that it is in fact our leaders who are causing these problems, not people arriving here by boat.