Asylum seekers: turning back the ocean tides

The asylum seeker debate is an expedient way for politicians, and probably corporate interests, to distract the citizenry from difficult domestic issues and circumvent pressure for progressive social change. Focusing interest and energy on winning the war against “people smugglers” orillegal maritime arrivals’ helps to maintain the status quo. It also gives government an opportunity to flex its muscle, to remind the public of the need for and efficacy of government at a time when government continues to be completely ineffectual in many other areas.

Operation Sovereign Borders’ weekly media briefings are the consolation prize for shutting down information flows.  No details about self-harm incidents in detention centres are published and taxpayers are spared the discomfort of hearing about the enormous costs of the entire production.

At its present level the ongoing “debate” about asylum seekers is an expression of the decay in both our thinking and in our society more generally. It’s difficult to imagine how far the consequences of our infatuation with “border patrol” will stretch.

Sadly, Australia isn’t alone on that score.

One subject in a disturbing recent short film documenting the everyday life of migrants in Athens points out:

“When they say the election time is coming the Ministers and the Party Members all use to come out and rage about immigrants. They keep manipulating the Greek people to hide their faults. When they find out that some of the Greeks started to wake up they give us to them, the foreigner, to eat.”

WikiLeaks Cables help to explain why “foreigners” have climbed high on the political agenda.  In recent years Greece has faced a significant increase in migrants attempting to cross into Greece ‘as a destination point or a stop-over en route to other parts of Europe and beyond.’ Many come from conflict zones in the Middle East, South Asia and Africa. Under Dublin II [recast this year as Dublin Regulation III], Greece is responsible for their asylum applications as the European Union country of first entry.

Greek officials level much of the blame on Turkey for failing to prevent immigrants embarking and being unwilling to accept practically any of them back, despite Turkey having signed a bilateral agreement on return. This has ‘exacerbated tensions between the two Aegean nations.’  They allege Turkey’s complicity in transporting the migrants and police corruption. This is all meshed with a deficient asylum process, European Union regulations, various states’ laws, an overwhelmed and poorly-trained police force which has “never really been cleaned up” following the fall of the Greek military junta in 1974”, an undersized and ill-equipped Greek Coast Guard, overcrowded detention centres and resource-strapped local authorities. Greek officials are unable to find a solution.

Many within the Greek community felt ‘the burden of such a large number of aliens on the small island communities was creating social tensions.’ Add to that the weight of the European debt crisis and ‘immigrants’ facing a lack of legal status and opportunities for economic and social integration in Greece and the stage is set for far-right political parties, their popularity surging on pro-nationalist anti-immigration platforms, to enter the fray with hard-line and heard-hearted ‘solutions’.

Footage allegedly from inside the  Pagani Detention Centre, Lesvos, Greece in 2009 helps to explain the despair, disempowerment and tragedy of those who flee persecution or who  are seeking a better life. Does it also help to explain why a person may engage in riots or self-harm?

WikiLeaks cables reveal a similar story in Italy. A 2004 cable from the Italian embassy reports that ‘Faced with a political imperative to stop waves of illegal immigrants, the Italian government has stepped up cooperation with Libya and adopted a policy of quickly returning to Libya immigrants who land illegally in Sicily…Given the lack of a unified EU policy on immigration, Italian officials believe they have no choice but to act to protect their borders..the long-term answer to the immigration problem would require broad cooperation among EU countries and beyond, perhaps between the EU and the Organisation for African Union. Poverty rates in Africa were growing and, ultimately, stopping the refugee flow would require increased developmental aid to poorer nations…’

In the following year the Italian Government remained ‘defensive about its immigration procedures, a situation exacerbated by the lack of a specific Italian law governing asylum procedures and political pressure to control illegal immigration. The Northern League Party, a key Berlusconi ally following the centre-right’s dismal performance in regional elections, strongly favours reduced immigration, so we do not expect the Government will support efforts to make asylum processing easier…’

Lampedusa is an entry point for seaborne migrants because of its proximity to North Africa. In 2009 the Lampedusans were outraged when the Italian government toughened immigration laws.   At that time most believed that ‘the EU needs to develop a common policy for dealing with seaborne migrants and to allocate funding to deal with the phenomenon. In the meantime, it is possible that people fleeing war and persecution will be unable to find asylum. And pushing migrants back to Libya may turn out to be akin to trying to turn back the ocean tides.’ Despite attempts to send strong messages to would be asylum seekers and people smuggling networks, the recent drownings off the coast of Lampedusa clearly demonstrate that no policy stops the instinct to flee chaos in search of freedom.

Regrettably we have witnessed similar tragedies with migrants bound for Australia

Nevertheless most governments around the world continue to ignore empirical research showing that ‘not even the most stringent detention policies deter irregular migration or discourage persons from seeking asylum and that regardless of whether asylum seekers show symptoms of trauma at the start of their detention, within a few months they do show such symptoms. ‘

The recent University of Oxford Forced Migration Review found that:

High income countries have been adopting increasingly restrictive immigration policies and practices over the last decade, including the systematic detention of undocumented migrants and asylum seekers. Such policies are now implemented by middle-and low- income countries as well (eg Mauritania, Libya, South Africa, Turkey). In some cases detention facilities are actually financed by high income neighbouring countries (eg Spain financing immigration detention facilities in Mauritania or the European Union financing immigration detention facilities in Turkey & Ukraine.)…efforts by core countries to deflect migratory pressures are leading to the externalisation of controls to states that are not considered main destinations of migrants and where the rule of law is often weak.  This raises questions about the culpability of western liberal democracies in the abuses detainees suffer…

Who then is responsible for asylum seekers and refugees?

When will western liberal democracies publicly concede the links between war, political and social unrest, economic deprivation and climate change, and asylum seekers having to leave their homes to seek safe harbour for themselves and their families? Will they ever look objectively at their culpability in creating the circumstances giving rise to the need to flee?

By skewing the debate away from individuals and towards demonised groups it has become popularly acceptable to ignore our humanitarian obligation to put people’s lives and health before politics and to deprive the persecuted of their liberty by placing them in detention centres.

The psychological process of dehumanisation is enhanced by the media projecting negative images of asylum seekers and refugees into the public domain.  The Migration Observatory media analysis across all newspaper types in the United Kingdom found that the most common descriptor for the word ‘immigrants’ is ‘illegal’.

Yet the propaganda campaigns of dehumanisation and invented fear continue, and will only result in brutal outcomes for targeted groups. The perpetrators of this brutality operate with impunity and without accountability and, having hijacked our common humanity, are free to perpetuate their crimes.

In terms of crimes against ethnic groups genocide is one extreme. A mid-point is taking punitive action against a particular group. To generate public support for that, or at least condonation of it, it is necessary to inculcate public fear of that group; once that’s been done the general population will condone policy action which would otherwise be an anathema, repulsive to them on ordinary conceptions of humanity, fairness and non-discriminatory practices.

As the late AJ Muste, American clergyman and political activist, put it:

‘…your real “enemy” is not the other human beings across the border or the persons of another race against whom you have been inflamed. In the deepest sense, the “enemy” is not a person….You realise that you are living in a civilisation under a political-economic system of which your nation and the enemy nation are alike a part, and which is going to pieces. It may once have served progressive human ends, but its foundations were largely laid in greed and injustice and violence; and, at any rate, it is now everywhere unable to function unless basic economic changes are made.’

Popular readiness for basic economic changes hasn’t yet crystallised, but it is long past the time when politicians and a compliant media have to accept the personal consequences of their politicisation and exploitation of what is fundamentally a humanitarian issue. Dehumanising and then demonising asylum seekers may confer political advantages but at what cost, both to the welfare of the refugees and to the humanity of the manipulated peoples of the destination countries?

The Europeans have at least recognised the need for a Common European Asylum System based on common standards with a high level of protection, dignity and human rights, but its success depends on how the Dublin III Regulation is implemented at a national level.

Australia, behind as usual, has at least recognised the need for a regional solution. Is it too much to ask that our government forsake spin and political point-scoring and instead focus attention and effort on gathering support for a co-operative regional, if not international, approach to dealing with asylum seekers and refugees fairly and above all with humanity?

Copyright Kellie Tranter 2013. All rights reserved.

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  • Jake

    Except the ‘regional solution’ proposed by Australia threatens to turn PNG, a nation with already huge socioeconomic problems, into Greece 2.0 by dumping all our humanitarian responsibilities onto them.