Wednesday, 5 January 2011

What really lies behind refugee policy?

This badge from 1906 shows the use of the expr...Image via Wikipedia
Source: Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC)

By Tad Tietze

The Christmas Island boat tragedy foregrounded debates that were already gaining in prominence and shrillness over the past year or so, disagreements over the ins and outs of Australia’s refugee policy.

I’m sure every reader of [ABC's] The Drum will roll their eyes when they read the subject headings: The threat of invasion. The jumping of queues. The risk to national security. The evil of people smugglers. Who is genuine and who is not. Push versus pull factors. The need for preventative detention. The value of deterrents. Australia’s international obligations versus its national sovereignty. The merits of onshore versus offshore processing. Whether women and children should be detained as well as adult men, and where. How we don’t let enough refugees in and how we risk opening the floodgates if we let too many in. How there is extreme focus on boat arrivals but minimal focus on visa overstayers.

If people feel like they’ve been here before, it’s because most of the arguments were regurgitated almost unceasingly from 2001 until the defeat of the Howard government in 2007. But what if these debates, rather than being the substance of the issue, were more a distraction – a sideshow – behind which the real reasons for these policies were hidden?

Notably, in the same week as there were tussles inside the upper echelons of the ALP over whether to toughen the government’s stance, the avowedly Thatcherite Conservative-led government of the United Kingdom was pushing through changes to liberalise refugee policy in that country, ending the “shameful” detention of children. It must have been disorienting for many progressive ALP supporters to see their party to the Right of a Tory administration on this issue.

It must also have been dispiriting for refugee supporters to recently see the Melbourne academic Robert Manne, a consistent advocate of a humane approach, speak pessimistically of the persistence of race politics in the national discourse, and to suggest the Left must accept the inevitability of state coercion of boat people.

Inconsistent and mutable

Yet any historic view of refugee and immigration debates and policies reveals a plethora of inconsistencies in the use of definitions, legal regulations and coercive measures. If there is one thing that is consistent it is the continual mutation of these policies depending on a complex mix of international and domestic factors. But the key to grasping these twists and turns is the domestic political logic that plays the most powerful role in determining policy and strategy, and that this helps to explain why dramatic, often startling, shifts have occurred since the end of World War II.

It is worth briefly looking at the migration and refugee policies of several Western nations over that period to see the patterns that emerge.


For 30 years after WWII, undocumented migrants are welcomed and encouraged to make up for population losses in the war in the context of a booming economy.

In 1966 the minister for social affairs declares, “Clandestine immigration in itself is not without benefit” – a good thing given 82 per cent of immigrants are informal, with most later “regularised” through access to permanent residency.

Recession in the 1970s leads to cuts to migration, denial of residency rights, and by 2000 up to 90 per cent of refugee applicants are rejected.

In recent months President Nicholas Sarkozy declares “war” against Roma travellers, threatening to strip them of citizenship and deport them.


Unlike France, “border control” is official policy after WWII, with “guestworkers” treated as temporary commodities to be “rotated” to prevent permanent settlement – but these rules are observed mainly in the breach. By the 1990s Germany has the largest population of irregular migrants of any EU nation.

With the economic downturn in the 1970s, governments apply increasingly harsh measures in response to anti-immigrant sentiment from right-wing parties, but the needs of industry make mass deportations and true “rotation” economically unviable.

Instead there are campaigns against “apparent” (non-genuine) asylum seekers, with no less than 18 changes to rules governing refugee status between 1983 and 1992.

In 2010 the conservative prime minister and even a prominent member of the centre-left SPD publicly attack multiculturalism and Muslim immigration.

United Kingdom

Policy after WWII is initially defined by racial limits on who are “appropriate” migrants – many Jewish Holocaust survivors are denied entry.

Demand for labour becomes so high that migration is opened up to former British colonies, with large movements from the Indian subcontinent.

A 1962 law even allows illegal entrants who manage to avoid detection for 24 hours the right to stay.
With the economic downturn of the 1970s, surveillance and checking of migrants increases but few actual deportations occur. Severe restrictions are placed on non-white Commonwealth immigrants by only allowing those with UK parentage.

In the early 1990s a big increase in arrivals leads to new laws against “bogus” asylum seekers, with the opposition Labour Party joining in the attacks. The rate of refusal of refugee applications rises from 16 per cent in 1993 to 75 per cent in 1994.

As recently as February, under the Labour government, the Home Office boasts of making Britain “a more hostile place for illegal immigrants”.

United States

From the 1940s large numbers of Mexicans enter the US as irregulars, many times more than are admitted through legal labour programs.

Governments turn a blind eye to this source of cheap labour until 1973, the year of the Oil Shock, when the media and politicians suddenly start to talk of the threat posed by illegal immigrants. In 1978 the CIA Director claims that Mexican illegals pose a greater security threat than the Soviet Union!

Despite this, the key economic role of irregular migrants leads to a 1986 government amnesty, allowing over 2.6 million to legally stay.

In 2010 Arizona passes a law to criminalise and deport anyone not carrying valid immigration documents.


Despite formal adherence to “White Australia”, post-WWII governments gradually widen criteria of who can settle because of intense demand for labour.

While net migration is scaled back a little in the 1970s it remains high and there is acceptance of over 90,000 Vietnamese refugees by the Fraser government.

In the early 1990s policies against boat arrivals are toughened by the Keating government, introducing mandatory detention. This policy is extended by Howard even though net immigration rises to historically high levels in the 2000s. Temporary work visas also become much more common compared with permanent residency.

While the details vary, some important patterns emerge across these countries.

Firstly, while politicians publicly separate “refugees” from “economic” migrants, and “legal” from “illegal” migration, such terms are used arbitrarily and politically. Migrants decide to move from their homes and networks of support for complex reasons, and their choices of route and method of migration (as well as destination) depends very much on their particular circumstances. What drives the responses of receiving states is much more related to economic and political trends within those societies. So the post-WWII boom saw active programs to encourage immigration, whether legal or illegal. Governments were willing to bend rules (on legality or ethnic origin) to ensure workforces grew.

With the onset of economic instability in the 1970s, increased emphasis was placed on the politics of perceived threats posed by migration, but usually by separating off a minority grouping as illegitimate and then focusing publicly-visible coercive efforts on them. Overall migration levels have remained relatively high, and large-scale amnesties for “illegal” immigrants (not just in the US but in many European countries) make a mockery of apparently tough distinctions between different groups of migrants.

The terms used to define migrants therefore depend on how particular states choose to label and manage particular groups. So “skilled migrants” can be praised while “boat people” are treated as unlawful. Those defenders of refugees, like the Greens, who call for cuts in the former to allow more of the latter, tacitly accept the notion that there is a moral and/or technical distinction between the two groups somehow separate to politics.

Secondly, the terminology regarding refugee rights in the 1951 Geneva Convention has been interpreted in different ways depending on the political intent of those applying it. More recently some Western governments have toyed with rejecting the Convention outright. The ability of states to do this suggests that a “rights”-based agenda to defend asylum seekers as “genuine” refugees is inadequate as the very definition of the rights being argued over is malleable and contested. The only consistent application would be to either ban all migration (a practical impossibility) or allow open borders, the latter idea once considered heretical but now increasingly discussed on both the Left and some parts of the libertarian Right.

Thirdly, while the era of “globalisation” since the 1980s has been defined by wealth being able to move around the globe more freely, it has been accompanied by greater restrictions on the rights of people to move.

The very Western nations that have exported neoliberal policies to the Third World have also sought to curtail the migration of people who may be suffering from those policies. This has become more apparent when people from countries ravaged by wars (openly or tacitly) supported by Western governments have been denied entry into those rich nations.

Thinking locally

Finally, it is worth examining in greater detail how domestic politics has been the key shaper of policies towards refugees specifically and migrants more generally.

For nation states to manage variegated social groups within common borders requires the development of national identities based not just on shared attributes but definition in opposition to an “outside” or an “other”.

If social groups with differing and often opposed interests are to be welded together ideologically, the state may see an interest in uniting them in common cause against foreign competitors or potential invaders. Yet at the same time, maintaining truly impervious national borders can be harmful to powerful economic interests.

Countries like Australia continue to be built on cheap migrant labour working alongside better-paid domestic workers. Short of closing borders completely, states repeatedly act to assert their ability to control who crosses them and the circumstances under which they cross them. This also gives states legitimacy in being able to manage domestic affairs.

Local social and political factors then condition the relative weight of various policies and approaches. Across most Western nations, the end of the long post-war boom led to governments acceding to (and initiating) anti-immigrant sentiment. Times of economic hardship are not shared equally, with big business and the wealthy usually demanding policies to make the working class and poor pay disproportionately for the economic downturn. The era of neoliberalisation since the 1970s has generally led to greater inequality and massive concentrations of wealth at the top of society, which has increased feelings of social dislocation and insecurity at the base of society.

Mainstream politicians who have implemented neoliberal policies have thus undermined their own electoral support. One solution to this problem has been to build constituencies through appeals to nationalism, displacing social insecurity into fears about competition over jobs and wages, or threats of invasion or terrorism. John Howard was particularly attuned to this, dropping open advocacy of extreme economic rationalist policies while manoeuvring to maintain a constituency including some sections of Labor’s working class base around themes of nationalism and fear of the other. The War On Terror led to an increased focus on control and disciplining of Arab and Muslim migrants. Most often the intent is not to actually stop the flow of migrants but to show that the government can deal with one particular group it defines as particularly troublesome. Howard’s actions in tying the response to the Tampa with 9/11 served as a model for many other governments to base their increasingly harsh immigration policies on. Here governments use the coercive function of the state to show that they are protecting their citizens from these threats, even if the alleged threat is negligible and inconsistent with their other policies.

Such actions are often temporarily effective in achieving a set goal – the Howard government’s Pacific Solution and harsh detention policies almost certainly kept boat arrival numbers low for a number of years. But they can also undermine political support over time, in part because they do not address the causes of social insecurity that they try to manage, and in part because their brutality provokes domestic dissent. Once Howard introduced WorkChoices, it was much harder for him to sell the idea that border security could keep people content, whatever residual anti-refugee sentiment existed in the community. Harsh restrictions can also make the government and state look weaker when they don’t work as promised. For example, Howard’s repeated redrawing of Australia’s migration borders risked reducing his policies to the level of farce. For Kevin Rudd, persisting with Howard’s line was untenable if he was to secure Labor’s vote, even if subsequent events have shown ALP leaders are still terrified they will be outgunned on migrant-bashing.

It is in the context of political calculations that we can understand the David Cameron conundrum.

Recognising that the Tory voter base has suffered secular decline, he has sought to reposition himself as a small-l liberal on certain social issues, trying to attract well-educated white-collar workers by appearing to be to the Left of Labour. Yet as the lure of anti-immigration politics is too great for the Tories as they embark on swingeing austerity measures, with Cameron slashing non-EU immigration and talking of pulling Britain out of the 1951 Geneva Convention.

Finally, despite the use of terms like “push” and “pull” factors and the constant focus on what the state is doing, migrants possess agency of their own and over time they connect with networks that have overcome the limits imposed by states. “People-smuggling” is just one arm of the complex web of formal and informal networks that people activate to move across borders to find a better life, and it is a creative one – matching increased policing with increasingly sophisticated workarounds.

Recognising that refugee and immigration policies are a function of domestic politics and not a technical attempt to deal with the realities of people movements helps free us from many of the interminable debates that have clouded the issue. It helps cut through the contradictions and hypocrisies of politicians when they claim to be securing our wellbeing with their harsh actions against others. It also exposes the elephant in the room, the social and economic insecurity that leaves people open to seeking scapegoats for their problems.

The invocation of worries about borders, ethnic tensions, terrorism and economic competition are so powerful because they have long been the stock-in-trade of political and economic elites seeking to define and enforce a common national identity and thereby pacify social divisions caused by inequalities of wealth and power. White Australia, for example, was a key plank of convincing militant trade unions to worry more about the potential threat of foreign workers than the reality of avaricious local employers.

It is in this context that we can see the dangers of the advice proferred by Robert Manne. Firstly it accepts at face value the idea that refugee-bashing is still as effective a political tool as it was in 2001. Yet the election of Kevin Rudd despite Howard’s continued use of dog-whistle politics was a clear sign that things have moved on. Here Manne is giving in to the same brilliant strategy that saw Julia Gillard legitimate every anti-migrant slogan Tony Abbott could conjure up – and almost lose the election in the process. Secondly, Manne misses how the coercive actions of the state reinforce ill feeling towards refugees. By treating them as “illegal” (even if formally they may not be), the government creates the perception that they must be doing something wrong and that they deserve cruel and unusual treatment. Manne’s preferred strategy will only entrench the very “irrational” ideas he opposes by having them legitimated through state practice.

If the effects of the Great Recession reach Australia, as seems increasingly likely, the resultant economic dislocation will undoubtedly encourage even more hardline attacks on refugees and migrants as ready scapegoats for social ills. The last time the world was wracked by a deep economic crisis, in the 1930s, extreme nationalism and persecution of ethnic minorities was a major feature of elite political strategy. Despite all the sound and colour around the specifics of Australia’s refugee “debate”, it is this base political function of migration policy that we should be clear on.

Tad Tietze is a public hospital psychiatrist who works in Sydney. He co-runs the blog Left Flank, and he tweets as @Dr_Tad.
Enhanced by Zemanta


Post a Comment

Related Posts with Thumbnails