jump to navigation

Lost and at sea: the asylum-seeker debate in Australia August 14, 2013

Posted by southasiamasala in : Roberts, Michael, Sri Lanka , trackback

Michael Roberts

Electoral politics have swamped the debate on irregular migrants, the ‘boat-people’ that is, in Australia. There is no change of consequence in the contents of the debate, however. Rudd, Abbott, the Greens and letters to the editors of major newspapers continue to present many of the old shibboleths and oversimplifications that have skewed discussions of this issue for years. The motifs that appear again and again in most quarters also suffer from misinformation, exaggeration and fabrication, and ideological blinkers.

A self-evident fact is often glossed over: migration in modern times, whether legal, humanitarian or irregular, is a complex phenomenon. Given the diverse lands from which migrants have departed  for Australia, it follows that one must attend to regional differentiation in speaking about this topic. Yet sweeping generalizations are continuously voiced – not only by politicians and human rights lawyers, but also by concerned citizens of compassionate heart and, on the other side, by instranigent opponents to ‘illegal immigrants’.

Strands of Orientalist thinking which conceive of the ‘East’ as a source of inferior technology/morality and a potential contamination of Australian ‘purity’ sometimes thread the commentary. The focus on unscrupulous people smugglers and talk of ‘leaky boats’ sustain this implicit emphasis on the superiority of the Australian lifeworld.

That is one reason why ‘people smugglers’ are the whipping horse for all parties. Sensational moments where a boat or two has been sunk and figures such as ‘1100 lost at sea’ serve as foundations for this motif. But note the missing dimensions: 1) Over what period of time have 1100 lives been lost? 2) How many boats have reached Australian shores over the last five years as against the few that floundered?

Any evaluation must be guided by these figures, preferably broken down into their components. True, one can express one’s boundless compassion by insisting that ‘one boat lost is one boat too many’. But there are pragmatic issues involved in this subject and the people of compassion have yet to address a specific problem: namely, what can Australia do if nothing is done and the flow of irregular migration continues to spiral upwards over the next decade? Having myself argued for a liberal policy towards the in-migration of young people as a necessity for Australian society, this knotty question is one that I too have to address.

When legal activists and people of compassion front up to the TV and assert that there is no evidence that motives of economic self-advancement direct the asylum-seekers on boats, one is left aghast. This is intellectual deceit. It is deceit that flies in the face of video documentaries on Sri Lanka from Channel Seven and SBS as well as a recent report from Dinoo Kelleghen, a former Australian journalist with experience on the Refugee Review Tribunal. It is deceit powered not by economic self-interest, but by ideological blinkers. For some ‘good compassionate Aussies’ every asylum-claimant is a subject of persecution. Otherwise, they argue, why would they board leaky boats?  For such people the reasons why thousands of Sinhalese youth (usually male) went on multi-day trawlers (which are mostly sturdy and safe) to Italy in the period 1990–2002 remain irrelevant. That is, such inconvenient facts are rendered irrelevant as they are blinkered by an ideology of compassion that can lead to ignoring inconvenient facts.

Australia can never get to grips with this knotty issue without addressing a central issue: namely, the strong link between previous migration (both regular and irregular) and asylum-seeker migration. Sri Lankans, for instance, have migrated to Western countries over the last sixty years for a variety of reasons. Ever since the 1970s they have also migrated on a temporary basis to work in the Middle East. Remittances from both sets of migrants have been Sri Lanka’s principal foreign exchange earner over the last few years.

Encouragement, tales of success and remittance monies from both regular and irregular migrants have combined to generate some of the forces inspiring and enabling people to venture on irregular migration by utilizing the services provided by people-smugglers. The latter are entrepreneurs responding to a demand (which can be political or economic or a mix of both concerns).

This is the rub then for Australia. The PNG, Pacific or Malaysian paths of deterrence will not stem in significant ways the process whereby successful migrants in Canada, Europe, et cetera, assist their kin in venturing on irregular means of entry to Australia and other Western countries. A snowballing process of chain migration is at work here and yet, as far as I am aware, no one has deciphered this phenomenon in depth. The Australian debate will end up icebound in Antarctica if the relationship between regular migration, remittances and irregular migration is not addressed as an international issue of great complexity.


1. Ercelan - August 15, 2013

Is frequent use of the term “complex” a wish to just have the problem go away? Let me be ‘simplistic’ to assert that the roots of migration lie deep in economic history, and the spiralling inequity of the modern world drives migration both internally as well as across countries. Remittances far exceed ‘aid’ from labour recipient countries. If terms of trade for products remain as inequitable as they are then labour exports are inevitable. If decent work is unavailable to millions then they will migrate. For the absence of decent work, international capital incl that of Australia is responsible. But Australian labour too is guilty for supporting its living standards on the backs of ill-paid labour of the South rather than demand australian wages to be high enough and profits lowered so that labour of the south can be paid a living wage. Migrants often work alongside ‘natives.’ Why dont the latter as consumers and workers strive to ensure that these migrants and their families get no less than what an australian citizen is entitled to?