Asylum seeker policy: from brutal to bizarre

Former ABC Media Watch host Jonathan Holmes has predictably been pilloried on social media over the last few days for an article about asylum seeker policy that repeats some themes I have discussed here at Troppo over the years.  Holmes picks up especially on suggestions that perhaps a viable solution to replace the current detention gulags on Nauru and Manus Island would be a genuinely regional processing compact supported by an agreement for Australia to grant preferential migration to asylum seekers from Indonesia and Malaysia :

Both blithely ignore that the people in Indonesia and Malaysia who want to come to Australia are not Indonesians or Malaysians. Overwhelmingly, they are Hazaras from Afghanistan, and Iranians; if the way to Australia were open, they would now be Syrians too. They’ve already travelled a long way – helped by people smugglers – to get to Indonesia, and there are hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, more where they came from.

Taking a large proportion of would-be Australian migrants from Indonesia would only induce more to follow; very soon there would be far more than any orderly migration program could accommodate. The Indonesians and Malaysians would not thank us for that. That’s why we source so much of our refugee intake from camps close to where they’ve fled from: Somalis and Sudanese from Kenya, Afghans from Pakistan, and so on.

As Europe is discovering, there is an almost limitless demand, through the Middle East, and central Asia, and Africa, for a better, safer life. Whether these people are “genuine refugees” or “economic migrants” may matter to the lawyers, but is immaterial in policy terms.

The brutal fact is that we cannot take them all. We cannot, without risking social disruption, take more than a tiny fraction of them.

Holmes is quite right, of course, although that doesn’t mean Australians can or should continue to condone and ignore the brutalising regime of gulags currently run under our nation’s auspices.  At the very least it isn’t beyond our government’s capacity to operate and resource much more open and humane centres with decent medical and education facilities, preferably in neighbouring countries that aren’t corrupt kleptocracies. Whether less desperately crooked regimes would actually be willing to help Australia out is another question.

Populist Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek makes similar but more wide-ranging points in an article about the current huge influx of African and Middle Eastern refugees into Europe:

So what to do with hundreds of thousands of desperate people who wait in the north of Africa, escaping from war and hunger, trying to cross the sea and find refuge in Europe?

There are two main answers. Left liberals express their outrage at how Europe is allowing thousands to drown in Mediterranean. Their plea is that Europe should show solidarity by opening its doors widely. Anti-immigrant populists claim we should protect our way of life and let the Africans solve their own problems.

Which solution is better? To paraphrase Stalin, they are both worse. Those who advocate open borders are the greater hypocrites: Secretly, they know very well this will never happen, since it would trigger an instant populist revolt in Europe. They play the Beautiful Soul which feels superior to the corrupted world while secretly participating in it.

The anti-immigrant populist also know very well that, left to themselves, Africans will not succeed in changing their societies. Why not? Because we, North Americans and Western Europeans, are preventing them. It was the European intervention in Libya which threw the country in chaos. It was the U.S. attack on Iraq which created the conditions for the rise of ISIS. The ongoing civil war in the Central African Republic is not just an explosion of ethnic hatred; France and China are fighting for the control of oil resources through their proxies.

But the clearest case of our guilt is today’s Congo, which is again emerging as the African “heart of darkness.” Back in 2001, a UN investigation into the illegal exploitation of natural resources in Congo found that its internal conflicts are mainly about access to, control of, and trade in five key mineral resources: coltan, diamonds, copper, cobalt and gold. Beneath the façade of ethnic warfare, we thus discern the workings of global capitalism. Congo no longer exists as a united state; it is a multiplicity of territories ruled by local warlords controlling their patch of land with an army which, as a rule, includes drugged children. Each of these warlords has business links to a foreign company or corporation exploiting the mining wealth in the region.

According to Zizek, the root cause of the huge global flow of “refugees” is global capitalism. It’s true in quite a few (though not all) cases that ill-advised and exploitative “neocolonial” interventions have destabilised poor countries and precipitated large refugee flows.  However, one would suspect that the “pull” factor represented by the lure of affluent western lifestyles would still generate large migration flows even in the absence of western military interventions.

Zizek has a stab at suggesting solutions to the problems he diagnoses, but his cure is almost certainly much worse than the disease.  He proposes a range of authoritarian interventions, including forcing European/western nations to take substantial flows of refugees; forcing the refugees to go where they’re sent; forcing wealthy Middle Eastern nations like Saudi Arabia to take a fair share of refugees (they currently take none); and sending large UN peacekeeping forces to stabilise the assorted African and Middle Eastern failed states: “military and economic interventions that avoid neocolonial traps”.  How the citizens of these states would manage to distinguish such benevolent military interventions from the neocolonial capitalist ones that created the problems in the first place, and why they would respond any differently, is not explained.

Zizek’s most bizarre prescription, however, is to advocate the overthrow of global capitalism by communism!  He cunningly left this contention until the end of his article, otherwise I would have stopped reading long before.  Moreover, I wouldn’t have inflicted his article on Troppo readers.  Nevertheless, Zizek eloquently makes some important points that most participants on both sides of the asylum seeker debate prefer to ignore.

His prescriptions for solving the problems also highlight the despairing point with which Jonathan Holmes finishes his much shorter article:

But I don’t know what the alternative policy should have been in the past, or could be in the future.

I’ve had a stab at various asylum seeker policy prescriptions myself over the years. They have been rather less bizarre and authoritarian than Zizek’s ideas, but probably just as unlikely either to be tried or to succeed.

Finally, the most powerful point Zizek makes is to emphasise that rapid climate change is likely to make large-scale spontaneous migrations an even larger global problem within the next few decades:

The main lesson to be learned is therefore that humankind should get ready to live in a more “plastic” and nomadic way: Rapid local and global changes in environment may require unheard-of, large-scale social transformations. One thing is clear: National sovereignty will have to be radically redefined and new levels of global cooperation invented. And what about the immense changes in economy and conservation due to new weather patterns or water and energy shortages? Through what processes of decision will such changes be decided and executed? A lot of taboos will have to be broken here, and a set of complex measures undertaken.

God knows what those measures might be.  More likely lots of big walls around wealthy nations like Donald Trump’s one to keep out Mexicans, rather than “new levels of global co-operation”.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Nicholas Gruen
7 years ago

Thanks Ken,

I’d only vaguely heard of Žižek before. In addition to having cool curly things above his name he certainly has a good turn of phrase.

Those who advocate open borders are the greater hypocrites: Secretly, they know very well this will never happen, since it would trigger an instant populist revolt in Europe. They play the Beautiful Soul which feels superior to the corrupted world while secretly participating in it.

I thought Soros’ intervention was more constructive, but I’d be interested in your views on it. He mainly sees it through an economic lens.

paul frijters
paul frijters
7 years ago

yes nice piece, and in terms of the money quote :

“More likely lots of big walls around wealthy nations like Donald Trump’s one to keep out Mexicans, rather than “new levels of global co-operation”.”

Absolutely. Rumors of the death of the nation state have been gravely exaggerated….

Having said that, I think your idea to siphon off an Island to transport lots of immigrants to who essentially form a new society there (which is something others have argued too) is not completely fanciful. Europe is pretty desperate and they have lots of islands far away. I for instance believe the Falklands to still only have a population of a few thousand whilst there is certainly the food-raising capacity there for hundreds of thousands, if not millions…..

Edward Carson
7 years ago

Trust a communist to take to heart Rahm Emanuel’s infamous comment “You Never Want A Serious Crisis To Go To Waste”.

Zizek observes the western world being very concerned over hundreds of thousands of dysfunctional states’ citizens risking all manner of hardships and possibly life, to travel and hopefully obtain access to wealthier and safer lands. And what is his response to this problem which allegedly will even be exacerbated by climate change? Try and sell the international abolition of capitalism, state sovereignty and property rights.

David Walker
7 years ago
Reply to  Edward Carson

Well played.