The foreigner is the political precondition of the nation state… Costas Douzinas.
Australia, while remaining a signatory to the United Nations Convention relating to the status of refugees, long since gave up any pretence of observance of international human rights in favour of a nationalistic observance of state sovereign rights. State sovereignty permits governments the right to exclude persons the state deems unworthy of inclusion.
The power of the state to exclude is perhaps the fundamental state power.
Ideological, racial, economic and political factors are the criteria for deciding who is and is not included in the nation-state. As Hannah Arendt noted, statelessness is not a problem of geographical space, but of political space.
The stateless person has as their only descriptor the fact that they are human. Ironically, this strips them of their right to human rights, rights which are only available to them if they are citizens of a state. It is not enough to be human. One must also belong to a state in order to claim human rights. Arendt suggest that the only fundamental human right is the right to have rights. Asylum seekers who have a legitimate right to arrive by boat in Australia are stripped of the right to have rights once their vessel is intercepted by Australian authorities.
Persons seeking asylum from persecution who attempt to access Australia by boat are singled out for exclusion, and though their method of arrival is perfectly legitimate under the Convention, they are criminalised and detained in off-shore camps. Detention camps on Nauru and Manus Island are all that is offered to de facto stateless persons, that is, refugees unable to claim the human rights afforded by citizenship. Persons detained in these camps are exempted from “normal” laws. The methods of addressing their plight are containment and repatriation, or resettlement in another country, rather than granting asylum and legal integration into the Australian nation.
This action against asylum seekers is justified as being in the “national interest,” an abstract concept in which the mystical “nation” is prioritised over the interests of singular human beings who are dispossessed non-nationals, and therefore considered rightless. The state is committed to protecting only legitimate members of the nation, the rights of asylum being in conflict with the rights of the state. There is in Australia no concept of offering sanctuary and refuge to those fleeing persecution who arrive by sea. Their loss of place in the world, their loss of belonging, has the effect of reducing them to physical objects, bereft of human dignity, because without rights one is not a person, one is not an agent in the public realm.
In reaction to this deliberate and systematic dehumanisation, asylum seekers held in detention camps on Manus and Nauru behave as did those held in mainland camps such Woomera and Baxter. They sew up their lips in a symbolic protest against the silencing of their voices. They harm their own bodies. They suffer depression and anxiety, and hopelessness. Their suffer the abjection of those who have ceased to belong to any state.
Sovereignty, like religion, is a constructed knowledge imbued with faux mysticism. The Abbott government’s “Operation Sovereign Borders” appeals to this pseudo-mysticism, offering citizens the opportunity to come together in unity, led by a concerned, fatherly government to protect our nation against the breaching of its borders by the unwanted, stateless foreigner. As Douzinas points out, there can be no nation state without the foreigner; one must have someone to protect oneself from in order to maintain the perceived power of sovereignty.
The asylum seeker is equally imbued with mysticism, of the most negative kind as the assumption is peddled that merely due to the fact of her search for asylum she is morally corrupt and corrupting. Her crime is breaching sovereign borders. She is used as a scapegoat to unite citizens and strengthen boundaries, ultimately supporting the ideology of sovereignty.
What we are doing in this country is wrong. The idea that we must treat people horrifically in order to discourage others from attempting sea journeys is morally corrupt. Action the state is legitimised to take against one group can be and will be extrapolated to other groups, when the state deems it in the national interest. When the fate of human lives is secondary to the rights of the state, we are all at risk.
Is it really in the interests of the citizens of this country that so many billions of taxpayer dollars are eaten up in the pursuit and detention of a relatively few people who arrive here by boat, in the pursuit of the maintenance of our sovereign borders? No, it isn’t. It is, however, in the political interests of both major parties. The cost to the taxpayer of pursuing these political interests is obscene, and it is rising, as this graph from The Conversation shows:
The major parties continue to persecute stateless persons seeking asylum and refuge, solely because of their method of arrival. Australia moves further and further away from the undertakings we made when we signed and later ratified the Refugee Convention. Human beings suffer appallingly in concentration camps, out of sight and out of mind. The matter of the future of stateless persons is a massive global problem, and one that will continue to increase. Australian governments have long thought it is a problem that they can continue to outsource to countries far less capable than are we of providing the possibility of a decent life to those who by no fault of their own, are dispossessed of the lives they once had. This cannot go on. In all conscience, it cannot go on.