Today the Minister for Immigration, Chris Bowen will sign the deal with Malaysia that will see 800 boat arrivals exchanged for Australia’s re-settlement of 4000 refugees currently held in that country. As the government has already undertaken not to expel those who’ve arrived by boat prior to today’s deal, they will be no doubt hoping the threat in itself will be enough to “stop the boats.” If this is the case it will allow the government to avoid what will inevitably be the morally messy business of actually carrying out this proposed exchange of human lives, one lot to a very precarious future in a non-signatory country, the other lot to a safe future in Australia.
The fact that we can send 800 boat people to Malaysia immediately signals that we don’t consider them as human as either ourselves, or the 4000 we are re-settling in exchange. You do not send innocent people to extremely dubious futures if you acknowledge them as human beings. The only way to send 800 people to the conditions they will have to face in Malaysia is to first deny their humanity. It is first to deny their worthiness – they are not as worthy as either ourselves, or the refugees we are accepting in their place. We do not have to be as caring about their well being as we do about our own, or the well being of the “worthy” refugees we are re-settling. Why? Because they arrived by boat? Because of where they were born? Both?
These 800 people are not criminals. Our domestic laws allow asylum seekers to arrive here in any manner at all, without papers, and to request refugee status once they get here. The Gillard government could rescind this law. That would make boat arrivals law breakers. That would stop the boats. Permanently. The Malaysian solution is a one-off. After we reach our quota of 800 the deal is finished.
The Gillard government chooses to maintain the law that allows anyone to seek asylum and permits any manner of arrival. In a Kafakesque manipulation, the Gillard government criminalizes innocent people who are only doing what they are legally entitled to do, instead of changing the law. This is a very slippery slope, and one that should deeply concern all of us: today asylum seekers, tomorrow??
Australia was initially led down this very messy moral path by the Howard government’s racist response to asylum seekers who arrived by boat, exemplified in the events of the Tampa. With total disregard for our domestic law, and the Covenant we signed with the UN, Howard began a slanderous campaign against boat arrivals that reached its climax in the Children Overboard affair. We don’t want people who abuse their children in this country, he declared, conveniently overlooking the fact that we already have tens of thousands of people in Australia who really are abusing children, their own and others. Australians don’t abuse their children, was the racist message based on a lie. Muslim asylum seekers coming in boats do, and we decent Australians don’t want them. Racism. Pure and simple. Replace Muslim with Jew and see where that eventually takes us.
Shaken by the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, Howard then followed George Bush into the invasion of Iraq, based on the folded lie that those responsible for the attacks had something to do with Iraq, and besides, Iraq was hoarding weapons of mass destruction.
In reality, the extremists who struck at the heart of America were from Saudi Arabia and there were no WMDs, but the Coalition of the Willing were not about to let the truth stand in the way of a good opportunity to wage war. Bush had scores to settle on behalf of his father and the first Gulf War. And then there’s the oil. Impossible as well to go after Saudi Arabia as breeders of terrorists. The Saudi princes dine at the White House and invest in News Limited. Think Fox News, and Murdoch’s support for the Iraq invasion.
Regardless of these considertions, a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment focused on Iraq swept across the US and its allies, including Australia. You’re either with us or against us on terrorism, Bush declared, and we say who the terrorists are and where they came from. In a brilliantly executed piece of propaganda, Howard conflated boat arrivals and Muslims with terrorism, struck xenophobic fear into the hearts of many Australians, and won an election that had a mere few months earlier seemed un-winnable by promising to protect us.
However Howard, like those who’ve followed him, did not move to change the law that permits asylum seekers entry. One has to wonder why. If anything would “protect” us immediately and permanently, it would be the rescinding of that law.
The Australian public’s fear and hatred of boat arrivals has not subsided. Politicians have not ceased to exploit this fear for their own gain. We are as deeply racist in this country as we have ever been. The Malaysian solution is racist to its core.
And so to Norway. The right-wing Christian fundamentalist terrorist who allegedly carried out the massacre of over 90 Norwegians on Sunday hated immigrants. He expressed rabid anti Muslim sentiments. He thought his government wasn’t doing enough to keep Norway for the Norwegians. He has expressed hope that his actions will bring about a change in Norway. His slaughter of the innocents was, he claims, gruesome but necessary.
The Norwegian slaughter represents the extreme end of a continuum. Somewhere along that continuum is the Malaysian Solution. Somewhere along it are the folded lies about WMDs and alleged Iraqi responsibility for September 11. Somewhere along the continuum is the virulent right-wing xenophobia expressed by Howard, and upheld by the policies of the Gillard Labor government. Somewhere along it are Alan Jones, Chris Smith, Andrew Bolt, and the rest of the shock jocks who conspire to agitate a fear and hatred of Muslims, and boat arrivals in Australian hearts. The extreme outcome of their racist right-wing anti-Muslim anti asylum seeker rhetoric is the slaughter in Norway.
In Australia, the unthinkable has become normalized in the Malaysian solution. The Gillard government has singled out two groups of human beings, one it considers worthy of saving, and one it considers unworthy. There is nothing we can do to ensure the safety and well-being of this latter group. We know the conditions they will encounter. We will expel these people because they accepted an invitation we continue to unconditionally extend.
You can only take such action against people you consider less than human.
Normalizing official selection practices for human survival and well being is the slipperiest slope of all. Once it becomes acceptable to decide that one group is more worthy of survival than another, once that becomes government policy and is then executed by the expulsion of the “undesirable” group, a country is deeply morally fouled.
If there is any doubt about the racist core of the Malaysian solution, ask why asylum seekers arriving by plane are not transported to Malaysia? They are permitted to stay in this country while their claims are assessed. Generally they are not held in indefinite mandatory detention. The fact that they have papers is irrelevant to the law, which doesn’t require asylum seekers to have papers.
There is the law. And then there is government policy. In a healthy democracy there should not be discrepancy between the two. In a morally fouled country, there is increasing discrepancy between the two, and citizens should take alarmed note of such discrepancies.
The Malaysian solution is a marker of how far down the slippery slope we have already travelled. It is the most immoral action this country has taken thus far against boat arrivals. It reveals our racist heart, and our collective ability to dehumanize. Dehumization of asylum seekers has become increasingly normalized over the last ten years and our journey into these dark waters has brought us to the Malaysian solution.
The events in Norway are shocking. They did not take place in a vacuum, such events never do. A climate exists in which such madness can be rationalized and justified by terrorists and their followers. The rhetoric used in such justifications is no different from what can be heard and read in the media every day. It is the rhetoric of hatred of other, and fear of difference. Politicians and media of all persuasions whip up these fears for their own gain. We need leaders who are capable of calming the irrational, not feeding it to gain office.
Leaders who nurture fear, leaders who capitulate to the most base human emotions are, to use Gillard’s word, evil. They perpetuate evil. They nurture evil. They violate the moral law to further their own objectives. It is indeed appropriate to describe, as did Gillard, the Norwegian terrorist as evil. But evil has many faces, and evil resides quite naturally in the continuum. Our leaders would do well to re-aquaint themselves with its meaning.
Be careful what you sow. You may not be able to control what seeds and flourishes.