Tag Archives: Hannah Arendt

Asylum Seekers: what it costs Australian governments to persecute stateless persons

12 Nov

 Asylum Seeker Three

 

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.

 

Stateless Persons UNHCR

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.

Asylum Seekers Two SMH photo

 

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 Conversation

 

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.

The vulnerability of children

7 Jun

Come forward to childhood, and do not despise it because it is small and it is little

As American philosopher and academic Judith Butler puts it in her book, Precarious Life: the Powers of Mourning and Violence, the condition of childhood is “a condition of being laid bare from the start.” In childhood, she continues, we inhabit “the condition of primary vulnerability…a primary helplessness and need, one to which any society must attend.”

The face of the child makes a powerful moral claim on us, none more so than the face of the suffering child. Children have no capacity to represent themselves. If we are unable to represent ourselves, as children or in adulthood, we “run a greater risk of being treated as less than human” Butler observes.

Vulnerability is an inescapable fact of existence, particularly in childhood, and a child alone, without country, home, family and protectors, is in a state of extreme vulnerability. That vulnerability can be respected, exploited, or denied by adults. In situations where it is exploited and/or denied the child is radically objectified, and constructed as less than human.

 The child seeking asylum is a child who is stateless and without rights. As Hannah Arendt observed, rightlessness follows from statelessness. Our human rights are dependent upon being part of a community that enacts these rights on our behalf, and offers a framework in which these rights can be realised. Refugee children have lost their place in the world: they do not belong to a political community from which they are able to claim the right to human rights. UN Conventions such as The Rights of the Child supposedly offer avenues for the protection of such children. But for these to have any meaning, signatory countries must be trustworthy enough to abide by our undertakings.

When signatory countries like Australia do not honour the rights the Conventions bestow on a stateless child, when we disregard our serious obligations, refugee children remain stateless, rightless, lost and utterly vulnerable.

As long as we do not grant the child’s dignity and sovereignty by honouring our commitment to the Convention, we continue to perceive and treat refugee children as objects.

We are defined by where we belong, who cares about us, and our fundamental rights as human beings. The profound sense of violation reported by survivors of childhood abuse is often described as soul damage. Perhaps it’s also realistic to think of that profound damage as the destruction and or denial of the rights that help to construct us as human, in the eyes of others, and of ourselves.

As survivors will agree, the journey back from that rightless position to the point where one can come to believe that one has even the right to have rights, is a journey of hardship, and struggle. Many do not make it through. In sending unaccompanied refugee children to a country that does not honour the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child we are condemning them to a rightless life, and denying them an opportunity that could be provided in this country for healing, and a productive adulthood.

Yesterday I heard a talking head comment that if the government allows any children to stay here, rather than send all of them to Malaysia, people smugglers will seize this opportunity to load their boats with children. Yes, that’s probably true. But, he went on, if there should be another Christmas Island tragedy, and a boatload of children are drowned, this will be a political catastrophe. Can’t argue with that.

But what struck me about his observations was that it’s perfectly acceptable in Australian public discourse for anything to do with unaccompanied child asylum seekers, or adults, to be framed in purely political terms. Not in human terms, involving compassion, understanding, desire to assist, responsibility or even concern for the welfare of kids. The only thing that counts is how events affect politicians and their party’s future.

We need no more proof that Australian politicians, echoing the sentiments of many in their electorates, do not see refugee children as human beings. They are objects, to be palmed off to another country as quickly as possible in an effort to minimize political fall out.

The moral dilemma any politicians with integrity face is that to demand that these children be treated as human as the rest of us means going against the tide, and possibly losing their jobs. There’s no room for respecting refugee children’s humanity, human rights, and human vulnerability, in Australia today. Our society is not one that, as Butler puts it, will attend to the child’s primary helplessness and need.

Better to be a cow.

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