Dangerous Asylum Seekers

Acceptable Extremism before the Election

This is a hideous brush, but it is being used with impunity by those who should know better. Asylum seekers in Australia are being given another category of surveillance, or that, at least, is the suggestion of the senior Liberal senator Eric Abetz. His comments came in light of an assault by a Sri Lankan asylum seeker on a university student in Sydney.

The opposition member’s comments certainly got the intended reaction. According to Immigration Minister Brendan O’Connor, it was “the lowest form of politics” he had seen in “recent memory”. As well as he might, given that his own government has specialised in a particularly “low” form of politics on the subject of asylum seekers.

The reporting regime being suggested for asylum seekers would place them on a register similar to paedophiles after their release into the community. “To blame thousands of people because of one allegation is the lowest form of politics which I thought could not get any lower, until I saw Senator Abetz today compare people seeking asylum with paedophiles” (Sydney Morning Herald, Feb 28). Abetz’s own remarks were something like this: “There is a register in relation to those sex offenders and the community has spoken in relation to that, that they want a register.” He drew parallels between paedophiles and asylum offenders, stopping short of placing them “in the same category” (AAP, Feb 28).

Not that the government can claim the barely existing moral high ground here. Australia is the suspicious society, at the forefront of what is becoming a pan-Pacific offshore processing regime for asylum seekers. There are no reasons why a society can’t have regulations on citizens and non-citizens entering and exiting its borders – it is incumbent on any government to do so. But the fact that this wealthy country has such nerves is a testament to a kind of neuroses that would explain a society’s treatment of, well, sex offenders. Is it any surprise that releasing asylum seekers into the community is being treated as unleashing a form of dangerous bacilli?

Asylum seekers are often the last to be asked about rights. They got to a country on the rough side, throwing away papers, paying smugglers, transiting through ports and evading detection. Their entry into a country disposes of the chance that others might be allowed to join them. The door might be opened for a time, but closure is expected. Their escape is considered selfish, limiting and self-centred. Get away from a regime of oppression, but never allow others to get into the same mix. Today’s asylum seeker is often tomorrow’s Abetz.

Senator Abetz, German-born and locally addled, is a classic case of why refugee policy should be removed from certain people’s areas of judgment. Immigration for him is something that is reserved for others. He, of course, wasn’t one. He went through the “proper” channels. “If you want a cohesive society I would have thought it would be a good idea to say that somebody’s moving next door to you that might not be able to have all the English language skills that you might normally expect, or that they come from a traumatised background.” Furthermore, “It would be useful for the local police, for the local health authorities et cetera to be told as well.”

Abetz is a caricature, a clown of immigration policy, but his words have a suggestively dangerous import. The problem that Australia, Canada and the United States have faced at stages of their growth is that a nation of immigrants hates immigrants. The suggestion in Australia now is a further layering of regulation, surveillance, reporting that just might be taken up by the government of the day, however much the current immigration minister fumes. While Abetz is mocked he just might be testing favourable winds.

Let us be frank here. No major party in Australia wants asylum seekers, let alone processing them on shore. Each one is vying for an acceptably extremist pose that might sell well for a fearful electorate they pamper with a distastefully greased ignorance. Policy is not being sought here, merely knee-jerk politics. Australia is a distant, insular idyll that wants its ill-deserved privacy. Don’t, whatever you do, violate it.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and can be reached at: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.