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Migrant Justice in Settler-Colonial Australia, by Sam Levnad

How can we work towards refugee and asylum-seeker rights while acknowledging Aboriginal sovereignty?

The death in September last year of Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old Kurdish Syrian boy, filled the front pages of international media. Aylan, along with his elder brother, Galip, and his mother, Rehan, drowned at sea after the ferry he was on capsized on the way to the Greek island of Kos. Images of Aylan’s body, found on the shores of a Turkish beach, sparked international outrage over his fate, along with that of other Syrian refugees, and saw communities globally extend their welcome to refugees.

Under public pressure, the Australian government agreed to accept 12,000 Syrian refugees; at the same time, it announced an expansion of military operations into Syria in an attempt to curb what has been dubbed the ‘refugee crisis’. These military interventions have been criticised within the migrant-justice movement, pointing to the connections and causalities between growing numbers of asylum seekers and factors such as globalisation, neoliberalism and colonisation. These connections and causalities have produced wars, global wealth disparity, and environmental changes that force people to flee their lands. At the same time, countries that benefit from these global systems and processes, and that promote trade and the movement of goods across borders, invest vast resources to keep asylum seekers out. In Australia we have Operation Sovereign Borders, a military-led program to stop asylum-seeker boats from arriving. But the question remains: whose sovereign borders? What sovereignty is being denied, and perpetuated, through such operations?

In a settler-colonial state in which Indigenous peoples never ceded sovereignty, reparations and treaties have never been made and the impact of colonial dispossession continues, a movement that is centred on humanitarian demands and justice cannot continue to ignore the context of colonisation. Within refugee and asylum-seeker support groups and networks, we need to think and talk more about the ways in which our demands and struggles not only occur within this context but may also unintentionally demean Indigenous resistance and reinforce racist and colonial structures. An example of this can be seen in a slogan adopted by the movement for migrant justice in Australia: ‘we are all boat people’. While it sends a poignant message, this slogan makes invisible the Indigenous nations of this land, who are not boat people. In so doing it further ascribes an identity to the concept of ‘we’, because those who assume the position of being able to make these claims—the ‘we’—are those who have accumulated sufficient whiteness, privilege and access to do so.

The same problems exist in the concept of welcoming, which is often referred to by the migrant-justice movement. The act of extending a welcome cannot be separated from a structure of identity. One usually welcomes someone to a space in which one experiences a greater sense of ownership and belonging: one welcomes a visitor into one’s home. When this is applied to a whole nation state, not only does it expose the greater privilege experienced by the dominant culture (highlighted especially by the slogan ‘real Australians say welcome’) but also it further strips away the sovereign rights of the original custodians of this land. Supporting asylum seekers’ rights to live in safety should not come at the cost of continuing the dispossession of Indigenous peoples. We must focus our engagement to centre on the voices of asylum seekers and refugees while also being cognisant of Aboriginal rights and sovereignty. And this process requires us to look at the language we employ and how it positions our message.

Networks such as No One Is Illegal and individuals who espouse critiques of nation states, borders and nationalisms also need to consider how their critiques intersect with Indigenous sovereignty. The issue of who gets to welcome whom can be applied to calls for open borders, wherein we need to question who has the agency to call for open borders from within settler-colonial states. Bonita Lawrence and Enakshi Dua, in their 2005 paper Decolonizing Antiracism, ask that proponents of open borders ‘think through how their campaigns can pre-empt the ability of Aboriginal communities to establish title to their traditional lands’.

Colonially established borders and restrictive migration policies have resulted in differential impacts on the lives of settlers, migrants and Indigenous peoples. In border regions across the globe Indigenous people have been disproportionately affected. An example of this is the way that the increasing militarisation of border policies has impacted on the tribes of First Nations people whose lands are situated on and around the United States–Mexico border. This has included restrictions on movement across tribal lands, as well as increased police checks, raids, surveillance, and the destruction of land and sacred sites. Such experiences have informed migrant-rights movements to use slogans such as ‘we didn’t cross the border; the border crossed us’. Throughout history borders have been arbitrarily drawn to separate nation states, and these borders have bisected Indigenous lands and divided Indigenous communities. In Australia, while the national border encompasses the entire land body, its impact has been equally devastating, as it was imposed with no regard for the pre-existing boundaries that delineated hundreds of Aboriginal tribes, lands and ancestral customs.

The varying impacts of borders and migration control on Indigenous peoples must be considered if we are to engage in a more constructive dialogue about migration to Indigenous land. While a number of Indigenous leaders and elders have extended their welcome to refugees and asylum seekers, Aboriginal people may have legitimate concerns about migration that should be respected and discussed. As Rev. Rronang Garrawurra, an Aboriginal elder from North East Arnhem Land, stated: ‘We are the first people, and as first people, it upsets me that we haven’t been asked for our input on any of this’.

Being cognisant of Indigenous sovereignty should lead migrant-justice campaigns to work in solidarity with Indigenous struggles for land rights and sovereignty. By doing this we would not only affirm the importance of addressing the impacts of colonisation, we would also interact in ways that foster conversations about Australia’s history of genocide and learn about Indigenous protocols. This would be particularly useful for newly arrived migrants. As Wiradjuri elder Ray Jackson stated, ‘Whilst they acknowledge our rights to all the Aboriginal Nations of Australia, we reciprocate by welcoming them into our nations’. Ray Jackson and Gunnai/Mara elder Robbie Thorpe, in a powerful assertion of sovereignty, have organised a number of passport ceremonies in Melbourne and Sydney at which Aboriginal passports have been issued to asylum seekers. In some instances, asylum seekers have directly sought Aboriginal passports. In the words of Robbie Thorpe (when granting Aboriginal passports to a group of Tamil men), ‘Indigenous people never ceded sovereignty over Australia. The Australian government has no legitimate right to grant or refuse entry to this country. We are issuing passports to these men because it’s what any reasonable, humane society would do. We expect these men to be responsive to traditional law, and respect the Indigenous customs of this land’.

It’s time for the Australian migrant-justice movement to more carefully consider its work within the context of land of which Aboriginal people have been dispossessed, and the ways in which the issues of migrant justice and Aboriginal sovereignty intersect. Our collective success requires us to analyse the ways that we work and communicate, and it depends on our abilities to discuss these issues, imagine bolder possibilities and devise better slogans.