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Why Settler Australia Needs Refugees by Lorenzo Veracini

A specifically settler society relation to our borders

Australia’s newest refugee policy, like its predecessors, is ostensibly designed to address the refugee ‘problem’. However, in this article I argue that beside concerns about ‘national interest’, ‘security’, and ‘border protection’, asylum seekers—dehumanised people piled up in different configurations outside of its borders—are useful, indeed necessary, to settler Australia. Here I adopt the specifically Australian definition of refugee: someone who must not be allowed to enter a particular space no matter how urgent his or her human right to do so, and someone who is not entitled to protection unless he or she is ‘processed’ first. It is a definition that only makes sense in the context of Australia’s public debate, and a definition that is not consistent with that of international law. Focusing on the ways in which a specifically settler-colonial understanding of Australia’s sovereign capacities informs public sensitivities can shed light on a particularly Australian process of paranoid abjection. (Not only are the two definitions different; one is the exact complement of the other: if a refugee is normally someone who must depart, in the Australian definition he or she is someone who must not arrive; in the one case, one can be anywhere but an original location; in the other, one can be anywhere but the hoped-for final one.)


Producing Refugees

It isn’t at all clear why refugees arriving by boat should represent a challenge to Australian sovereign capacities. Indeed, if anything, by not considering it terra nullius, as another load of boat people did, asylum seekers actually offer a powerful recognition of sovereignty. Their arrival is a challenge only if we consider how they contradict a uniquely Australian self-understanding of sovereign capacities. Sovereignty is typically related to a capacity to discipline and punish within a specific area. For settler-colonial polities, however, sovereignty is also about a capacity to draw lines of inclusion and exclusion that mark the limits of control over bodies and persons in a domain that, unlike other political settings, is constituted by a foundational, original displacement (from the ‘mother country’). In settler-colonial contexts the outside is by definition a part of the inside.

Settler-colonial sovereignty is fundamentally built on the capacity to displace Indigenous peoples to make room for expanding settler worlds. In the case of refugees there are other issues at stake; settlers need refugees for other reasons. While the two sides of the refugee debate—refugee advocates and populists—generally disagree, they share the fundamental premise that refugees should not exist, either because they should be treated as human beings anywhere, or because they should be dehumanised elsewhere. Thus both sides of a polarised debate fail to detect how the political-institutional structure in place is not a system that fails to deal with refugees, but a system that successfully deals in them. We may benefit from shifting our approach. What is being sought may not be a ‘solution’ to a problem, but rather a way of maximising an opportunity.

My contention is that settler Australia needs refugees, even if this statement means something rather different from what it initially conveys. Why?

Firstly, refugees help settler Australia define what it is. Refugees can be seen as one set of settler Australia’s ‘constitutive others’. ‘Refugee’ as a category is the anti-type of ‘settler’; this category’s existence sustains the opposition between a sovereignty-endowed movement and a sovereignty-deprived one; between a collective that is constituted by founders of political orders and one that is constituted by those who escape political implosions. Refugees—in Australia, people whose right to exist in a specific locale is categorically denied—are essential to the construction of a legitimate settler presence and identity. As settlers who have come and stayed, this represents a long-time preoccupation, if not a fundamental anxiety. One category brings the other into existence and the two cannot exist in isolation. Hence a need to ‘produce’ refugees in a process of producing settler ‘Australianness’.

Secondly, refugees are necessary to settler Australia because their management constitutes an opportunity to develop and test important technologies of ‘bio-political’ control, the control of bodies and persons. There is a significant slippage in public discourse between ‘processing claims’ and ‘processing people’. This is evidenced in the language routinely used to describe ‘processing’ procedures: ‘The first batch of asylum seekers has been sent to Nauru’, noted matter-of-factly the Sydney Morning Herald shortly after the previous new policy was announced in September 2012. Not a group: a batch (that is, a certain quantity of an unspecified substance). A determination to acquire and test ‘warehousing’ and biometrical technologies that might then be imported into other parts of the polity should also be taken into consideration. We all face uncertain futures; producing refugees at the borders and establishing testing grounds for acquiring specific repressive capabilities might seem a good investment in technologies of social control.

Thirdly, refugees have a constitutive relationship to settler Australia because, as in the way an industrial reserve army of labour was crucial to capitalist accumulation (as Marx explained, not merely a regrettable by-product but rather a necessary prerequisite for it), the existence of a reserve population should be seen as crucial to social control in the context of settler Australia. In this sense the production of refugees can be seen as an investment in governmental capabilities: it is a process that enhances the ‘privileges’ of settler Australians while simultaneously raising the spectre of the dispensability of those privileges.

This dynamic is not new. If once the settler-colonial socio-political body was construed primarily in racial terms whereas today’s settler society is above all identified by entitlement, it remains a collective that still needs a counterpoint. While entitlement and lack of entitlement require each other, refugees must not be entitled to any protection within a specified location: access to some protection would transform that category from an anti-type into another type, something that can be appraised in a register of difference. More or fewer rights produces a spectrum; rights or no rights produces an antithesis. Collette Guillaumin’s terminology seems apt here: incommensurability is necessary to processes of settler-colonial ‘auto-racialisation’ (as compared to ‘hetero-racialisation’ processes, which require what Partha Chatterjee calls a colonial ‘rule of difference’).

Settler Australia has recurrently needed a counterpoint against which to define itself (for example, nineteenth-century Chinese immigrants: settlers could riot against them even as they were defining the institutions of their egalitarian democracy; or the ‘non-white’ category established by the White Australia policy). As settlers remain crucially defined by what they are not—not yet Indigenous and yet no longer exogenous—settler Australia, like other settler-colonial nations, relies on two negative anti-types: Indigenous ‘others’, on the one hand (those who have not moved to Australia) and exogenous ‘others’, on the other hand (those must not move to it). A settler understanding of sovereign capacities must include the ability to ‘abject’ both of them.


Abjecting Refugees

Abjection, ‘the state of being cast off’, or the casting off of absolute otherness, is necessary to all processes of identity construction. As refugees are literally cast off, the operation of a typically settler-colonial psychic attitude takes shape. According to Julia Kristeva, being forced to face the abject is an inherently traumatic experience. She notes that the abject complements the superego—the representative of culture and symbolic order—and concludes: to ‘each ego its object, to each superego its abject’. Australia—note its preoccupation with the ‘cultural cringe’—has always had an external ‘superego’ that has defined appropriate cultural standards. If to the settler ego there corresponds an object (settler Australia), to a culturally endowed metropole that has not moved to the settler periphery corresponds an abjected refugee who also must not move there. This abjected element must be relocated outside of the symbolic order.

Kristeva notes how abjection is crucial to individual identity construction, and that abjection normally takes place when the mother is excluded and the child develops an autonomous identity. Forever needing to abject refugees may have something to do with the incapacity to finally move on from subservience to a foreign polity that settler Australia sees itself as filiating from. Indeed the link between an incapacity to recast the mother (country) outside of the symbolic order and the need to abject refugees outside of the geographical order should be emphasised. Since, in a settler-colonial context the symbolic order is inevitably an import, psychic displacement and geographical displacement end up overlapping. Today, as settler Australia faces its abject, it is displeased; and as it did in the past, it reacts violently. It was a nation still in shock from the outcome of the republic referendum in 1999 that experienced the ‘Tampa’ incident and the ‘Children Overboard’ affair. A double whammy like that could stunt any collective’s psychological growth. The tragedy is that as settler Australia goes through the equivalent of adolescent antics, real breaches of human rights are being committed in its name. Recall: global condemnation of Australia’s stance in 2001 was met with ‘No one can tell me what to do’, ‘Nobody understands us’, and ‘I didn’t do it’ responses (that is, they threw children overboard), and a Prime Minister who was extraordinarily in touch with public sentiment was speaking about entry to the country as if he was sixteen and talking about his room: ‘We will determine who comes to this country and under what circumstances’.

It is true that all sovereign polities display a desire to control demography and therefore the migratory flows that affect them (Abdelmalek Sayad famously said that thinking about migration is equivalent to thinking about the state), but settler sovereign states are particular. Settler societies typically prefer not to rely on ‘guest workers’, individuals who are allowed within the specific territorial domain of the sovereign even if they will never be fully part of it. Settler polities typically rely on permanent migration processes in order to supervise inherently dynamic population economies that transform ‘refugees’ into ‘migrants’ and ‘migrants’ into ‘settlers’. For a settler society, dealing with non-permanent migrants is unsettling, but dealing with would-be migrants who have taken the autonomous decision to arrive is even more unsettling.

Abjection is by definition triggered by the prospect of physical contact. For a settler sovereign, abjecting refugees and then processing them while claiming an absolute right to do so is crucial. For Australia this seems even more the case than for other settler societies. Settler Australia itself is ab origine, one big result of a massive process of abjection. No matter how repressed Australians’ history of exile and loss of rights at the hands of a colonial power which arrogated to itself an absolute right to represent the symbolic order, abjection and displacement to the ‘antipodes’ calls forth further abjection and displacement onto ‘the region’ (Papua New Guinea and Nauru, for example, are locales construed as antithetical to modern Australia). Coping with a history of abjection to a place seems to involve an impulse to abject from that place. An obsessive determination to permanently prevent contact makes more sense in light of this foundational dynamic.

The dynamics underpinning the political geometry of the settler situation have remained stable over a long period. If we think about this in terms of political geometry rather than of the racial politics involved, current dispensations ultimately reproduce the White Australia policy’s spatially defined dynamic. This Australia may no longer be exclusively ‘white’—the accent now is on ‘values’, ‘way of life’ and entitlement—but it still is a socio-political body that produces its internal homogeneity via the abjection of excluded others. But a crucial consequence of a settler understanding of sovereign capacities is that it cannot ever be about Australia alone. Promoting a settler dispensation on the inside requires a simultaneous process of external expansion. Settler-colonial orders are always regional orders; there is always a local version of the Monroe Doctrine that applies to an outside the dynamics of abjection inescapably linked to an inside.

The ‘new’ Australian colonial dependencies of Papua New Guniea and Nauru are also the old ones; the settler-colonial present eerily resembles its past. After the Rudd administration announced that refugees arriving after a certain date would be permanently resettled in Papua New Guinea, the leader of the Opposition complained that the government had ‘lost control’ of the aid budget to that country. But of course the reverse is true: the newest policy is a quintessentially colonialist power grab, where an external power assumes responsibility for the execution of a dependency’s immigration policy (probably the most fundamental marker of an independent sovereign capacity). What is colonialism if not the executive capacity to do to people considered ‘other’ in locations that are ‘other’, things that would be inadmissible at ‘home’, things that the courts would disallow, for example, if they were to happen in locations encompassed by their authority.


From ‘No Advantage’ to ‘Certain Disadvantage’

‘Processing batches’ offshore generally refers to industrial manufacture; when it becomes applicable to humans, and to the point where the linguistic usage is not even noticed, something must be seriously wrong. The ‘no advantage’ principle of 2012 and its 2013 radicalisation, the Regional Settlement Arrangement, are inherently sadistic precepts, and the fact that they are uncritically accepted in public discourse (there are important exceptions, of course) should be interpreted in light of the settler-colonial dynamic I outline above. (In a sense these policies render determining refugee status a moot point: by forcibly transporting asylum seekers to offshore concentration camps for an indefinite period of time, indeed for the term of their natural lives, the Australian government is ensuring that by the end of the process it is facing genuine refugees irrespective of whether they were ‘genuine’ ones to start with.) Is the threat of transportation and eventual permanent ‘resettlement’ in Papua New Guinea designed to effectively deter ongoing autonomous crossings? Was the ‘no advantage’ rule designed to ensure that the refugees Australia manufactures should be as wretched and desperate as those produced elsewhere? Alas, as we know, it is yes on both counts.

The experience of refugees in different contexts is diverse. Has the Australian government adopted a standard against which to measure possible advantages; did it establish an average measure of suffering against which the ‘no advantage’ rule could be applied? Did it pay public servants to face these conundrums, or will it have Serco Group Pty Ltd work that out (Serco undoubtedly has growing hands-on expertise in the field)? Moreover, as the government can only affect the lives of the refugees under its control, that is, as it can only determine conditions on one side of the imagined equation, isn’t it obvious that the ‘no advantage’ rule, and the Rudd administration’s successive attempt to ‘smash’ the people smugglers’ ‘business model’, establishes a competition between different manufacturers of refugees? Does Australia really want to win this contest?

Despite Kevin Rudd’s attempt to distance his administration from that of his predecessor, the 2012 and 2013 policies are closely related, the latter its predecessor’s logical maturation. If the certainty of not getting any ‘advantage’ fails to deter, perhaps the absolute certainty of being treated to a permanent disadvantage may. That the ‘no advantage’ principle would take on a life of its own beyond the recommendations of the Houston panel was to be expected. One of the panellists publicly noted that subsequent decisions ‘to disallow asylum seekers work rights and timely access to family reunion, even after they have been found to be a refugee, were not recommendations of the panel’. That indefinite detention should eventually morph into perpetual and irreversible banishment for an indefinite number of humans should not surprise us. An unresolved past begets re-enactment. So is Nauru perhaps a new Norfolk Island, Manus Island a new Port Arthur? They are sites of permanent banishment for recidivists (‘they keep coming’) and a terrifying warning for a population of emancipated subjects (‘ordinary Australians’) that need a reminder. Is it just a coincidence? It was a finally ‘de-dominionising’ Australia that welcomed refugees in the late 1970s and 1980s, and it was an Australia that uttered an apology to indigenous peoples that also, for a brief time, adopted a relatively less punishing stance towards them.

Understanding settler colonialism as a specific social formation can help make sense of these developments. The ‘no advantage’ rule was, crucially, predicated on the prior Australian production of refugees and on the constitutive distinction between a human collective that is entitled to protection and another that isn’t. What the expression implies is as important as what it says. According to its promoters, the ‘no advantage’ rule should be an expression of an inherently Australian trait. And it is, but for reasons very different to those its promoters imagine. The ‘no advantage’ rule is the expression of a fundamentally settler-colonial frame of mind: understanding different human groups as inherently incommensurable, not simply different. A ‘no advantage’ rule among human beings could have responded to a very different imperative, the rule that is generally called human rights. Settler rights are often couched in the terms of a universalising rhetoric, but as they inevitably rely on a permanent and simultaneous distinction between those who belong to a founding collective endowed with an inherent self-constituting capacity and those who do not, settler rights can never be human rights.

Again, the ‘no advantage’ rule and its successor may have other applications. For example, it seems unfair and even ‘un-Australian’ that some Aboriginal communities should have survived colonisation while others were irretrievably destroyed. That native title may survive somewhere in the country but not elsewhere also seems advantageous for some Aboriginal peoples. Shouldn’t this apparent iniquity be terminated by unilaterally extinguishing native title everywhere on the continent? Likewise, why should the Intervention (another example of settler-colonial abjection enjoying bipartisan support) selectively apply to some Aborigines but not others? Extending the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act to all Aboriginal people would surely pass a ‘no advantage’ test. A select panel of ‘eminent Australians’ could be asked to convene and review the whole thing before reporting to parliament.

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