As debate over the mandatory and non-reviewable detention of asylum seekers heats up — a policy introduced by the Keating Government in 1994 — sections of the Left are falling over themselves to assert the legitimacy of discerning proper grounds for refuge. As part of this, (ex-)detainees are urged to tell their undoubtedly true and often shocking stories of misery and desperation as part of an appeal to humanitarianism. Statistics such as ‘90 per cent of asylum seekers are eventually proven to be genuine refugees’, as Leigh Hubbard stated in a recent speech, are commonplace: a suggestion that if racist governments can even and eventually recognise these people as having a right to asylum, then surely the public can too. There is scant analysis of the criteria for authorisation as a refugee, or indeed any discussion of the rights of the remaining 10 per cent, who may not fulfil UN criteria as a refugee, but nonetheless face political oppression, war, and/or starvation.
What is missing from the current critique of Australia’s border policies is an affirmation of people’s freedom of movement. Distinctions between ‘non-genuine’ and ‘bona fide’ refugees, much like the arbitrary dichotomy between those who arrive by boat or air, are made in order to reinforce a sense of security. Clinging to this distinction signals that our borders are worth protecting and that the people allowed in are worthy. In other words, we are discerning, we have standards for how much and precisely what kind of suffering we expect people to have gone through in order to seek asylum. If you just work for slave wages and in slave conditions (the infamous case being that of Nike workers in Indonesia), that just doesn’t cut the mustard.
The absurdity of fearing the incursion of Australia’s borders by ‘floods’ of ‘boat people’ seems to escape many, considering the whole country is an island and only the determined few are able to cross quite often dangerous seas — there were over 350 deaths off the coast last year.
At its core, the plight of asylum seekers is not separable from the issue of the artificiality and arbitrariness of borders. Whilst the nation-state is a historically recent phenomenon, and whilst pretty much everyone on the Left considers themselves to be internationalist, few are prepared to argue the case for the abolition of borders. Of course that is the ideal, they would argue, but ‘the people’ (always rhetorically invoked and nationally constructed) aren’t ‘ready’ to hear of it.
And yet, never before has there been so much evidence of capital’s need to draw the lines that guard the rich from the poor, of the segregation of everyone according to their economic status. We are consistently told that globalisation is inevitable and yet, somehow, the equally inevitable response of people to resist its effects, to break out of the ghettos it creates, is considered criminal. Hence a person’s very existence can be branded ‘illegal’.
The extent of the exploitation of labour in most countries is well documented, as is capital’s penchant for threatening to relocate, thus providing the perfect excuse for governments to drive down wages, cut business taxation and weaken environmental standards. Borders present the only way this strategy is tenable, for if workers could move from country to country, choosing where and how they live and work, no one would be willing to settle for $2 per hour. At the moment, it is only the most desperate and needy that risk their lives attempting to cross borders, but as the disparity between rich and poor grows, more and more people will be left with nothing to lose.
So the borders between rich and poor are zealously guarded, resulting most recently in the tripling of the defence budget allocated to coastal guards around Australia. Richer countries have always regulated the flow of asylum seekers and determined the basis for legitimacy of claims for refuge, largely through being the principal financial backers and main policy makers of the UN’s High Commission on Refugees. In this way, they have ensured that many asylum seekers spend years inside transit camps on the border of or inside the country they are fleeing, and anyone with less than full legal citizenship rights is available for dangerous and underpaid work (www.antimedia.net/xborder/). The recent advent of the concept of a ‘safe third country’, which allows asylum seekers to be forcibly returned to a country they passed though on their way to their eventual destination, results in their being shuffled from country to country until they are eventually deported back to where they fled from.
And yet, if you are a citizen of the European Union, you can move freely through that part of the world without ever having to show your papers — evidence that borders are not simply being policed out of a sentimental attachment to nationalism, even if that is professed as their raison d’être. Borders within countries, on the other hand, are becoming more and more conspicuous. In places like the Philippines, China, Mexico and Indonesia where the so called free-trade zones operate, with zero taxation and dirt cheap rent, the people who work inside them are often locked in fortresses guarded by the army and exempt from the few rights the laws of the land might give them, as Naomi Klein shows in No Logo. Free-trade zones are a ghetto within a ghetto, and their inhabitants have no rights to speak of. It is not only the developing countries that are undergoing this segregation process. Over the last fifty years in the United States there has been an open-secret workforce of chambermaids, kitchen cooks and waterboys who have sustained that country’s restaurant and hotel service industry. Without access to any form of government benefits, denied the right to organise or formal certification, these people have lived in a world of borders inside the ‘land of the free’ for years.
Therefore, any discussion of a struggle for global justice has to include the demand for freedom of movement for all people. This demand has already been raised elsewhere, with many European groups banding together under the banner of the No Border Network and working on projects aimed at combatting the hegemony of borders. Regular border camps are held on the EU’s land borders to help asylum seekers cross the border. In the United States, New York’s Ya Basta! collective is organising a People’s Caravan to cross the ‘imaginary line’ at the Canadian–US border at Cornwall. The caravan will eventually end up at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec, where the next round of discussions regarding the Free Trade of the Americas Area agreement is scheduled to occur.
Whilst the processes of globalisation and neo-liberalisation continue to impoverish the poor and benefit the rich, asylum seekers are and will continue to be at the forefront of this struggle. They are resisting with the only thing they have left: their lives. Whilst it may be impossible for us to literally help them cross the border here in Australia, what we can do is fight for the right of those who come — regardless of any distinctions the government may care to make — to remain.
Andrea Maksimovic is a member of No One Is Illegal, a group dedicated to challenging cultural assumptions about all types of migrants, and, through action, fighting for their full rights