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Finding Refuge

When Secure Borders Are Not the Answer

As countries in the global North fortify their borders against irregular migrants from the global South, border walls proliferate. Argentina constructed a wall at its border with Paraguay. Hungary recently erected a second, electrified fence at its border with Serbia. And Donald Trump’s administration is still committed to building at least sections of the proposed wall separating the United States and Mexico.

Maritime borders are also heavily policed. The EU established FRONTEX, a centralized agency for external border control in 2004, and late last year launched a new European Border and Coast Guard Agency to police the waters that separate Europe from the global South. Recently the European Maritime Safety Agency spent €76 million on drones to monitor Europe’s sea frontiers. Last year, Australia deployed an armada of patrol boats and warships along its maritime borders in order to repel boats carrying asylum seekers. What Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull described at the time as a “ring of steel” was only the most dramatic manifestation of Australia’s securitized border regime which has been in place more or less since 2001. Amongst the extreme measures pursued by Australia to repel asylum seekers and to placate public anxiety about the prospect of their irregular arrival is the transfer of those intercepted in Australian territorial waters to Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island or the Pacific Island state of Nauru. Asylum seekers are then processed on these islands; even if found to be refugees they are barred from ever settling in Australia.

The fortification of borders and the effective deterrence of asylum seekers are presented as policy solutions. But what are the problems to which these solutions respond? In Australia’s case, policy-makers have narrowly defined them as the irregular arrival of asylum seekers, the human-smuggling operations that profit from others’ misfortune, and deaths at sea. Australia’s policy of turning back boats to Indonesia, combined with the offshore processing arrangements, is said to have solved each of these problems: the boats have stopped arriving, the smugglers no longer have a product to sell, and asylum seekers no longer risk drowning en route to Australia. However, if the absence of safe and legal transit to places of refuge for displaced people were conceived as the key problem, then Australia’s policy responses would not count as solutions at all. From this latter perspective, the problem has simply been foisted upon Indonesia or outsourced to countries well out of Australia’s line of sight.

There is widespread public support for the Australian government’s securitized border regime such that both of Australia’s mainstream parties consider that any deviation from the policy of turning back asylum seeker boats would amount to political suicide. Critics of this regime are dismissed as politically naïve, disconnected from the pressures of the real world and the views of real Australians.

The charge that critique is unhelpful and illegitimate unless it is accompanied by a realistic proposal for an alternative policy solution is not only put forward by policy makers. In the Australian context, eminent political scientist Robert Manne has recently made this argument, along with Frank Brennan, Tim Costello and John Menadue, all prominent figures in the policy or advocacy sectors. Manne, in particular, challenges the government’s critics to propose an alternative policy that would have a realistic prospect of being adopted by at least one of the major parties. Together, Brennan, Costello, Manne and Menadue argue that refugee advocates’ refusal to acknowledge the necessity of the government’s deterrence framework amounts to “purist disengagement” and makes it harder for the major parties to make humane improvements (closing the offshore facilities on Manus and Nauru, in particular). Accepting the necessity of turn-backs, they claim, would allow the major parties the political room to soften the more brutal aspects of the policy package and to bring the refugees and asylum seekers marooned offshore to Australia.

As scholars who have long been critical of Australia’s asylum seeker policies in particular, and securitized border regimes in general, we take Manne’s challenge seriously and have responded at length elsewhere. Here, we want to explore those aspects of our response that have implications beyond the Australian context, in countries where public debate on irregular migration is also shaped by problematic accounts of the problems and solutions at stake. In our view, short-term policy solutions of the kind endorsed by Manne rest on an assumed consensus about the nature of the problem that the policy “solutions” purport to fix. That there is, in this way, a politics of the problem is core to our argument. From this starting point, we make two inter-related claims: first, that there are no politically palatable, immediately implementable, policy fixes for irregular migration (not least because the extent to which irregularity is in fact a problem, and for whom, remains a matter of dispute) and second that precisely because of this reality, longer term perspectives are not only legitimate but essential.

Even where border walls, barbed-wire fences and “rings of steel” are effective in keeping unwanted migrants out, they also violate the rights of those seeking protection as refugees. Fortified borders prevent asylum seekers from accessing jurisdictions where they can pursue the right to seek asylum guaranteed under international law. Short-term policy fixes, including Australia’s turn-back policies, reproduce this problem (the lack of safe and legal transit to places of refuge), albeit one that policy makers in Australia and elsewhere are less interested in addressing. Policies elsewhere that attempt to seal borders against irregular arrivals, or outsource border control to transit countries such as Turkey or Libya in the European context have a similar effect. This produces circular policy: we solve the problem by implementing a solution that creates a problem we need to solve, and so on.

This is not to say that we ought to reject humane improvements, such as the cessation of Australia’s offshore arrangements, unless and until securitized border regimes can be fully dismantled. Nor is it to understate the genuine political obstacles that lie in the way of alternative border policies in the short term. In light of these immediate realities, improvements can be welcomed but this need not entail an endorsement of the overall policy regimes in which those improvements sit. Endorsing those regimes, moreover, serves to perpetuate the very problems and some of the gravest injustices at stake. And doing so on the basis of current political realities makes the error of conflating what is politically possible today with the limits of the possible in the future.

An insistence on short-term policy “solutions” resigns us to the political realities we face now. In the Australian case these realities include the weight of public sentiment that is hostile to the arrival of asylum seekers by boat. But why assume that public opinion will not change, when historical evidence suggests that public opinion is malleable? Present day realities in Australia’s region also include the reluctance of many of Australia’s neighbors to shoulder increased responsibility for displaced persons when Australia refuses to do so at a level consistent with its relative capacities. Since this kind of sentiment reacts to Australia’s current policy approach, a vicious cycle ensues when that approach is presented as the limit of political possibility. More generally, short-term “solutions” to irregular migration assume that border controls and immigration restrictions, which in their current form are no older than a century, will remain in place forever, and that the sovereignty of nation-states will always trump the demands of justice and the rights of non-citizens.

That no short-term policy fixes are capable of solving the problem of irregular migration without creating new problems, or reproducing and compounding existing ones, is a reality that is difficult to live with. This is obviously true for people most directly affected by unjust border regimes. But it is also true for those who desire a manageable world in which technical fixes can solve the problems and injustices we face without upsetting the political status quo. Policy makers and commentators identifying these kinds of policy solutions, or demanding that others articulate them in order to be relevant, are working in the realm of fantasy.

Yet fantasies remain alluring. The desire to be unaffected by what happens to more distant others can lead to “solutions” that rest on flawed assumptions or willful denial about what is best for them (especially if “they” are voiceless, nameless others). The desire to be unaffected can also make people in the global North focus on their own presumed interest. Those otherwise sympathetic to asylum seekers and other irregular migrants will sometimes tolerate securitized border regimes out of fear that mass arrivals of irregular migrants would foster virulently nationalist and reactionary sentiment. The fear is that this dynamic would then place at risk not only non-citizens, but anybody: from minority groups to those most likely to advocate for an inclusive, tolerant society. But this is a dangerous wager that disregards the compound effects of resignation to present political realities. Just as colonization brutalized the societies of the colonizers, securitized border regimes brutalize the societies of the governments pursuing those regimes, thereby reinforcing the hardened public opinion that is said to constitute the parameters of the politically possible.

Those of us who live in countries that perceive the arrival of irregular migrants as a crisis, and attempt to deter them in one way or another, are all implicated in the ongoing rights violations of those who are forced to flee their homes for one reason or another and cannot find a safe place of refuge and livelihood. Accepting that this problem cannot be solved in the short term should not mean that we succumb to despair. Rather, it necessitates longer term responses that attempt to tackle the more fundamental issues at stake: the demonization of irregular migrants, the failure to provide safe and legal options for their transit, refuge and livelihood, and the factors that make it necessary for people to cross borders, illegally or otherwise, when they would rather live and prosper at home. It is also to insist that we contemplate alternative realities that appear politically impossible in the present, and reject the idea that only changes that are incremental are worth considering. This is not a call for utopian solutions; in fact, some of these alternative realities may well be built upon existing, albeit fragile, foundations, such as cosmopolitan solidarities or cultures of hospitality.

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Anne McNevin

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