Academic journal article Journal of Sociology

Refugees: An Endangered Species?

Academic journal article Journal of Sociology

Refugees: An Endangered Species?

Article excerpt

In the past year refugees and asylum seekers have emerged as a major domestic and foreign policy issue in Australia. The last time refugees were such a major political issue in Australia was after the Vietnam war with the arrival of the Indo-Chinese `boat people'. Then the number of Indo-Chinese `boat people' that arrived between 1976-82 was 2059, small compared with present flows. However, their arrival brought about a large scale off-shore selection of refugees and eventually a government-organized `orderly departure programme' from Vietnam which saw the number of IndoChinese born in Australia reach 70,000 by 1982 (Betts, 2001: 34). By contrast the number of `boat people' arriving since 1998 has been large and from diverse sources. In 1999, 3740 asylum seekers arrived by boat, in 2000, 2961 arrived and in 2001 (January-August) more than 3694 had arrived. Yet these boat arrivals have not precipitated an organized refugee programme to bring refugees from Southeast Asia as happened in the 1970s and early 1980s. Instead, the government has presented the latest arrival of boat people as a challenge to national sovereignty and provoked public fear that Australia was facing a refugee crisis.

In fact, despite the significant increase in `boat people' (unauthorized arrivals) between 1999 and 2001, the annual refugee quota of 12,000 has remained the same and 1640 unfilled places from the 2000-1 quota were carried over into 2001-2 (Population Flows: Immigration Aspects, 2001: 25). The perceived crisis is in the `threat' posed by `unauthorized entry' rather than by the actual numbers of refugees arriving or being accepted annually. Nevertheless the issue of the management of refugee flows, symbolized in the Tampa incident, was made an election winner by the Liberal government in late 2001. (1) They set about `selling protection' as their election strategy: protection against foreigners seeking `entitlements' they did not deserve because they had entered illegally (were `queue jumpers') and acted criminally (paid `people smugglers'), and protection against terror in the form of individual suicidal acts causing mass death (Tilly, 1985).

Refugees were made a question of `border protection' and a measure of national sovereignty and security rather than a question of Australia's capacity to increase its humanitarian programme or its responsibility to extend protection to asylum seekers under the 1951 United Nations (UN) Refugee Convention. As the number of boat people rose between 1999 and 2001, so they were stripped of their status as `humanitarian victims' and criminalized. Their designation as `illegals' was shaped by government policy of mandatory detention on arrival, the rhetoric of refugees being `queue jumpers', their undocumented arrival and their use of `people smugglers' to get a boat passage to Australia. The erosion of their status as humanitarian victims permitted the government discourse on refugees to shift from humanitarian responsibility to national security. The international terrorist attacks in the USA on 11 September only deepened the criminalization of these refugees who were mainly from Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, states now targeted by the USA for military intervention as `terrorist' states or collaborators with terrorists. These countries have also been, coincidentally, major refugee-producing countries.

Australia's criminalization of refugees obscures the fact that refugees are a shared global problem. The more than 10,000 boat people arrivals in Australia between 1999 and 2001 are only the tip of the international refugee iceberg of around 21 million refugees and displaced people. Mass population displacement is a major global issue, yet for the most part these refugees remain below the West's `threshold of moral vision' except at moments of disaster and catastrophe, when spectacular images of starvation and/or trauma capture public attention via the global media (Connolly, 1999). …

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