Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

'Genuine' Refugees or Illegitimate 'Boat People': Political Constructions of Asylum Seekers and Refugees in the Malaysia Deal Debate

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

'Genuine' Refugees or Illegitimate 'Boat People': Political Constructions of Asylum Seekers and Refugees in the Malaysia Deal Debate

Article excerpt

Introduction

In May 2011, then Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced that the Australian Labor Federal Government had plans to strike a deal with the Malaysian Government to swap 800 asylum seekers for 4000 refugees. This proposed 'Malaysia Deal' was the latest in a long line of policies designed to manage the arrival of 'irregular' migrants to Australia. The history of Australian immigration policy has often been criticised for its exclusionary and delegitimising measures of irregular migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees (Crock & Berg 2011; Grewcock 2009; Mares 2002a). The White Australia Policy (1) saw the restriction of non-European migration for more than 70 years until the 1970s when the policy was formally abandoned (Crock & Berg 2011, 113; Grewcock 2009). Following the end of the Vietnam War, the arrival of more than 50 boats carrying asylum seekers from South East Asia prompted an increase in concern regarding people arriving by boat, and as a result the term 'boat people' emerged in the media, public and political discourses (Grewcock 2009; Phillips & Spinks 2011). This concern and anxiety has captured the attention of successive governments and resulted in the introduction of restrictions and exclusionary measures towards unauthorised arrivals, including and most notably the establishment of mandatory detention for all unauthorised arrivals introduced under Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating in 1992 (Grewcock 2009; Phillips & Spinks 2011). The last two decades have been characterised by increasingly negative attitudes towards asylum seekers, crystallising around major events such as the Tampa Crisis, (2) and resulting in exclusionary political agendas and policies, such as the introduction of the Pacific Solution (3) under former Coalition Prime Minister John Howard (Every 2006, 10; Augoustinos & Quinn 2003).

The proposed Malaysia Deal emerged within an ongoing maelstrom of public debate about asylum seekers, and sparked significant discussion in Federal Parliament. In August 2011 the High Court ultimately declared the Malaysia Deal to be illegal and invalid, and following this the Labor Government proposed an alternative solution involving settlement of so-called 'boat people' in Papua New Guinea instead. More recently, following a change in government in September 2013, the Liberal/National Coalition under Prime Minister Tony Abbott maintained the policy of offshore detention and processing, and established 'Operation Sovereign Borders'--a military style response to irregular immigration and asylum seekers that includes a priority on deterrence measures and the possibility of asylum seeker boats being towed back to their origin (RCOA 2013). The Malaysia Deal represented the first in a series of significant policy changes over the last three years seeking an alternative to the 'Pacific Solution'. The parliamentary discourse surrounding the Malaysia proposal thus offers significant insight into the social construction of asylum seekers and refugees in Australian politics.

Methodology

This article draws on research examining the Hansard transcripts of debates on the Malaysia Deal in the Commonwealth House of Representatives and Senate in the time period from 1 May 2011 until 1 October 2011; which included several months of negotiation, the signing of the agreement on 25 July 2011, and the aftermath of the High Court ruling. Initially, 360 transcripts were identified through searches of Hansard using the search terms 'asylum seekers', 'refugees', 'boat people', 'irregular maritime arrival' and 'Malaysia Deal or Agreement'. To work with a manageable sample size the analysis was limited to all transcripts that refer specifically to the Malaysia Agreement, producing a sample size of 182 transcripts. Statements, debates and speeches from all major and minor parties; Independent politicians were also included in the data collection. Parliamentarians from the two major parties in Australian Federal politics--Labour and the Coalition--contributed the most statements to the data, due to the larger numbers of representatives from these parties in the House and the Senate. …

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