What happens when you take a nation with a history of white supremacy and racial insecurity, paint on a superficial glaze of political correctness, and add politicians willing to exploit xenophobia for electoral gain?
If the nation in question is Australia, you get a set of astonishingly harsh policies towards asylum seekers that have left some of the world's most vulnerable people in danger of persecution and abuse. Those same conditions also produce similar results in other parts of the world, including Europe and the United States — but Australia's policies are particularly cruel, and to understand why you have to look at the country's unique history.
Australia's "boat people," immigrants who arrive in fishing vessels and makeshift boats, have been made scapegoats for the country's racial and cultural anxieties. By demonizing asylum seekers as lawbreakers and terrorists, Australia's politicians are able to use xenophobia as an effective wedge issue, while still maintaining a politically correct veneer of support for multiculturalism on other issues.
It's xenophobia lite: all of the populist flavor, none of the overtly-racist consequences.
The history of preserving "White Australia"
Australia's image of itself as a white, Anglo-Saxon country — one that is distinct from its Asian neighbors in language and culture — has been central to its national identity from the very beginning.
One of the first laws that Australia passed when the modern Australian state first formed in 1901 was the "White Australia policy." Its official name was the Immigration Restriction Act, which is a little less blunt than the more commonly used "White Australia," but not much.
That law sharply limited non-European immigration, with the goal of maintaining Australia's "British" character — which essentially meant keeping Asian immigrants out. It enjoyed considerable popularity for decades. At the start of World War II, then-Prime Minister John Curtin praised the policy, saying that "this country shall remain forever the home of the descendants of those people who came here in peace in order to establish in the South Seas an outpost of the British race."
The White Australia policy was abolished in 1973, and replaced with a new set of immigration laws that did not use race as a factor in eligibility for visas or citizenship. However, the issues of national identity and white supremacy that led to the creation of the White Australia policy have lingered.
The Tampa: the rise of nativist populist politics
In August 2001, a Norwegian container ship called the MV Tampa picked up 438 refugees who had become stranded at sea. They were in international waters, approximately 90 miles from the shore of Christmas Island, a remote Australian island that lies about 300 miles south of Indonesia.
The Australian government refused to allow the Tampa into its territorial waters. The captain turned towards Christmas Island anyway and Australia threatened to prosecute him for people smuggling. When it looked like he might continue on anyway, Australia sent special forces troops to board the ship. They took the refugees to Nauru, a remote island nation in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and forced them into detention.
Within weeks of the Tampa incident, the Australian government passed legislation for the so-called "Pacific Solution," a name that sounds like it was focus-grouped at the Wannsee Conference. (Perhaps someone decided that the old saying "history doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme" was an imperative obligation.) That law required refugees who were intercepted at sea to be detained in camps on Christmas Island, or deported to detention centers in the nations of Papua New Guinea and Nauru.
This hardline policy on asylum seekers quickly became a political wedge issue — and an extremely effective one. The "Pacific Solution" helped the party in power win reelection several months later.
The opposition Labor Party soon also embraced populist, anti-migrant rhetoric on the issue of unauthorized migrant boats. Since then, Australian politicians have spent much of the last decade and a half trying to one-up each other on who could show the least kindness toward vulnerable migrants.
The complex roots of Australia's racial insecurities
The populist backlash against "boat people" appears to be a way for Australians to air the racial anxieties and grievances that gave rise to the White Australia policy, but under the more socially acceptable guise of a discussion of law and order.
In the debate over asylum seekers and unauthorized migrants, Australia's desire to maintain a particular racial or religious character has been re-cast as the need for it to maintain control over its borders and ensure that proper procedures are followed.
Putting the conversation in those terms appears to have granted the public permission to have a conversation about race and immigration that would otherwise have seemed impermissibly bigoted.
For instance, in a 2010 speech, then-Prime-Minister-hopeful Julia Gillard defended Australians who opposed asylum seekers, explaining that "expressing a desire for a clear and firm policy to deal with a very difficult problem does not make you a racist," and that it was wrong to label such people as "rednecks." The implication was clear: the debate over migrant boats exists in a sort of safe zone, in which anti-immigrant sentiments could be aired freely without prompting accusations of racism.
Oxford's Reza Hazmath and the University of Melbourne's Jaffa McKenzie have written that, according to much of the academic literature on the subject, "national anxiety drives the populist backlash against boat people," including "national concern over Australian identity and a fear of invasion, grounded in the historical threat of being ‘swamped' by Australia's Asian northern neighbours."
And according to Monash University professors Fiona McKay, Samantha L. Thomas, and Susan Kneebone, "this construction has been formed through an overwhelmingly negative and sensationalized focus on the method of arrival, and the constant linking of arrivals by boat with labels of ‘queue jumpers,' ‘terrorists,' ‘boat people,' and ‘illegals.'"
In other words, it lets Australians avoid explicitly claiming that Australia's character as a white, Christian country needs to be protected. Instead, the populist rhetoric focuses on the ostensibly race-neutral proposition that asylum seekers' failure to follow "proper procedures" is a sign of dishonesty or even dangerousness, making them a threat to law and order.
The result: vulnerable people at risk
The result of all this, in the words of UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, is a "strange obsession with boats" in Australia. The country has enacted policies that have been effective at stopping migrants' boats, but at the price of placing many refugees in danger of abuse, persecution, and death.
Thanks to the Pacific Solution and its successor, Operation Sovereign Borders, migrants who reach Christmas Island are not able to seek asylum in Australia. Instead, they are held in detention camps before being returned to their countries of origin, or deported to Nauru or Papua New Guinea.
The Australian navy has also begun a program of intercepting migrant boats at sea, transferring their passengers to fully-enclosed lifeboats, and then forcing their crews to pilot them to Indonesia.
Refugees who do reach Australian territory are forced into camps on Christmas Island or are deported to camps in Nauru or Papua New Guinea, where they are detained under awful conditions. There are credible reports of detainees being seriously abused at the camps, including sexual abuse of children by camp guards. Even very young children are held in detention indefinitely while their claims are processed, and are sometimes separated from their families.
In one chilling instance, advocates recently filed a lawsuit on behalf of a six-year-old girl who has been detained on Christmas Island for more than a year. Immigration authorities had separated the child from her mother, who was taken elsewhere shortly after they arrived by boat. The child, known only as "A.S.," was reportedly deprived of adequate medical care and is now suffering from serious psychological and physical injuries.
Australia also returns migrants to their countries of origin without properly evaluating their claims for asylum, seemingly ignoring international and Australian law on refugees.
Asylum seekers from Sri Lanka's Tamil minority are particularly vulnerable. Australia often conducts only a cursory initial interview before returning them to Sri Lanka, which is currently governed by a brutal dictatorship with a track record of torture, forced disappearances, and other abuses of ethnic Tamils. That practice violates international law, which prohibits countries from deporting refugees to countries where they will face persecution. So focused is Australia on preventing unauthorized immigration at seemingly any cost that it donated naval patrol boats to Sri Lanka's government — which is facing a UN investigation for war crimes — in order to enable it to intercept Tamils as they attempt to flee the country.
There is also evidence that migrants face persecution if they are resettled in Nauru. For instance, some locals recently attacked a group of refugee children, beating them severely while reportedly shouting "all motherfucker refugees, we will kill you, this is our country and no one can protect you." The Australian government refused to take responsibility for the children's safety, even though it had sent them to Nauru in the first place. Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said that the incident was "wholly a matter for Nauru."
The echoes of Australia's early 20th century White Australia policy are unmistakable, as is the Australian racial anxiety driving them. Founding a nation out of British colonies in the South Pacific was never going to be racially uncomplicated, but Australia's failure to reconcile its politics and its policy with its geography has left large numbers of people in perilous camps and legal limbo, suffering for the sake of Australian identity politics.