It is fair to say that Australia’s refugee policy is cruel and punitive. We have a migration act created specifically to contravene our international human rights obligations. Men, women and children seeking asylum are locked up in offshore islands – a neo-colonial imposition on these neighbouring countries – under the thin excuse that this will stop refugees arriving by boat to Australia and thus will “save lives at sea”. Never mind that the Navy boats out at sea monitoring refugee arrivals have been complicit in ignoring distress signals, towing boats back to other countries, and paying for people to take refugees elsewhere (rather than simply rescuing these boats!). Like we are seeing with the rise of Trumpism in the USA, refugees are made into a scapegoat by the Australian government. Making refugees a “problem”, with xenophobic ideas about Islam trumpeted particularly loudly, distracts from the harsh austerity measures being imposed across the West. This isn’t a humanitarian issue so much as a class issue, when we consider who anti-refugee arguments are aimed at and why.
From this perspective we can begin to understand the government’s cruelty. From here we can start to understand how we need to undo the rhetoric we are pummelled with.
What is hard to understand however, is how and why the government manages to get away with openly torturing women and children, who are so often seen as the most vulnerable in society. However problematic that idea might be in itself, there is no denying that these groups are generally seen as more/most in need of care.
Indeed in refugee activism, at protests for example, we often see a focus on children. Signs like “Do we really have to protest torturing children?!” are prevalent. And when it comes to specific issues like Abyan (the woman seeking an abortion last year after being raped on Nauru) and baby Asha (who the government is still trying to deport) we do see a greater mass outburst of protest.
But despite the limited public backlash on these specific cases of refugee women and children, the government continues to publicly demand their deportation and incarceration. Why? Why not just let the women and children out, and leave the men locked up as a way to continue to “deterrence” project? How can they keep getting away with it, and why is it seemingly SO important to them that they torture babies, for example? On the surface this appears quite incomprehensible. Doesn’t everyone want to protect women and babies? Doesn’t this trump the class argument?
Indeed the prime minister Malcolm Turnbull apparently publicly champions women, stating: “I call on everyone to work together to lead the cultural change ensuring women are respected, secure & safe from violence”. How on earth can he get away with such hypocrisy?!
In her article “From horrorism to compassion” feminist theorist Griselda Pollock argues that:
“Killing women with children or women who might bear children is, of course, the horrific core of genocide. War kills the men and uses the rape of women against other men. Genocide locates a future in the feminine. Hence genocide must destroy all women and children; they carry a future” (p.178).
Now, obviously the torture imposed here is operating within a slightly different framework (though we may note that the detention centres are often referred to as “camps”, which they quite literally are in some cases). But I am suggesting is that in the case of refugees women and children symbolically represent the future. If these people were allowed to remain/come to Australia this would mean an Australia opened up to the Other. They would represent a porous and shifting Australia where “anyone” could be a part. They represent a future that isn’t white. They represent the outside coming in, the border collapsing, the fence coming down. To those who have little, and are at risk of having more taken away by austerity, they represent a future of “taking” – of having to share what is already not much, with an even greater number. In other words: they represent a threat.
That’s why the government – to maintain its own policy – must not only continue to torture women and children, but to make a specific example of them. Those futures must be both perceptible (a threatening horizon) and utterly rejected (“you have no future here”) for the government to continue its cruel measures. Of course there is push and pull around this. When you’re making a “necessary” example of women and babies you have to pay some lip service to their welfare as well so you don’t look too bad.
In contrast we should not expect that the government will make an example of gay asylum seekers locked up on Manus Island, because symbolically they represent “no future”. As queer theorist Lee Edelman suggests, homosexuality is seen to signify a dead-end insofar as it (symbolically) means an inability to reproduce. In these terms we can see why the government doesn’t bother making an example of gay refugees: they don’t present the same future vision and thus cannot be used as representative of a general threat to Australia in the same way as refugee women and children. Yet to let them come and resettle in Australia would be to acknowledge the fact that not only are these refugees genuine (i.e. fleeing real persecution) but would be to affirm homosexuality more generally, which presents a different kind of threat to the dominant ideology (and the government has much easier targets for this, such as safe schools). Thus they must remain rejected, but cannot be used in the same way to spread fear of refugees specifically.
It is important to realise that refugee activists cannot win against the government’s rhetoric by focusing only on women and children because it is not about the women and children themselves, but what they represent. Indeed those championing women and children often forget to tackle the underlying symbolic issue of what “future” is at stake. They often erroneously reduce the argument to a purely “rational” humanitarian one, when the government’s logic: a) isn’t actually irrational; and b) is clearly about class not purely humanitarian concerns. This creates the illusion that the ordinary people arguing against refugees are monsters, yet (in contradiction) that we can simply win by yelling our humanitarian arguments louder and louder. I have heard in many an activist meeting for example that “the biggest supporters of refugees are those who have PhDs [laughs]”. This is a horribly elitist perspective that needs to be challenged at every opportunity because it will never help us win.
No, the arguments that must be made to undo the cruelty must address the future the government wants so many to fear. When we advocate for refugee women we must argue for a future for all refugees. We need to keep behind all of our arguments the idea of a future that is open, porous, more than white, borderless. But most importantly we need to argue that the only people who “take” from us are the same ones torturing refugees. We need to argue that austerity is imposed from above, not by those who come across the seas. We must argue for boundless plains to share, and we must remember who it really is that threatens our collective future.