When confronted with the spectacle of the malnourished, the impoverished, the famine stricken, and the desperate, the Australian political instinct is simple: Why did these poor fools get themselves into this mix? With each wave of refugees arriving in the country's young history, the cold shoulder has mixed with the lukewarm welcome.
At no point have refugees been welcomed so much as grudgingly accepted. Australia, after all, has a humanitarian intake, and boasts about it like a vulnerable child who feels her grades the best in class.
Like a necessary pantomime, Australia's distant, estranging middle-class tediousness treats human rights as the necessary costume at the international human rights party. To be such an international citizen, conventions are signed, and modestly implemented. Some are even abused with a degree of legalised gusto.
In a country with no bill of rights, it can hardly be any other way. The rights culture, it can be said, is one of smugness and suspicion. Supremacy resides with Parliament, and a misplaced belief that the executive will somehow be compliant.
The sentiment towards refugees and asylum seekers taking the sea route hardened after the 1990s, when the means of arrival became an issue in Australian politics. (You cannot be punished or discriminated against on the manner of travel under the Refugee Convention, but the lawyers were obviously napping at stages.) Decent people, after all, took planes, and if they did arrive by boat, would surely do the appropriate thing and fly a decent class.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the issue of pressing concern was the arrival of Vietnamese boat people fleeing the Communist Republic. Then, as now, the issue of how these people were arriving bothered certain Australian figures, most notably John Howard. Aqueous borne arrivals, notably of the Asiatic sort, terrified him.
The currently broken, and easily refutable theme in the practiced inhumanity against those now defiantly assembled on the closed Manus processing facility at the Lombrum Naval Base, is that of the "market model". Refugees and asylum seekers should never partake in a system of exchange. Money for passage is a smutty exchange best stamped out.
To that end, refugee and asylum seeker policy in Australia resembles that of a tax meeting or Reserve Bank board gathering. The agenda never changes: what markets are appropriate, and which ones are not?
The market that encourages the pursuit of the Refugee Convention, its articles, its spirit, is discouraged by the denizens of propriety. To flee persecution, harm and mortal risk, forms the quintessence of international refugee law, but best take a number and wait your turn.
The problem with this approach is simple: awaiting that vital turn in this artificially contrived queue can lead to interminable periods of processing, detention and waiting in camps of varying degrees of comfort. Often, these are located in impoverished states. Rarely are they found in wealthier ones.
Inevitably, this situation of crippling stagnation has produced, over the decades, individuals who facilitate the movement of peoples. Money, often life savings, exchange hands. Risky routes are traversed. Death can never be ruled out as a possible outcome.
Rather than providing solace and comfort to those who brave such routes, the propriety-driven market modellers in Australian Immigration and Border Protection prefer to discourage, and criminalise, the smuggler. But more to the point, the product – individuals availing themselves of the means to reach Australia – are also to be criminalised. Like drug producer like drugs; like pornographer, like porn. All, to be frowned upon, jailed, detained.