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Playing the asylum seeker blame game

By Kim Huynh - posted Monday, 27 April 2009

With details about the cause of the explosion leading to the death of five people and more than 40 casualties on the Suspect Illegal Entry Vehicle (SIEV) 36 unlikely to be revealed for some time and speculation still lingering, it’s worth reviewing the scorecard in this fervent political blame game. In other words, “Who is responsible?”

First, there are the asylum seekers. Government officials report that the asylum seekers doused the boat with petrol believing that they would be dragged back out to sea. One time Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock was quick to bolster West Australian Premier Colin Barnett’s suggestions of sabotage by pointing out that asylum seekers have commonly disabled boats by “putting cocktails into engines” and “knocking a hole in the hull”.

There is no doubt that asylum seekers can be calculating individuals; to survive the persecution and conflict that they have fled often demands it. However, Ruddock’s comments echo more dubious claims from 2001 that boatpeople are holding the country to ransom, do not respect life like we do, and therefore should not be allowed into the country.


These claims demonise boatpeople and radicalise their actions which are better understood in the context of personal desperation and within an historical pattern that has seen Jews, Vietnamese, Haitians and Rohingyas, among others, shooed back out to sea to their deaths.

Second, there are the smugglers whom Prime Minister Kevin Rudd regards as the “vilest form of humanity”. By this account, people smugglers exploit asylum seekers for large amounts of money and are constantly scanning for chinks in Australia’s armour. It is politically expedient for the PM to suggest that they should all rot in hell because he can project an image of uncompromising toughness without targeting the defenceless. However, vitriol is a blunt rhetorical weapon and so some of it will invariably rub off on the asylum seekers. After all, the asylum seekers may often be deceived by the exact nature of service that they seek, but they are not being trafficked.

Moreover, not all people smugglers are as vile as Rudd suggests. Some of the recent smugglers are impoverished fishermen who are so desperate to make a living that they are willing to risk imprisonment. The case of Ali Al Jenabi who was sentenced to eight years imprisonment for people smuggling is also instructive. An Iraqi refugee who organised boats from Indonesia, he maintained that he never made a profit and only sought to help his family and other asylum seekers in their pursuit of freedom. This is not to say that we should change our people smuggling laws; only that smugglers like everyone else should be judged on their particular circumstances.

Third, there’s the Government who according to the Opposition has given a green light to asylum seekers by rolling back mandatory detention, temporary protection visas and the Pacific Strategy. In the event that mistakes were made while rescuing the SIEV 36 passengers or inadequate procedures were in place, then the government must take some responsibility for this tragedy. However, the Opposition’s claim that the deaths were attributable to its “soft” approach to border security is sullied by the well-documented consequences of the Howard government’s “hard” approach. These consequences include the death of 353 people on the SIEV X, the severe trauma experienced by those who were mandatorily detained or transferred to Nauru and Manus Island, the detention of Cornelia Rau and the deportation of Vivian Solon.

Moreover, placing all the blame on the Rudd administration fails to take into account “upstream” factors which include the lack of legal and physical infrastructure in Indonesia and Malaysia (which the government has moved quickly to address) and worldwide phenomena such as globalisation, resurgent identity politics, ongoing conflict, and the global financial crisis which have at once increased the number of people fleeing their countries of origin while decreasing the willingness of countries to take them in.

The fact is that no one comes to this issue with clean hands. The problem is that when there are multiple parties to blame, it is easy to blame someone else. As a result, asylum seekers are left in precarious circumstances on the high seas and are “utterly superfluous” when it comes to their political power and rights.


However, the multi-layered nature of blame can also be a reason for taking common responsibility. But to do so we have to move beyond the hyperbole that is based on a simplistic view of the world in which there are only sinners and saints.

We can in fact recognise that forced migration requires comprehensive plans of action without feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of this issue. In part this is because forced migration does not materially affect Australia in as profound a way as it does countries like Italy, Pakistan Canada, Jordan and South Africa. Home Affairs Minister Debus acknowledged that “thousands” of people are in Indonesia hoping to seek asylum in Australia. One estimate places this figure at 2,000 which is well within the capabilities of the Australian and Indonesian governments to deal with in a humane fashion, particularly given that in 2008 Australia processed almost 4,800 asylum applicants (most of whom came by air).

As a mature and thoughtful nation we can be both cognisant of our historical anxiety about our borders, but also proud of how we have overcome that anxiety to serve as a positive force in international affairs, taking in over 600,000 displaced people since the end of World War II.

Of course we decide who comes to this country and the means by which they come. The issue is how we make our decisions and whether they are the right ones.

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About the Author

Dr Kim Huynh teaches Refugee Politics at the Australian National University. His chapter “Us and them: National identity and the question of ‘belonging’”, appears in The Culture Wars: Australian And American Politics In The 21st Century.

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