Saving lives – but which ones? Life, belonging and postsecular possibilities in contemporary asylum politics

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In today’s post, Erin Wilson reflects on the recent decision by the Australian parliament to excise its territory from its migration zone, what this means for how we value life, how we belong and how both religious and secular perspectives can help us rethink these critical issues.

Last week in my home country, Australia, the parliament passed legislation that excises the entire Australian mainland from its migration zone. Australia’s islands had already been excised from the migration zone under the Howard Government in either 2001 or 2005.[1] Now the entire territory of Australia is excised from the migration zone. In practical terms what this means is that an asylum seeker who arrives on any part of Australian territory by boat will will be moved to detention in Nauru or Papua New Guinea, and the processing of their claims will be frozen for an unknown period under Australia’s new ‘no advantage’ principle.* A country that used to pride itself on being a good international citizen, generous, compassionate, with a ‘fair go’ for all, has now become one of the most inhospitable places in the world for those seeking safety.

The move is unprecedented for a country that is signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, but experts fear that other countries will soon follow suit. Given that most developed nations in recent times have implemented strict asylum laws that deny asylum seekers of a vast number of their rights, such fears are not unfounded. If other countries do follow Australia’s example, the international asylum system will fall apart.

Asylum seekers, in particular those that arrive in Australia by boat, have been a controversial and recurrent political issue for the last decade in Australia. Largely since the so-called Tampa crisis of 2001, politicians have engaged in what some academics have called a ‘politics of fear’, using asylum seekers as a political tool to garner electoral support. These discourses of fear around asylum seekers draw on long existing anxieties regarding invasion as well as tendencies to racism within Australian history and national identity, linked to its colonial past.[2] More lately, the Labor government has introduced a different rhetoric of stopping people smugglers, rather than the asylum seekers explicitly. Recent tragedies involving the deaths of asylum seekers arriving by boat have further added to the complexity and emotion of this issue. [3]

One of the most intriguing ways the excision of the mainland has been justified is through the preservation of life. This rhetoric comes from the Australian Labor Party, the centre left of the two major parties. While the Liberal-National Coalition party, currently in opposition, use discourses of illegality, exclusion and “queue jumping” to argue for strict asylum policy, the Labor Party, which previously opposed the excision of the mainland, has argued that this policy move is necessary to save lives.

Former Minister for Immigration Chris Bowen originally opposed the excision of the mainland, stating it would be a “stain on our national character”. However, he has since changed his mind about the policy because it would “save lives” and the government is prepared to do “what it takes to save lives”.[4]

Senator Matt Thistlethwaite makes the same argument:

“Fifty innocent women and children drowned in shocking circumstances before the eyes of this nation on the rocks at Christmas Island. We simply cannot allow, as a nation with a heart, those circumstances to continue.”[5]

In essence, the argument is that by preventing people from being able to claim asylum if they arrive by boat, they will think twice before paying a people smuggler and/or undertaking a life-threatening sea voyage.

On the surface, this language appears consistent with liberal cosmopolitan perspectives about responsibilities to preserve the lives of others. Yet it does not take much to see that the argument concerning saving lives is highly contextual and specific. Senator Thistlethwaite’s statement is very revealing: “before the eyes of this nation”. What the Labor Party is really keen to do is to avoid loss of life that we can see. This suggests that it is the sensibilities of the Australian public that the government is concerned about, not the actual lives themselves.

This interpretation is supported by two key insights. Firstly, over 90% of recent asylum seekers who have arrived in Australia by boat have been found to be refugees.[6] This is not a recent turn of events either. Consistently, 70-97% of all boat arrivals have been found to meet the international criteria for refugee status.[7] If the majority of people who are arriving in Australia by boat are refugees, this means that they are fleeing persecution and are in fear of their lives. Discouraging them from undertaking a life-threatening sea voyage and instead to remain in a life-threatening situation in their country origin, or undertake a life-threatening journey elsewhere, in the long run does little to actually “save lives”.

Secondly, while the government’s rhetoric suggests they are interested in protecting the lives of distant strangers and upholding their international responsibilities, recent changes to the foreign aid budget undermine this claim. In August last year, the Labor government announced that it would divert AU$3 billion over four years from its foreign aid budget to fund the reopening of offshore detention centres for asylum seekers in Nauru and Manus Island.[8] This move makes Australia the third largest recipient of its own foreign aid.[9] The need for the detention centres is a problem that stems from the distinction that successive governments have chosen to make between asylum seekers who arrive by plane and asylum seekers who arrive by boat. Those that arrive by plane are placed in community care while the claim is processed, a much more humane and cost-effective approach, while those that arrive by boat are placed in immigration detention.[10]

If we were to truly believe that the government was interested in saving lives, regardless of where those lives happened to be and whether we could see them or not, then it would seem more logical to increase foreign aid spending and reduce the need for detention centres, given how economically inefficient they are and the detrimental impacts they have on the health and well-being of asylum seekers.

While Australia is the first country to excise its entire territory from its migration zone, it is not alone in implementing immigration policies that significantly restrict the rights and freedoms of asylum seekers. Numerous other countries, including the UK, the US, France and here in the Netherlands, have made moves to make life increasingly harder for asylum seekers, especially failed asylum seekers within their borders. Interestingly, “life” has played a key role in campaigns for asylum seekers here in the Netherlands, with members of De Vluchtkerk campaign using the slogan “Ik wil een normaal leven/I want a normal life”.

What these examples suggest is that there is a need to rethink how governments values “life” in their policies and perhaps also how our understanding of life determines who belongs and who doesn’t’, who is worthy of assistance and who is not. And it is here that I think postsecular theorizing might be able to make a contribution.

The secular state as the dominant mode of political belonging is the foundation of the current international asylum and human rights systems (for the two are inextricably connected). In large part owing to the dominance of realist theory, the logic of the secular state focuses on shortages and competition, “defending the national interest” against threats, known and unknown, to its survival. What then occurs is that the lives of those who belong to the nation-state become more valuable than the lives of those who do not. This is fine when every person is a member of one nation-state or another and when that nation-state upholds its duty to defend and protect the rights of its citizens. But when the state is unable or unwilling to provide that protection, or when a person does not belong to any state, the ethical shortcomings of secular state-based logic become painfully apparent. In this formulation, a life is only valuable when it is tied to a state. Outside of the nation-state, a life has no value, or at least, no state is prepared to claim responsibility for a life that does not belong.[11]

While the introduction of international law, particularly human rights and refugee law, has endeavoured to promote a sense of global cosmopolitan citizenship and responsibility, in particular the idea that life has value simply by virtue of membership of humanity, the daily realities of asylum politics, as most recently demonstrated by the Australian case, is that state-based logic still dominates. If anything, the state has become, or is endeavouring to become, stronger. Life still only has value if it is tied to a state. If they do not belong and we cannot see them, then their life does not matter. It is as though they don’t exist.

I do think employing a postsecular lens to think through these problems is useful, since it enables us to draw on alternative ways of understanding the value of life and of defining community. As discussed in an earlier blog post, religious traditions have a strong emphasis on hospitality to the stranger, largely as a result of their belief that all humanity is somehow divine, a representative of God on earth, or made in the image of God. Further, religious traditions disrupt our secular notions of belonging that are confined by boundaries of time and space. They encourage us to think about the people who have been before and will come after, and those who may be far distant geographically but are so close when it comes to lived experiences and daily realities. Such insights are, I think, what Jurgen Habermas was referring to when he emphasized the beauty and meaning that religions can bring to public debate. What if we began to take a long-term view of these policy problems, not one constrained by the vagaries of electoral politics? What if we really started to think of all life as sacred, leaving aside for the present the source of that sacredness? This would have immense impact on the way we approach a multitude of problems, asylum, but also climate change, consumerism, education and a host of others.

I am not suggesting that religions should be used as the alternative way to define belonging and to value life. That has been tried and failed. What I am suggesting is that combining the insights of secular approaches to contemporary state-based politics and belonging with theologies of life, citizenship and belonging from the world’s religious traditions may provide us with creative avenues for rethinking these critical issues. The state of the international asylum system requires that we earnestly reconsider how we value life, the ways in which we belong and our responsibilities to and for one another.

Erin Wilson is the Director of the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain, Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Groningen, with thanks to Kim Knibbe, Suzanne Klein Skaarsberg, Birgit van der Lans and Philip Monsbourgh for comments and suggestions on previous drafts.

*Earlier this piece had said asylum seekers would not be able to claim asylum in Australia under the new law. This was an over-simplification of the situation and the new sentence is intended to give further detail and clarification. The author apologises for any confusion. Thanks to Jo Knight, Immigration lawyer, for assisting with the clarification.


[2] A. Burke, In Fear of Security: Australia’s Invasion Anxiety, Annandale: Pluto Press (2001), pxxxvii-xxxviii; R. Devetak ‘In fear of refugees: The politics of border protection in Australia’ The International Journal of Human Rights vol. 8, no.1, (2004), pp103-4; J. Jupp, From White Australia to Woomera: The Story of Australian Immigration, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press (2007), p7-8

[3] L. Weber, 2012, ‘Don’t blame people smugglers – bad policy leads to deaths at sea’ The Conversation Available at http://theconversation.com/dont-blame-people-smugglers-bad-policy-leads-to-deaths-at-sea-7958 Accessed 23 May 2013

[4] Cullen, Simon. 2012. “Bowen defends migration policy rethink” ABC News 31 October 2012. Available at http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-10-31/bowen-defends-migration-about-face/4343970 Accessed 16 May 2013

[5] Barlow, Karen and staff, 2013. “Parliament excises mainland from migration zone” ABC News 16 May 2013. Available at http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-05-16/parliament-excises-mainland-from-migration-zone/4693940 Accessed 16 May 2013

[7] For specific statistics by nationality, see Philips, Janet. 2013. “Asylum seekers and refugees: What are the facts” Available at http://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/BN/2012-2013/AsylumFacts#_Toc348096468 Accessed 16 May 2013

[10] Australian migration has made a distinction between asylum seekers who arrive by plane and those that arrive by boat since the early 1990s, when the policy of mandatory detention was introduced. Asylum seekers who arrive by plane, in general, possess valid visas (tourist, student or business) meaning that under Australian law they enter the country “legally” and then claim asylum once they arrive. These asylum seekers are put into community care, giving them access to various social welfare support services and the capacity to work and study to a certain degree. Asylum seekers who arrive by boat do not have visas and often have no identity papers of any kind, meaning that under Australian law they enter the country “illegally”. These asylum seekers are placed in immigration detention centres while their asylum claim is processed. The law in Australia is not consistent with international human rights conventions, which claim the right to seek and enjoy asylum for everyone, regardless of mode of entry, and is a point of significant contention for refugee advocates.

[11] H. Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, (London: Allen and Unwin, 1958), pp268-9

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