Border paranoia breaks out in Fortress Australia

February 22, 2024
Processing facility for asylum seekers on Nauru in 2012. Photo: Wikimedia/DIAC images/CC BY 2.0

With the appearance of a few asylum seekers on some of the most remote shorelines in Western Australia, customary hysteria began to be tapped for political gain.

Opposition Coalition leader Peter Dutton wondered how they could have arrived undetected. “The government has all sorts of problems,” he crowed. “It’s clear that [Labor doesn’t] have the same surveillance in place that we had when we were in government.”

The 2022-3 Australia Border Force (ABF) annual report had noted a reduction of “maritime patrol days” by 6% and aerial patrols by 14%, the result of vessel maintenance, personnel shortages and logistical difficulties when operating in remote parts off the coast.

Overall, the ABF’s costs have been adjusted to account for the fact that the 2022-3 budget was, as Home Affairs department chief finance officer Stephanie Cargill explained last May, “overspent”.

ABF chief Michael Outram has reproached Dutton for his suggestion that there had been funding cuts. “Border Force funding is currently the highest it’s been since its establishment in 2015 and in the last year, the ABF has received additional funding totalling hundreds of millions of dollars, to support maritime and land-based operations.”

There has not been any softening of the brutal policy that presumptively and prematurely judges undocumented naval arrivals as illegal.

As the ABF statement on the arrivals noted, with customary severity: “Australia’s tough border protection policies means that no one who travels unauthorised by boat will ever be allowed to settle permanently in Australia. The only way to travel to Australia is legally, with an Australian visa.”

The dubious rationale for maintaining the policy, known as Operation Sovereign Borders, is still in place.

“Australia,” the ABF explains, “remains committed to protecting its borders, stamping out people smuggling and preventing vulnerable people from risking their lives on futile journeys. The people smuggling business model is built on the exploitation of information and selling lies to vulnerable people who will give up everything to risk their lives at sea.”

Rear Admiral Brett Sonter, who leads Operation Sovereign Borders, had also stated that nothing has changed.

“The mission of Operation Sovereign Borders remains the same today as it was when it was established in 2013: protect Australia’s borders, combat people smuggling in our region, and importantly, prevent people from risking their lives at sea.”

To suggest otherwise would create an “alternative narrative” susceptible to exploitation “by criminal people smugglers to deceive potential irregular immigrants and convince them to risk their lives and travel to Australia by boat”.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese decided to give Dutton a parliamentary scalding by suggesting that he was “just full of nonsense” and that he “should stop being a cheer squad for people, encouraging people smuggling”.

Such “business models”, as they are derisively and demagogically called, are the natural consequence of a need to flee.

It is a need that is being punished globally by wealthier states less than keen to accept asylum seekers.

Canberra’s savage approach to asylum seekers — non-settlement in Australia of those eventually found to be refugees and detaining individuals in concentration camps in the Pacific — has become the envy of border protection fetishists.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, for instance, dreams of an Australia-styled solution that will involve “turning the boats back” and deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda.

Unfortunately for him, an army of lawyers and judges have frustrated his vision.

The border fetishists also make a crucial omission: the people smugglers, who are of all stripes of opportunism, are merely facilitating the provisions of the United Nations Refugee Convention.

The Convention, to which Australia is a signatory, states that asylum seekers should not be discriminated against on the basis of how they arrive, or their backgrounds.

It is high time that bipartisan support for such a cruel policy came to an end.

[Binoy Kampmark lectures at RMIT University.]

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