Rethinking ‘Deaths at Sea’

Boat turnbacks are an explicit negation of the humanity of those seeking to come to Australia by boat, writes Tyler Trennery.

The failure of the Australian Left to construct a sustainable narrative of the rights of maritime asylum seekers has in many ways been symbolised by the ineffectual response to the apparent ‘humanitarian’ concern of preventing the death of asylum seekers on the high sea.

While this is a highly charged moral and ethical issue I will argue that in many ways the concern of the Left with status as a ‘refugee’ rather than a simple focus on the rational human agency of asylum seekers has limited the ability of the movement to maintain public support in the face of a move by the conservatives to reject maritime arrivals out of hand whilst ‘accepting’ greater numbers of refugees.

The recent focus on the ‘turnback’ of boats on the high seas is in many ways critical as it exposes the basis on which an egalitarian response to this humanitarian challenge can be crafted. The problem of asylum seekers for those opposed to their entry into Australia was that their actions were fundamentally logical and rational and clearly recognisable as such by any Australian who took the time to consider the issues that they faced.

Many Australians would respond in the same way if placed in a situation where their economic, social, gender or political agency was fundamentally constrained by the actions of those around them. They would either seek to actively resist the injustice trying to impose itself on them or try to reach a more decent community.

Of course, in practice – whether you are an Afghan facing a future of grinding poverty and religious discrimination, a Tamil fleeing decades of vicious civil and ethnic strife, or an Iranian fleeing a murderous regime of religious zealots -this means people will try to reach a free, enormously prosperous nation like Australia where they will find the opportunity for genuine human agency which by any measure they deserve.

The growing conservative backlash to maritime arrivals in the 80s/90s implicitly conceded the logic of the decision to travel to Australia by focussing on the creation of a ‘deterrent’. From the early moves towards mandatory detention under the Keating Government to the subsequent Howard, Gillard and Rudd iterations of the ‘Pacific Solution’, the internal logic of the process required the punishment of asylum seekers for the method by which they sought their goal (namely residence in Australia).

This framework hadn’t yet dispensed with the focus on ‘refugee status’. Instead it aimed to demonise boat arrivals by comparison to hypothetical refugees and implied that the fact of ‘queue jumping’ was an explicit rebuttal of refugee status. The desperation and viciousness of the attacks on the moral legitimacy of asylum seekers were revealing as they clearly exposed the weakness of arguments against the rationality of their decision. After all, it’s difficult to maintain our moral or ethical right to the enormous privileges and opportunities of life in Australia as a result of the good fortune of birth in the face of those willingly placing their lives on the line to assert their right to the same opportunities.

In this context the reaction from many groups on the Left to focus on the assertion of the legitimacy of refugee status was understandable and in many ways effective, particularly towards the end of the Howard Government when public sentiment had substantially shifted against the inherent cruelty of the detention regime. Nonetheless, even within this overall framework we saw in the assertion of the Howard Government the right to choose “who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come” the justification for boat turnbacks by both his and subsequent governments. It also neatly sidestepped the moral or rational basis for an Asylum seekers decision to try and reach Australia by rejecting out of hand the idea that their expressions of human agency should have any influence over our decision.

Boat turnbacks are an explicit negation of the humanity of those seeking to come to Australia by boat. The existence of ‘refugee status’ is ignored and the threat of subsequent death or injury to those on board is pushed out of sight in a way that ongoing detention doesn’t quite manage to do. Rather than troubling ourselves by actively considering this primal expression of a human desire for freedom we throw asylum seekers back onto the undifferentiated mass of humanity from which they had the temerity to trouble our conscience.

The decision to actively cast aside the asylum seekers ‘insolent’ expression of basic human agency – in many ways their only rational possibility in the face of a profoundly unjust world – is the quintessence of the crude right to exclusion inherent in a nationalistic community and a fundamental betrayal of egalitarian liberal principles. Some argue that it’s nonetheless necessary in the face of domestic public opposition and that it might allow us to increase our overall refugee intake. Whilst such a move should be made and applauded regardless as a basic ethical necessity for a nation like Australia we must eventually stop perceiving ourselves as an island in an undifferentiated mass of human ‘others’ from which we can arbitrarily pick and choose, and instead engage with the humanity of those who so desperately seek to join our community.