The appraisal of current political rhetoric on asylum seeker and refugee policies can be a challenging exercise. Think, for example, of the ideal of ‘strong borders’, which has come to act as a benchmark for the recognition of contemporary realities — so obvious that it seems unthinkable to call it into question; and so politically potent that the mere mention of ‘softness on border protection’ is enough to suggest unfitness to govern. Yet, in this context, it is by no means clear from what exactly our ‘strong borders’ are supposed to offer protection. Nor is it clear why the slightest change in current ‘policy settings’ would amount to a weakening of their presumptive strength.
Plato, in his dialogue Phaedrus, offered a striking image to express an ideal of connecting thought with reality. We should, he says, carve reality along the joints — not hacking it as a bad butcher might. Plato, notoriously, was committed to the existence of definitive truths about the natures of things. His absolutist model of knowledge does not readily fit the nuances at play in understanding human affairs. Nor does his treatment of rhetoric fit the complexities of contemporary ‘messages’ directed to specific audiences. His image of careful carving remains, nonetheless, a salutary reminder of the hazards of disconnection from reality through the construction of distorted distinctions and spurious unities.
As the familiar rhetorical package has it, ‘strong borders’ are meant to preserve us from ‘the return of the boats’. But this just shifts the issue. What threat did those dreaded boats actually pose to our borders — or to ourselves — in the first place? Those who arrived on them were, after all, not trying to surreptitiously infiltrate into our midst. The whole point of their perilous journeys was to make themselves known — to engage our protection, in accordance with procedures established under International Conventions to which we had agreed.
There was no real danger posed by the asylum seekers themselves. Nor did the people smugglers who brought them pose a risk — not, at any rate, to us. It was political rhetoric that merged the construct of the asylum seeker with that of the evil people smuggler. There was of course a certain logic to the equation: if the boats were to be stopped and the drownings avoided, ‘customers’ had to be persuaded not to buy the ‘product’. Yet none of that required that asylum seekers be treated as illegal by association with people smuggling operations.
The merging of the figure of the legal asylum seeker with that of the illegal people smuggler has been facilitated by the often repeated metaphor of ‘sugar on the table’. On the one hand, it evokes imagery of swarms of insects: asylum seekers are construed as mindlessly propelled towards an irresistible goal. On the other hand, they are presented as shrewd ‘customers’ — susceptible to sales promotions and consumer warnings, but intent on depriving us of what is rightfully ours.
So insistent has the rhetoric been, that the mere fact of having once tried to arrive ‘uninvited’ to seek protection is now presented as indicative of bad character. Even recognised refugees, now seriously ill after years spent on Manus and Nauru, are deemed to be ‘conning us’ or dishonestly ‘gaming the system’ in pursuit of elusive sugar.
The taint of those boats has become an indelible stain. Those who tried once — in the lack of alternatives — to arrive uninvited are now told they will never be allowed to arrive at all. Henceforth only ‘invited’ refugees will be tolerated. Yet all must first arrive somewhere if they are to make the transition from ‘uninvited’ to ‘invited’ — from asylum seeker to refugee.
The rhetoric of ‘strong borders’ is framed as a warning to those who might try to get on boats. However, it is primarily directed towards Australian voters. The imagined threat is a conglomerate of loose threads — bound together into an illusory unity by the exploitation of fear and resentment.
Along with constructing spurious unities, political rhetoric has obfuscated important distinctions. ‘Offshore processing’ does not have to involve ‘offshore detention’. Places where ‘processing’ occurs need not coincide with places of ultimate protection or resettlement. A policy of ‘boat turn-backs’ can be reconciled with evaluation of asylum claims under humane conditions and within a reasonable time frame. It need not be associated with strategies of harsh deterrence of asylum seeking.
The notion of ‘strong borders’, as it occurs in the current rhetoric, is itself a product of what Plato deemed bad carving. It is disconnected from the realities it purports to address. In its absence, it might be easier to imagine alternative policy approaches. It might become possible to engage more constructively both with the needs of refugees and with legitimate concerns within Australia about the mode of their arrival. That might allow for a more global approach to what is a global situation — for instance, by greater collaboration with the Global Compacts on Refugees and on Migration.
It should seem extraordinary that the rhetoric of “strong borders” is now invoked to justify bringing seriously ill refugees full circle back to detention on Christmas Island, where many of them first arrived in their search for protection.
Unfortunately, bad butchers can be also cunning salesmen.
Genevieve Lloyd is an Emeritus Professor in Philosophy at the University of New South Wales.