Prison hulks and river blades: fortress building in the climate-castrophe era

Jul 25, 2023
Description Silhouettes of hands behind a barbed wire, Refugee camp, border, illegal immigration issue, prison fence, dark colour

Britain has commissioned a prison hulk to house immigrants, in a cruel re-enactment of history. Meanwhile, Texas Governor Greg Abbott has implemented two strategies to stop immigrants crossing the Rio Grande into America: one is a floating barrier with razor wire and rolling motion that pulls people under the water; the other is an apparent order to push people into the river, including mothers holding small children.

One horrifying aspect for an Australian audience reading these developments is that we have been part of the inspiration for their increasingly horrifying treatment of the displaced.

Tony Abbott and Alexander Downer have both been consulting with the British about the best way to “deter” asylum seekers arriving by boat. The UK parliament has enough grotesque bigoted figures of its own to blame for the new Illegal Migration bill and ship “solution” to deterrence for us to blame Abbott and Downer for this idea. Both Abbott and Downer have also been participating in Western chauvinist Orban’s speaking circuit which fosters anti-immigrant extremism.

Our approach to migration is complex. Big Business supports it and wants high migration. Australia’s Coalition immigration regime barely fought slave labour conditions for temporary workers while turning all aggression against asylum seekers as political theatre.

America has always counted on a transitory population from over its southern border to keep labour and food prices low. The decision to aim to make the border impenetrable has had the predictable effect of causing people to try to stay on the American side of the border to send money home to family struggling to survive. Numbers approaching the border for safety have also been increasing with violence – much caused by American policy – and climate crisis desperation forcing people from Central America out of their home countries.

President Trump’s early telephone call with then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull was a shameful one. Trump exclaimed with admiration that “You are worse than I am,” when it came to treatment of those legally claiming asylum. Trump’s administration, led on this front by the white supremacist figure of Steven Miller, took our example and intensified the misery. Children around America remain lost to their parents after the brutal years when babies were literally snatched from their mothers’ arms to punish them for the “crime” of seeking safe haven. Now a Trump advisor on strategy is working for the Texas Governor, implementing cruelties that the federal administrative state blocked him from deploying.

Australia’s persecution of the few of the world’s displaced who reach us by irregular means continues in a less overt fashion. The nightmare we created in PNG continues. Our immigration department is stripped of institutional knowledge because the nation-building public servants left during the grim reign of the customs official incompetents and bullies. The new appointments under Minister Andrew Giles are slow to acquire expertise and perhaps still harnessed by a departmental leadership that shared the Coalition’s Western chauvinism. The reunion with vulnerable families will move at glacial pace for that percentage eventually being granted visas.

The surge in Middle Eastern and African displacement reached crescendo in 2015. Part of this was created by Western and allegedly Russian military interventions, recent and past. This was also the year that Trump announced his presidential campaign, launching it with demonisation of immigrants.

Part of the surge in numbers was the beginning of the climate crisis’s mass displacement. Syria’s internal crisis, for example, was in part fuelled by young people flooding to the city for opportunity after crippling climatic conditions killed the crops.

The resultant paranoia in Western nations drove a surge in white supremacist and Neo Nazi support. Disinformation made people in distant villages of Wales who’d not seen a refugee themselves believe they were about to be flooded with new and unfamiliar people. The same disinformation, allegedly promoted by Russian propaganda, led people to believe that these asylum seekers were a threat to Western safety, as terrorists or rapists.

Former conservative governments were already being radicalised by “think tanks” and a new generation of politician who had been honed by Dark Money’s strategies into an anti-democratic force.

Some right-wing politicians still genuinely believe that the climate catastrophe is a hoax, just as asylum seekers must be country shopping grifters and that our nations must be white. Others believe that both problems are insoluble, particularly by a party that doesn’t believe in government.

This problem is compounded by the fact that those displaced by the climate catastrophe are still denied refugee status.

Our Centrist parties speak the language of climate action, but as we see in Australia and America, their will to make functional change does not match the rhetoric. This defeatism is paired with state Labor governments joining in the war against protesters rather than polluters.

The prison hulks for asylum seekers in Britain together with Texas at the vanguard of American cruelty are the other face of that defeatism.

Any data-based government knows that millions will be displaced by the climate crisis in the coming decades. Beyond that, the numbers seeking safety will be far greater. Most will be internally displaced or move into their poor neighbour states. Some will make it to the wealthier world for rescue.

Rather than act in unity to work to cap the temperature rise and limit the catastrophes of famine, drought, floods, war and disease, governments are turning their states into fortresses at monumental expense. India and Eastern Europe are building literal fences against threatened regions. Australia has coast guard and naval vessels poised to chase off any making the attempt.

Britain and Texas are modelling the next grotesque step as the numbers rise: the cruelty shatters every claim we have to be ethical nations. We fail in the duty to stop our overwhelming contribution to the world’s carbon overload, and we turn brutal in our efforts to punish those displaced, substantially, by our acts.

Australia forged the cruel path of refugee torture combined with laughter at the fate of our climate-threatened neighbours. We must decide now if that is who we continue to be.

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