The “problem” with boat people

Jul 1, 2021

Why have successive governments shown disdain for refugees who come by boat? Kim Huynh contrasts the welcome he enjoyed 40 years ago with the hostility now confonting boat people.

Sometimes when I tell folks that I teach refugee politics they ask: “What should we do about boat people?”

I have never come up with an answer that satisfies me, let alone the questioner.

I umm, and I ahh, and I explain that it’s a wicked problem, which means that “solutions” like offshore processing lead to more problems – like stripping the innocent of their freedom and dignity for years on end. Yet to let them in and let them stay arguably encourages more innocent people to make perilous journeys by sea.

I have wondered whether the casual observer is better placed than experts to address the vexed relationship between boat people and borders. “We need to be more humane,” I have heard people say. The logic being that even if we can’t be morally perfect, we should try to do the right thing, or at least avoid horrendous wrongs. In which case, keeping the Murugappan family of Biloela in detention simply does not pass the pub test.

But for me, the issue of boat people is not just a matter of rights and laws. It’s deeply personal. So, full disclosure: I love boat people. And I like to think that I would love them even if I wasn’t one.

I admire the clear thinking that they exercise under immense pressure, which allows them to see that they have no future in their homeland. I commend how boat people confront and flee persecution, giving up their heritage, family and possessions to face uncertainty in exile.

It astonishes me that boat people cross oceans, but are often unable to swim, and totally unaware of what the water can do. They soon come to know it intimately, and realise how it can both sink and save them.

Like so many waves, boat people cover vast distances, negotiating eddies and currents, sweeping up debris and organisms that range from minute to mighty. At the same time, they are utterly insignificant and, like everyone else, eventually crash or fizzle into an indifferent mass that stretches from one horizon to the next.

My parents at the NT Museum with a boat just like the one we left Vietnam on more than 40 years ago

They are, however, distinct from non-boat people in their understanding of what defines and drives us. This comes from seeing folks stripped bare of all status and pretence, and from taking part in the very worst, the very best and the very essence of human endeavour. It comes from tightly entwining one’s limbs with all manner of strangers as one swelters without food or water on a deck or in a hull.

My parents at the NT Museum with a boat just like the one we left Vietnam on more than 40 years ago. Picture: Supplied

Often boat people keep their insights and experiences to themselves. Perhaps recalling them is too painful? Or maybe they believe their history should end with them? Either way, I respect how they suffer in silence.

Furthermore, I’m fond of how boat people announce themselves. They come without fanfare but should be anticipated. They say “Hey, remember us? We fought with you against tyranny and for justice. We believed you when you said you would lift us up and push us along. We like your sharing and caring spirit and want to contribute to your riches. We’re here to help.”

I also love how boat people love Australia. Their patriotism is considered and hard-won.

This applies to Indochinese boat people like me and my family, who were taken in by the government, church and community more than 40 years ago, then offered a three-bedroom house to sleep in and infinite English lessons, along with the chance to work, vote and reunite with family.

And it applies to recent boat people like Ali the Rohingya refugee, who is staunchly devoted to Australia despite how it has treated him. Ali arrived in Australia at a time when the world wide web allowed information and goods to travel more freely than ever, while vulnerable people like him were warehoused. The Australian navy intercepted Ali’s boat and tried to force it back out to sea. Ali and 70 others, including two young children, were rescued only minutes before their boat sunk. Upon arriving in Darwin, 15-year-old Ali was pressured to sign forms that would allow the government to deport him. He was incarcerated and witnessed acts of desperate violence that will stay with him always.

When Ali informed his parents by phone that Australia had not given him a fair go, they told him: “Australia is your family now. It has given you a new life. Your loyalty lies first and foremost with that country.” Ali listened to them. After living precariously on a temporary visa for over eight years, he declares without hesitation: “I don’t care what visa they give me, I will always call Canberra my home.”

So I love boat people. And I love Australia. But Australia hates boat people. That is my problem.

“Hate” is a strong word. It does not apply all the time and to everyone. But if it is not the right word, then it is because it does not convey the extent of the disdain that successive Australian governments have shown for boat people, and the political capital that they have garnered by doing so.

Nor does it explain why Australia, like no other country, makes laws to ship out and lock up boat people in the most wretched conditions, indefinitely.

I hope that being upfront about love, hate and boat people might help us to consider how the boat people problem is not so much with them, but with us.

Kim Huynh teaches politics and philosophy at the ANU and hosts ABC Radio Canberra’s Sunday Brunch.

This article was first published in the Canberra Times on June 19 — re-published with the author’s permission.

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