Refugees are Terrorists!


The Government’s failed attempt last week to have its Amended Migration Act pass through Parliament foregrounded the thinking that has coloured all debates about Australia’s treatments of refugees.

The majority of Australians want tough border security … A lot of these people do have military backgrounds, some have been involved in activities … we know that there are a number of people now that are in the courts in Melbourne … as a result of previous raids, that have questions about them.

So sayeth Liberal backbencher Don Randall.

And this is what Amanda Vanstone had to say when eight people were dumped on Ashmore Reef last week:

The arrival of these people confirms the need for strong border protection and it’s worth noting today that, had these people arrived on the mainland, they would, if they were found not to be genuine refugees, be able to stay here for years on end contesting that decision.

Both politicians were really saying: ‘Refugees are terrorists.’

It’s this kind of thinking that fuels Channel 7’s high rating Border Security: Australia’s Front Line (Tuesdays, 7:30 pm), a show that takes viewers behind the scenes of our Immigration, Customs and Quarantine Departments.

Or, as the show’s promotional material puts it:

The men and women that patrol here are literally at the front line when it comes to protecting our country from drug runners, illegal immigrants and potential terrorists. They are also the last line of defence against harmful pests and disease coming into the country.

According to Daniel Ziffer in The Age on 21 July, ‘Border Security is now in its fourth series and a fifth series is in production. It regularly averages more than 2 million viewers nationally and has been Melbourne’s top program for the past five weeks.’

I assume the pleasure of watching Border Security is akin to the pleasures of watching Super Nanny. It’s the kind of reality television that allows its audience to feel smug and superior, although in the case of Border Security, ‘My children would never behave like that’ translates to, ‘I’d never be stupid enough to bring in a chicken burger from Bangkok airport,’ or ‘Thank God I’m not an illegal worker.’

Ziffer quotes Luke Howie, a Research Associate at Canberra’s Australian Homeland Security Research Centre, who says the show ‘has a sickly attraction, like pornography,’ which seems like an accurate analysis. Like pornography, it is highly repetitive with key phrases being repeated over and over again, interspersed with shots of planes taking off and landing. In fact, the show is structured in such a simplistic way it seems to assume its audience are imbeciles.

The episode on 1 August began with the following voice over: ‘He may be a dude, but is he a dealer? A simple snack or a deadly threat? And it’s a race against time as Immigration swoops down on some illegal workers.’ Then it elaborated:

At Sydney’s airport, Custom Officers have pulled aside a customer who has come in from LA. He was initially stopped because of his behavior Compliance Officers are looking for suspected illegal workers at a huge construction site in Sydney’s west and it seems these two passengers were a bit peckish at Bangkok airport before they boarded the flight to Australia.

Key phrases from this riff are repeated again at the end of every segment; then variations on this reintroduce the show after every ad break.

None of which would matter so much if Border Security did not trade in such crude stereotypes of race, class and age. There are the funny Chinese people who bring in slabs of a solid food product made of mushrooms and begin to eat the ‘evidence’ as Quarantine is going through their bags. There are old ladies from India bringing in homemade chutneys for their children. There are the fey English tourists who begin to cry when they are sprung bringing in cheap, gifty notebooks with wood on their handmade covers.

While there is no denying that the language barriers are real, the patronising way in which the officials speak to people who haven’t declared foodstuffs, and their adherence to the ‘if they don’t understand what you’re saying say it louder’ school of communication is cringe-worthy.

Grant Bowler, of Border Security, and beagle.

For the most part, however, Quarantine is the comedy section of the show. The real action is over at Immigration, where people are grilled about the amount of money they have brought in, why they don’t have credit cards, and where they plan to stay.

It was while watching the ‘dude’ from California an agitated young man who knew he was about to be busted and kept looking at the camera that I wondered what form the ‘permission’ given for footage to be used on the show takes: certainly this stoned and frightened man seemed in no condition, or position, to give permission to his image being used on a national television show.

What you would have to call the ‘money shot’ in the 1 August episode was the Immigration Department’s raid of the building site full of Chinese workers. Some were working legally, and a couple were clearly not. There were of shots of workers running when they saw the cameras (with heads blurred these guys, at least, had clearly not given permission) and then footage of them being grilled and frisked.

There was no interview with the building site manager who was employing these people in the first place. No questions asked about the conditions under which these people were working, and certainly no sympathy for the woman who had a Short Term Business Visa when she arrived in the country and claimed she thought she could legally work because she had received no word regarding her appeal to a Federal Court for a Protection Visa (which begs the question: if she is not allowed to work legally, or receive any form of welfare, how is she expected to exist while she awaits the court’s decision?)

It was interesting to see that last week, after the arrest of a number of British Nationals for a plan to bomb several flights using liquid explosives, and the consequent chaos that ensued at airports around the world, Border Security was not in the Top 10.

Perhaps the viewers were spooked after hearing stories such as the one about the woman being detained by police for taking hand cream and matches on board a flight from London to Washington DC which was, as Tom Tomorrow pointed out, first reported by CNN as her carrying on a screwdriver and note about al-Qaeda, supposedly written in Arabic: ‘Except, as it turns out, not.’

It seems that it’s not just a matter of keeping ‘them’ out of Australia. People like ‘us’ are going to find it increasingly difficult to leave.

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