Why Asylum Seekers Come By Boat

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When faced with "wicked problems" such as how to stop asylum seekers embarking on perilous sea voyages, it is not helpful to narrow the field of possible solutions. And yet this is what is being done by all political parties in the wake of the latest asylum boat tragedy, through a failure to acknowledge that government policies have deliberately denied desperate people access to safe and legal forms of travel.

Since the 1980s, governments across the developed world have established an elaborate edifice of border controls largely designed to prevent "high risk" groups from arriving at their air and sea ports. This invisible offshore border operates through routine denial of visas, the imposition of financial sanctions on airlines carrying "inadequately documented passengers", and the offshore posting of immigration officers to intercept these individuals and prevent their onward journeys — all facilitated by sophisticated computerised information systems.

The "high risk" people targeted by these measures are not generally international terrorists or major crime bosses. They are most often not named individuals at all, but people who have been assigned to aggregate risk categories primarily on the basis of their nationality.

Typically, countries whose nationals are considered likely to lodge asylum applications will be designated "high risk", and their citizens will face enormous, sometimes insurmountable, obstacles in obtaining visas to travel to any safe and developed country.

Australia’s universal visa requirement — imposed by few other countries in the world — has masked the construction of this exclusionary border strategy to some extent. The unfolding of this defensive geography has been more visible in Britain, where previously non-existent visa requirements were systematically imposed on one strife-torn country after another during the 1990s as their citizens began arriving in Britain and lodging asylum claims.

Introducing a visa requirement empowered authorities to routinely deny issuing them, thereby closing off any avenue for legal and safe entry. In the late 1990s, at a time when Algerians were seeking asylum in Britain in significant numbers and being detained for arriving with false documents, one UK immigration officer told me bluntly: "Algerians don’t get visas".

On the face of it, preventing people from travelling without visas might seem merely to be an efficient and sensible form of border control. But no-one can say how many of the travellers who have been "turned around" at international airports due to "inadequate documentation", have become stranded in countries of transit such as Thailand or Malaysia, or are prevented from leaving their country of origin in the first place, are in fact people who need international protection.

The denial of visas to prevent the arrival of refugees is not without historical precedent. British intelligence officer Frank Foley, who was posing as a consular official in pre-war Nazi Germany, is now credited with saving the lives of thousands of Jews by granting them visas against explicit instructions issued by the government of the day.

Foley’s biographer writes of the plight of German Jews, "Those without papers found themselves unwelcome in many countries, regarded as illegal immigrants and liable to arrest and expulsion to a neighbouring state where they were then in exactly the same position".

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was drafted in the wake of these terrible events. Article 14 of the UDHR enshrines the right of all people "to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution". While our present international order entitles governments to decide whether or not to grant asylum, preemptive border controls intended to prevent arrival go further and deny many people the right even to seek protection. In fact, they have been explicitly designed to do so.

The closing down of possibilities for legal travel by air or sea using safe, regulated forms of transport has had the predictable effect of forcing desperate people into the hands of organized facilitators and exposing them to enormous risks. The risks of unregulated travel may sometimes be exacerbated by the ruthless or negligent actions of people smugglers, but are always underpinned by the necessity to avoid detection.

In the early years of this century, as the bodies of African asylum seekers began to wash up with some regularity on the beaches of southern Spain, local writer Garcia Benito observed simply: "With a visa they would cross the Strait in a ferry which would result in the problem of corpses disappearing".

In the Australian context, one might ask why people pay considerable sums of money to secure a cramped space on the deck of a dilapidated fishing boat when they could surely use it to buy a first class ticket on a Qantas flight. The answer is because they would not be allowed to board the plane.

Instead of continuing the fruitless search for more effective forms of deterrence, asylum seekers could simply be allowed to arrive legally and make their case. Significant numbers of asylum seekers already arrive in Australia on valid visas, and lodge their claims after arrival. Official records consistently show that their rate of acceptance as refugees is lower than for those who arrive illegally by boat.

While there are many reasons to doubt that acceptance rates reflect some objective measure of the need for refugee protection, this still supports the view that those with the most compelling need for asylum are precisely the group who are forced to travel without legal authorisation.

This is exactly how preemptive border controls are intended to work, and this deeply implicates governments around the developed world in creating the conditions that lead many asylum seekers to make decisions that subsequently prove to be fatal. These deadly effects are well known and researched. For example, the British Refugee Council reported in 2008 about how "remote control" policies intended to prevent arrival were endangering the lives of refugees.

Clearly, governments are not likely to dismantle their risk-based border protection strategies in a hurry. The politics of border control is deeply entrenched on both sides of mainstream politics. Australians and other "low risk" travellers have grown accustomed to their technology-facilitated travel, and may either be unaware of the pre-boarding checks that generally cause them minimal personal inconvenience, or may accept them as necessary security measures in these insecure times. But it is those with the most pressing need to cross borders who are most often the target of these screening measures.

Like others who have waded into the muddy waters of border control policy, I don’t profess to have a clear-cut solution to preventing border-related deaths. Even if governments around the world would contemplate relaxing their preemptive controls, providing a safe way to travel directly to places of refuge may not be the solution for everyone.

Persecuted individuals may face other practical obstacles that prevent them from travelling by conventional means, and genuine opportunities to seek a place of safety closer to home (not the deterrence policies dressed up as humanitarianism that are on the table at present) may also be part of the answer.

But by failing to acknowledge the bigger picture of preemptive measures that deliberately prevent safe, lawful travel for many asylum seekers, those who are looking for genuine policy solutions are proceeding from a starting point that is poorly informed, at best, and at worst, hypocritical.

Either way, a key contributor to asylum seeker deaths, which could open up alternative avenues for positive action, remains off the table. As meetings take place around the country, often motivated by a genuine desire to save lives, it seems that preemptive visa controls remain the unacknowledged elephant in the room.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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