In Summary

Klaus Neumann, Swinburne University of Technology
This originally appeared in The Age. Read the original article.

"Nope, nope, nope," Tony Abbott said last month when asked whether Australia would be prepared to resettle Rohingya rescued in the Andaman Sea. "I'm sorry. If you want to start a new life, you come through the front door, not through the back door." References to queues and front doors suggest that the issue we are dealing with is simple. Stand in line, don't sneak in through the back door, and she'll be right.

At the same time, the measures taken to prevent people from paying smugglers and jumping the queue are accepted as if they were self-evident. We take for granted that there are borders out there, perhaps resembling the picket fences surrounding suburban houses in Sydney or Melbourne, which can be guarded effectively (although our everyday experience suggests that these same borders are porous when it comes to the traffic of goods, capital and information).

We won't be able to get away with sticking our head in the sand (muttering "nope, nope, nope", as we do so). This is not because Australia's policy of turning back boats isn't working, but because it is, at most, only addressing a symptom. 

It is difficult to have a meaningful public debate about irregular migration, human security and justice when the government maintains that Australia is engaged in a war against smugglers, when the major general in command tells us that he must not disclose his hand by revealing operational matters, and when the people seeking Australia's protection are depicted as would-be intruders.

Rohingya migrants, whose plight illicited Tony Abbott's now infamous "Nope, nope, nope" response, aboard a boat in Thai waters. Photo: AFP

Some of the advocates who are trying to counter arguments about front doors and back doors are making claims that are similarly simplistic, for example that all irregular migrants are fleeing persecution or that all asylum seekers are refugees.

The desire to keep matters simple is understandable. We are dealing with issues of unrivalled complexity, for which there are no short- or medium-term solutions.

In the absence of such solutions, irregular migration will remain a significant issue, not just in our part of the world. And in the long term, we won't be able to get away with sticking our head in the sand (muttering "nope, nope, nope", as we do so). This is not because Australia's policy of turning back boats isn't working, but because it is, at most, only addressing a symptom. It is not even offering a partial solution to the broader problems.

While the government's policy has led to a significant reduction in the number of people who try to reach Australia by boat, it has of course not led to a reduction in the overall number of people compelled to be on the move. Perhaps there are no more deaths by drowning in the waters between Indonesia and Christmas Island. But the world has not become a safer place; we are now simply one step further removed from the scenes of human tragedy.

Given that the issues that were responsible for the symptoms have not disappeared (but appear to be getting only more serious, with some 50 million displaced people worldwide at the last count), we might as well try to lift the standard of debate. We could do so by eschewing the parochialism that characterises much of it.

This parochialism is evident in two respects: because we too readily assume that what happens in other parts of the world does not need to concern us (we only have to worry about the boats headed in our direction), and because we tend to accept that the current situation is unprecedented.

Admittedly, there are frequent references in public debate to the policies of other countries or the approaches taken by previous governments. But these tend to use global or historical comparisons in order to point out that the current approach is worse (or better) than that employed elsewhere or in another era.

The claim that Malcolm Fraser knew how to deal humanely with "boat people" and Tony Abbott doesn't, or that Sweden has adopted a more compassionate approach to asylum seekers than Australia, does not help us to understand the issues at hand, Australia's response to them, and the relevant global and historical contexts.

Often, such comparisons are not even intended to provide informed comment about current issues (such as why people become displaced or feel compelled to move); rather they are designed to elicit emotions: they are meant to make us feel proud or ashamed. In fact, these comparisons in themselves don't make us question (or even recognise) the underlying assumptions of the impoverished debate we have at the moment.

There is much to be gained, though, from looking beyond our own temporal and geographical horizons. What's happening elsewhere and what happened in the past might unsettle our taken-for-granted ideas about what's happening now. History, in particular could have what the German playwright Bertolt Brecht called a Verfremdungseffekt​, that is, an effect that makes the present appear in a new light (and in the process might make it appear odd and strange).

Perhaps, if we were able to understand more of the complexity of the issues involved, we could live with the fact that there are no simple solutions (for neither opening the borders nor turning the boats around will solve anything).

That is not to say that policy makers should give up searching for appropriate responses. But rather than looking for responses that tackle symptoms and thus appear to provide solutions (locking the back door, guarding the picket fence, banishing intruders to an island prison, and refusing to get involved in issues that don't appear to affect Australia directly), policy makers might want to try identifying approaches that take into account Australia's capacity to assist people in need of a new home, its responsibility as a regional power, its obligations as a member of the international community, and, most importantly, the precarious circumstances of the men women and children who are seeking Australia's protection.

Klaus Neumann is a Professor of History at Swinburne University. His book Across the Seas: Australia's Response to Refugees – A History, will be released on Monday, June 8.