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Border Paranoia in Fortress Australia

The imaginative faculties of standard Australian politicians retreat to some strange, deathly place on certain issues. In that wasteland, they are often unrecoverable. Like juveniles demanding instant reward, these representatives find complexity hideous, troubling, discomforting. Focus on the prospect of immediate electoral gain, the crude punch, the bruising, the hurt. That, in sum, is Canberra’s policy towards refugees.

With this month’s appearance of 39 asylum seekers on some of the most remote shorelines on the planet in Western Australia, the customary wells of hysteria were again being tapped for political gain. “Here we go again,” lamented the Tasmanian Greens Senator Nick McKim. “A boat arrives with desperate refugees who need our help and we’re suddenly in a ‘political crisis’ because the media said so.”

One desperate politician was opposition leader Peter Dutton, who wondered how these dangerous subversives could have ever arrived undetected in the first place. “The government has all sorts of problems,” he crowed. “It’s clear that they don’t have the same surveillance in place that we had when we were in government.”

Dutton found it “inconceivable a boat of this size, carrying 40-plus people, could make it to the mainland without there being any detection.” The insinuation is hard to ignore: the Labor government permitted the arrival to take place.

The 2022-3 Australia Border Force annual report had noted a reduction of “maritime patrol days” by 6% and aerial patrols by 14%, the result of vessel maintenance, personnel shortages, and logistical difficulties when operating in remote parts off the coast. Overall budgetary costs for the ABF have also been adjusted to account for the fact that the 2022-3 budget was, as Home Affairs department chief finance officer Stephanie Cargill explained in May year, “overspent.”

The ABF chief, Michael Outram, has even gone so far as to reproach Dutton for his assessment about funding cuts, which deceptively, even mendaciously suggest belt-tightening on the part of the Albanese government. “Border Force funding is currently the highest it’s been since its establishment in 2015 and in the last year, the ABF has received additional funding totaling hundreds of millions of dollars, to support maritime and land-based operations.”

All in all, there has hardly been a softening of the brutal policy that presumptively and prematurely judges undocumented naval arrivals as unworthy. As the ABF statement on the arrivals notes with customary severity, “Australia’s tough border protection policies means that no one who travels unauthorised by boat will ever be allowed to settle permanently in Australia. The only way to travel to Australia is legally, with an Australian visa.”

The dubious rationale for maintaining the policy, formally known as Operation Sovereign Borders, is still very much in place. “Australia,” the ABF continues to explain, “remains committed to protecting its borders, stamping out people smuggling, and preventing vulnerable people from risking their lives on futile journeys. The people smuggling business model is built on the exploitation of information and selling lies to vulnerable people who will give up everything to risk their lives at sea.”

Rear Admiral Brett Sonter, who leads Operation Sovereign Borders, had also stated that nothing has changed. “The mission of Operation Sovereign Borders remains the same today as it was when it was established in 2013: protect Australia’s borders, combat people smuggling in our region, and importantly, prevent people from risking their lives at sea.” To suggest otherwise would create an “alternative narrative” susceptible to exploitation “by criminal people smugglers to deceive potential irregular immigrants and convince them to risk their lives and travel to Australia by boat.”

This became a point of contention for Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who decided to give Dutton a parliamentary scalding by suggesting that his opponents were “just full of nonsense, and they should stop being a cheer squad for people, encouraging people smuggling.”

Such “business models,” as they are derisively and demagogically called, are the natural consequence of a yearning to flee. It is a yearning that is being globally punished, notably by wealthier states less than keen to accept asylum seekers. Canberra’s savage approach to the problem – non-settlement in Australia of those eventually found to be refugees and detaining individuals in concentration camps in the Pacific – has become the envy of border protection fetishists. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, for instance, dreams of an Australia-styled solution that will involve “turning the boats back” and deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda. Unfortunately for him, and most fortunately for humanitarians, an army of lawyers and judges have frustrated his vision.

The border fetishists also make a crucial omission. The people smugglers, who are of all stripes of opportunism and exploitation rather than some monolithic bloc, are merely facilitating the provisions of the United Nations Refugee Convention. All who arrive should not be discriminated against on the basis of how they arrive or their backgrounds – the articles of the Convention state as much – yet Australia’s border policy remains persistently cruel and defiant. Whenever a boat appears with a small cargo full of desperate individuals who make it to land, the fantasies of invasion, unwarranted intrusion and unwanted infiltration catch alight. It was high time they were snuffed out.