A Call for Open Borders

Update: A modified version of this post, appeared in The Guardian Australia on July 23 2013.

Both Australia and the UK have sunk to new lows by releasing ads targeted at ‘illegal immigrants’ (UK) and ‘boat people’ (Australia) telling them to go back to where they came from. I speculate that it is David Cameron’s election advisor, Lynton Crosby, an Australia, described by The Guardian as The Lizard of Oz, who is behind this copycat action in the UK but it might be just that great (!) minds think alike.

As Kevin Rudd unveiled his decision to send asylum seekers arriving to Australian shores by boat to be processed and resettled (if found to be ‘genuine refugees) in Australia’s (former) colony, Papua Guinea, ads appeared in newspapers telling asylum seekers in no uncertain terms that ‘If you come here by boat without a visa, you won’t be settled in Australia.’ The ad campaign is costing the Australian tax payer $2.5 million in its first week.

It was accompanied by what @damonayoung on Twitter called ‘immigration porn for xenophobes’: The Department for Immigration and Citizenship posting photographs and video of the first group of Iranian asylum seekers being told that they would be transferred to PNG (see photo left).

The effect of the onslaught unleashed by the Labour Party, in a sole, desperate effort to beat the Liberal National Party in the upcoming election, is the complete dehumanisation and criminalisation of asylum seekers. Could they have been dehumanised any further? No matter how low the politics of asylum and immigration in Australia had sunk, buttressed by a sturdy history of genocidal racism, dispossession and exclusion, there was always further to go.

In discussions on Twitter following the establishment of a new pro-immigration campaigning group, Boundless Plains To Share (@BoundlessPlains), there is a consensus emerging that open borders are the only solution to Australia’s immigration impasse. If people who don’t want to be represented by debased political point scoring that uses asylum seekers’ lives to scrabble for power, the terms of the pro-immigration argument have to shift.

The humanitarian argument is dead in the water; people don’t want to be charitable. An oft-repeated claim is that Australians have enough to contend with themselves before having to think about those less fortunate than themselves, never mind those who happen in the main part to be black and brown, and quite possibly Muslim. And, despite the obvious response that there are always those worse off than ourselves, the facts remain that thinking of others as charity-cases, despite the best of intentions, dehumanises them creating a disconnect between ‘us’ and ‘them’ to the extent that even Australians whose own families were effectively refugees (e.g. many Lebanese people) have decreasing empathy for those portrayed as ‘queue jumpers’ and ‘economic migrants’ in disguise. Furthermore, the paternalism of the mainstream ‘Left’ (such as it is) towards the ‘bogan’ element whose votes need to be won by appealing to what is cast as their ‘ingrained’ racist tendencies do nothing to break down stereotypes, create potential alliances, and shift the debate beyond a performance of class warfare between the soy cap sipping intelligentsia and the Ute-driving hoi polloi (in my limited experience of Australia, there are many coffee-drinking Ute drivers around as well as many racist $2 million home owners!)

The two-pronged move to (a) open borders, thus making migration part of the daily reality of a globalised world, and not an expensive, largely performative, and ultimately futile exercise in securing borders, and (b) humanise asylum seekers by talking about them as people ‘like us’ would have the effect of detoxifying the poison that is contemporary asylum and immigration politics in Australia. Of course, the road is long, but the struggle to shift opinion has to start now.

Allow asylum seekers to come to Australia by any means (even if considerably larger numbers arrive, this will never reach European proportions, and Australia has plenty of room for them all). Allow asylum seekers to work. This saves the government a lot of money, as current spending on detention and deportation of asylum seekers, especially off-shore is already costing the Australian public billions of dollars, and this will increase exponentially as, under Rudd’s scheme, the PNG government gets to set out how much money it needs for development projects in return for settling migrants, and the full cost of migrant detention and resettlement will be covered by the Australian tax payer.

Finally, open borders would release Australian politics from the stranglehold created by the asylum issue, whereby everything is overshadowed by the race to appear tougher, more resolute, indeed more cruel than the next man or woman, a race that ultimately has little to do with stopping the boats (which almost everyone agrees will keep on coming). The Left has to take the bull by the horns. No more prancing around the issue, paddling in the safe shallow waters of humanitarianism, and call for the only workable – because ultimately, time will tell, inevitable – solution: free movement for all.


  • pimpmehard

    July 22, 2013

    You realize this is why your type is hated so much. You move to a new country, and the first thing you do is ally with the minority, set yourself up aggressively against the majority, and start preaching for the destruction of the country by having open borders.

    Its like we invite you into our home, and you immediately start demanding we let everybody else in.

    Please, please, go back to england you parasite.

  • Alana Lentin

    July 22, 2013

    You’ll be disappointed, Mr or ms Hard – or may I call you Pimp Me? – that I was a parasite immigrant to the UK too. It’s just a losing battle against these leeches everywhere isn’t it? Keep up the anonymous insults why don’t you? It’s so brave of you.

  • Marc

    July 23, 2013

    @Ms Hard: love how very strained analogy is the best you offer by way of argument to get stuck into the author of the OP. A nation is not a household, and Australia is far more capable of accomodating a few new friends than yours or my spare room. The argument is bogus, and frankly, so is the “you’re from England so you have no right to a say” crap too. Actually, its exactly the kind of boring, unworkable rhetoric that got us into this mess. This isn’t a bloody tribal war in which everybody gets to sling unsubstantiated insults at one another before pulling out the axes and having at one another. Nor is this a football game where you cheer for the champion that scored your last goal.

    Surely you’ll accept that even if we don’t agree, there’s an issue here that’s serious enough to warrant some proper attempts at figuring out the right answer? If you think you have a rational argument for your position, put it. Otherwise, please cut out the trolling and find something harmless to barrack about.

    As a lifelong inmate of the great penal colony of Australia, I gotta say that Lentin makes a bunch of really good points here. The most important, in my mind, being that letting the political elites construct the debate as between the intellectual and civilised on the one hand, and the mass of the unwashed population on the other, concedes the argument in advance, by making campaigning impossible except on a highly moralistic, holier-than-thou kind of basis.

    Why, if deeply ingrained *attitudes* are the key problem, are not those who apparently hold them not ‘the enemy’? Its the inescapable conclusion of the argument. And if everyone’s against you, then its hard to escape the most pessimistic strategic and tactical conclusions.

    I’m not suggesting that ingrained attitudes are wholly absent, but the ways in which the political elites have actively fostered them suggests this debate is not so much a spontaneous upwelling of dark sentiments, but rather an orchestrated campaign of ‘hey, look over there’ while they do nothing to deal with the increasing insecurity in our lives.

    Its not hard to see why people seize on an officially sanctioned explanation for that insecurity (that is, the supposedly nasty, evil, avaricious boat people), and a fleeting and ephemeral sense that they’re part of the club of the powerful and safe. The Left’s challenge is to point out the hollowness and hypocrisy of that sense of fake national-racial solidarity, and advance a program that deals with the insecurity that ordinary people do experience in a real way, rather than falling in behind ‘easy’ small-l liberal arguments that don’t actually take anyone with them, but simply preach to the choir.

  • David Joseph

    July 23, 2013

    Great article and hope it helps to skew the debate away from the race to the bottom.

  • Alana Lentin

    July 23, 2013

    Thank you for these considered responses. The fight seems impossible but there seems to be little serious discussion in the public sphere of an actual alternative to the constant opposition between toughness and pity. So, just my little contribution to hopefully moving the debate on, even by an inch! Otherwise, through my teaching, I feel i am reaching out to people, so there is hope…

  • hobjobblesmum

    July 23, 2013

    Great post.

    Agree with you 100 percent on everything except the open borders bit. Not for the time being anyway.

    Marc articulated my main argument against open borders pointing out the pervasive sense of insecurity in Australia. Whether it’s realistic or not, it’s there and I would argue it should be respected. People do have real fears that politicians channel onto Others rather than admit that there are things beyond their control. It’s been very successful unfortunately, and open borders would just exacerbate that problem.

    It makes more sense to eliminate the politically manufactured monster, as Rudd has done.

    Two other quick points I haven’t really thought through in relation to the broader picture:

    The released photo might well have the opposite affect of arousing pity in the pitiless. The individual looks much like anyone you could see living next door, as opposed to a dark skinned, foreign looking type. Also note, there’s been much talk of the drowned little baby boy. This is very different from the demonising material we’re accustomed to getting on the nightly news.

    The other point is that while money and goods are free to flow in and out of everywhere, the movement of people is restricted and controlled. That applies as much to Australian citizens as anyone else. If this was asylum seeking money wanting to come to Australia, or oil or cheap bananas, we wouldn’t be trying to stop it. I really, really haven’t thought that through. At all. It’s just a point hovering around in the back of my head.

  • Marc

    July 23, 2013

    @hobjobblesmum: the very real insecurity in Oz results from a business class determined to squeeze as much as they can out of the rest of us, and a political elite determined to either actively back them, or do little about it. the deflection of that sense of insecurity into a racist response to refugees is a cynical diversion so that neither group is actively held to account for the problems they cause.

    In that sense whatever support is shown in polls for refugee bashing is an understandable, but still wrong-headed response, that will do nothing to address neoliberalism and the dominance of business in our society – the ultimate cause of the real insecurity. And I think the conclusion is that we need a left which consciously and vocally links the question of open borders to the question of building a better more secure society.

    Its not open borders vs border security, but rather open borders and social security.

  • Michael Karadjis

    July 24, 2013

    Great article Alana, a firm beginning to the necessity of moving this debate onto a higher level.

  • nilmini fernando

    July 27, 2013

    Great article, writing from Australia, many here are protesting- but it is sadly all feeding the media/political machine, and no one even thinking of the asylum seekers themselves. If they were, the navy would intercept and rescue, they always know when a boat is on the way. It is sadly the best “use” of a group of people who can be blown about and who don’t present any sort of “risk” to first world nations. It avoids the other issues Australians wish were being attended to in the forthcoming election- such as google etc not paying taxes. Now the opposition has said they will bring in the armed forces. Each trying to upstage the other. There have been no preparations made to receive them, as I do sadly believe they will stop. And Rudd will be a hero. And the desparately poor, colonised “prison/slave island colonies” ( or “clones” of Australia will have been paid off somewhat for their offer. Its all sewn up. Sad. Pathetic. Australian policy has sadly led the way for UK (eg dispersion) and nw Rudd is talking about removing the UN convention altogether.

  • Whatreallyworks?

    August 5, 2013

    Hi Alana,
    Wondering what you think of processing asylum seekers at the point of (the) conflict. I’ve been looking and looking and can’t seem to find any debate or even mention of this as a potential solution even though the Fraser government appeared to do just this after the Vietnam war. I would be very interested in your opinion and perhaps reason as to why there is no current discussion on this topic?

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