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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.

Alana Lentin