Refugees are largely and eagerly characterised in this country as shady, illegitimate freeloaders to be kept out at all costs. As the Greens’ National Communications Officer and child of refugees Joana Partyka writes, there are many fine-tuned mechanisms in place to make sure it stays that way; to make sure we don’t regard refugees as people like us.
By Joana Partyka
We’re likely all familiar with the narrative peddled by populist politicians and media alike that refugees are illegitimate. They’re rorting the system, they say. Jumping the queue. Scamming the public by only posing as refugees to benefit themselves at everyone else’s expense. As Peter Dutton once said when a group of refugees left one of our offshore detention centres for resettlement in the US, “somebody once said to me that we’ve got the world’s biggest collection of Armani jeans and handbags up on Nauru waiting for people to collect it when they depart”.
There is so much to unpack in that last part alone that I’m not really sure where to begin. So let’s instead start here: no one – no one – wants to be a refugee.
You’d think it was obvious when you consider what one must first experience to even reach a point of rorting the system, lucrative though this may be. No one wants to traverse dangerous seas in a rickety, overcrowded boat. No one wants to sell everything they own in order to pay for a single journey. No one wants to leave the people and places they know forever. And yet the fact that so many people choose exactly this – not to get their mythological fill of Italian designer goods but to flee persecution, war, or any other of the countless shitty offerings on the wheel of human misfortune – points to their total lack of options. It points, again, to the reality that no one wants to be a refugee.
My parents certainly didn’t want to be refugees. When they fled Poland in the early 1980s, it was a country in the throes of intense social and political upheaval after decades spent rusting behind the Iron Curtain. People began to push back against the hostile morass of authoritarianism, police brutality, political censorship and extreme poverty with organised resistance and sweeping nationwide strikes. When I was a child, my parents would sometimes recount stories of their homeland around this time: people waiting in queues for literal days to receive – or just as likely miss out on – their meagre food rations; people being openly beaten and shot for defying orders or simply walking in a large group. Mum tells a story of innocently asking a schoolteacher what ‘Katyn’ meant, which he sternly ignored; when she recounted the incident to her horrified mother the response was to never ask again and let’s pray the teacher didn’t alert the authorities so they don’t show up to interrogate us.
Like all refugees, Mum and Dad couldn’t see a future in their homeland, and leaving wasn’t an exercise in free will. That alone should be reason enough for us to open our hearts and our doors, and fortunately for my parents it was. But as we know, that’s not how the story goes for everyone. By design, there are many fine-tuned mechanisms in place to make sure of that; to make sure we don’t regard refugees as people like us.
The myth of the good refugee
Often when we hear about an individual refugee’s plight – in and of itself significant, because we are intentionally taught “refugees” are a faceless, amorphous mass of lawless ne’er-do-wells – the media characterises them relative to the perceived value of the human capital they possess. They were a GP in their home country, or an engineer, or a carpenter. They have something to contribute. They would be an asset to the community.
The propensity to portray people this way is understandable. It is, after all, how capitalism measures the value of all our lives. We categorise and humanise one another on the basis of what we can materially offer the economic system. It’s why we laud ‘self-made’ m/billionaires and people with investment properties as gods while we scorn the disabled, homeless and unemployed as a heavy burden. To consider an alternative way of thinking about the world is, well, unthinkable. Like the parable made famous by the late writer David Foster Wallace, how are we to comprehend water if we’ve spent our entire lives swimming in it?
Here’s how: we get out, we dry off and we dip a tentative toe back in to realise that what we have been convinced is water is in fact a make-believe toxic swamp. Because to connote that someone with marketable skills deserves asylum on the basis of those skills necessarily implies someone without them does not. That the existence of the right kind of refugee explicitly portends there is a wrong kind. That some will fail this measure of their worth, and that’s ok because they weren’t worth a dime to begin with.
The right to a life free of danger and persecution must not be contingent on what one has to offer in exchange for that safety. It is not a transaction. It must have no strings attached; it must never be conditional.
The question of asking not what our country can do for them, but asking what they can do for our country harks back at least as far as when my parents were accepted into Australia in 1981. In a policy described as the “seeds of the contemporary Australian model of asylum”, the Fraser Liberal Government of the time would select refugees “according to their ability to contribute to and integrate with the nation, rather than simply their need for refuge and security”. Now just as it was back then, hitching our migration policy to this bogus concept of a model refugee is a game almost as dangerous as the act of seeking asylum itself.
The r̶i̶g̶h̶t̶ white type of refugee
Of course, when we talk about our society’s warped measure of a person’s worth, we must talk about race. What my parents back then lacked in formal qualifications and sellable skills they made up for with whiteness – a strongly recommended precondition to seeking refuge in this country and, for that matter, every other.
Around the world, black and brown people seeking asylum are met with open hostility: turned away at borders, barricaded in squalid camps, detested as criminals. Fuck off we’re full, as they say. Meanwhile, white people in the same position are greeted warmly – particularly by other white people, who are quick to open their arms and their homes. Welcome, person like me: I’ve made up a bed for you and here’s a cup of tea you poor thing.
The sudden flow of European refugees triggered by the Putin regime’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year demonstrates this with almost painful clarity. Here is just a snapshot of mainstream commentary in response to the crisis:
“It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blond hair … being killed every day.”
“These are not the refugees we are used to; these people are Europeans … these people are intelligent [and] educated people.”
“[This] isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades – this is a relatively civilised [country].”
There is no need to read between the lines here: war and conflict are normal for black and brown people, who are neither intelligent nor civilised. They are not people like us.
In response to the Russo-Ukrainian war, governments around the world – including Australia – immediately increased their humanitarian intake of Ukrainian refugees. In March, the Morrison Government announced Ukrainians fleeing to Australia would be granted three-year visas permitting them to work, study and access Medicare.
One could be forgiven for thinking such targeted benevolence toward a largely white Christian population is circumstantial. It’s not. Consider 2018, when there was a strong conservative lobbying effort to resettle “persecuted European minorities” from South Africa and Zimbabwe in Australia. Recall 2015, when the Abbott Government – under pressure to accept a higher intake of Syrian refugees – made clear its preference for those of the Christian faith over Muslims.
My parents’ experience, too, is deeply resonant of the current Ukraine situation. After the Australian Government paid for their safe passage to our shores, Mum and Dad were immediately granted permanent residency and along with it access to Medicare, unemployment benefits and the right to work.
Of course, it would be unfair to attribute my parents’ experience entirely to their ethnicity, but let’s now consider the following: Morrison telling new Manus and Nauru arrivals to “go home” (2014); the Department of Home Affairs putting out a digital pacman-style game in a targeted deterrence campaign against Sri Lankan refugees (2021); Dutton saying Afghan refugees would steal Australian jobs and “languish on Medicare”, whatever that even means (2016); Dutton saying women in offshore detention cry rape to get into Australia (2019); Dutton saying it was a mistake to resettle Lebanese Muslim refugees in the 1970s because their descendents are terrorists (2016). Rinse and repeat; you get the picture.
The welcome mat we have eagerly laid out to Ukrainians (noting, of course, that not all Ukrainians are white, and that ethnic groups like Tatars and Roma have been largely erased from reporting about the war) versus the strict and violent controls we exert over the movement of non-white populations betrays the bipartisan fiction that refugees are inexorably shady freeloaders. What is ostensibly an act of humanitarianism thus exposes a reprehensible truth: that when we say ‘refugee’, what we really mean is ‘person who is not white’. When that is not clear enough, we employ racially coded pejoratives like ‘boat people’ and ‘illegal immigrants’ to carefully differentiate between what University of New England language professor Finex Ndhlovu calls the ‘zone of being’ – that is, whiteness – and the ‘zone of non-being’, or the racialised non-desired other.
Given the origins of the country we call Australia, it would almost be incredible if we didn’t culturally consign non-white refugees to a place of non-being. The fruits of this country are grown on the graves of non-being; upon the brutal dispossession, massacre, slavery and segregation of First Nations peoples – acts that continue to this day. One of our first pieces of legislation as a federated nation was the White Australia policy under prime minister Edmund Barton, who spoke of non-white races as “unequal and inferior” and “peoples whom we [look] down upon as servile”.
Though by name the White Australia policy may have been dismantled, the ideology behind it is harder to expunge from our national consciousness. It is the bedrock of our federation; the rotting, century-old foundation upon which we’ve constructed our entire wobbly identity – and upon which we pile evermore mangled bricks. Pacific Solution: brick. Operation Sovereign Borders: brick. Temporary protection visas: brick. And on we go, unperturbed by how unsightly and unstable the pile grows.
Mouvement sans frontières
Successive Australian governments have worked trenchantly to ‘strengthen’ our borders and the laws that encircle them; to engineer a nationalistic wet dream and present it to us as the only possible option. When you consider that the very origin of borders is violent and racist – often the direct result of armed conflict and colonialism – it’s little wonder we view the policing of them through the same greasy lens.
In what author and refugee activist Harsha Walia describes as “a massive system of global apartheid”, borders exploit the universal scam of ‘citizenship’ to normalise placing limits on human movement – and the exertion of lethal force against anyone who defies those limits. Borders uphold the Eurocentrism that totally lets us off the hook for our role in destabilising the regions from which people now flee. To that end, it is almost impossible to distinguish physical borders from the borders we erect in our national psyche. They are one and the same.
By drawing a line around what we assert to be ours and ours alone, we in turn draw a line under our capacity for empathy. When a non-citizen crosses that line or attempts to, their humanity stays behind in their homeland amongst the people and belongings they couldn’t take with them. Over there, we might tolerate your existence. Over here, whether you live or die is immaterial. We view our citizenship of this country and the safety it generally promises – in reality nothing more than a happenstance of good fortune – as a birthright or somehow earned, and if you don’t share in that then too bad so sad.
So we call it a ‘refugee crisis’ and centre refugees as the problem. We frame their traumatic experiences as innate; as just the natural way of things. Sure, some of us might think it’s perhaps a bit sad and wring our hands at the intractable injustice of it all, but hey what can you do – it’s a refugee crisis ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
And so we inevitably circle back to capitalism. While mass migration has long been a hallmark of human societies, it has taken on a very different flavour under the heat of imperial capitalism. Capitalism is sustained by the flames of racial hatred it actively fans; by provoking conflicts between ethnic groups and social classes in pursuit of instability and all-out war. Capitalism’s twin imperatives of privatisation and cheap, endless production plunder the earth, destroy our climate and engender mass exploitation. Capitalism both creates and relies upon these structural inequalities for its own survival; forced displacement is just a part of doing business, baby. In short, the human and environmental tolls that serve to displace people are an intentional means to capitalism’s avaricious end.
I am not sure exactly what my parents expected of Australia when they first arrived here more than 40 years ago. What I do know is that, mercifully, they look back on their experience of entering this country largely with favour. I feel exceedingly lucky, for their sake and for mine, that in 1981 the gaping wound of compassion at which successive Australian governments have scratched hadn’t quite started to haemorrhage. That placing value on human rights – on human life, full stop – hadn’t yet become the radical policy position it is today. That our policymakers were not condemning people like my mum and dad as calculated con artists just looking to grow their collection of Armani handbags.
We can’t dismiss the status quo as a ‘them’ problem. It is a direct reflection – and an indictment – on people like us.
Joana Partyka is the Australian Greens’ National Communications Officer, a communications assistant in Senator Jordon Steele-John’s office, and a child of Polish refugees.
This article originally appeared in Green Issue. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.