The Inhospitable Australian Soil

A description of Australia's response to the refugee crisis

September 01, 2015  |  By Maddison Clarey, Australia

The Inhospitable Australian Soil

Photo : Refugee from Syria - Wiki Commons / Russell Watkins

The Australian Government is currently attempting to give itself the right to remove the citizenship status of those it deems terror suspects, regardless of criminal history and without the process of a fair trial, leaving those ‘chosen’ no longer Australian citizens. Whilst this cavalier attitude towards the significance of homeland is alarming on a basic level, it certainly doesn’t come as a surprise from a nation that flaunts almost every United Nations convention pertaining to refugees and the basic human right to seek asylum. It does however bring to the fore the significance of ‘homeland’ and the importance of having a place to belong.

As a country so separated from much of the world - or perhaps more significantly, the nations we ideologically align ourselves with - and as the world’s only continent home to a single nation, the concept of international relations in its most simplistic sense is somewhat, if you’ll excuse the pun, ‘foreign' to us. Across the globe there are a range of different means as to discerning where one country ends and another begins and a range of ways in which that boundary is maintained through political, and sometimes military means. However, the border between Australia and the rest of the world is ‘girt by sea’ and our political leaders see themselves in a constant war against the tide to ‘stop the boats’. Australia sees itself as a healthy organism, and rather than sharing our boundless plains with those who’ve come across the seas as our anthem so optimistically states, we see anyone attempting to seek refuge in our country as a disease, a breach on an intact, healthy system, come to infect our country and destroy the purity of our once robust land. 

Studies of the displaced or uprooted throughout anthropological history has some insights to offer into Australia’s treatment of refugees but it’s not quite positive. The pathologization of refugees and the painting of them as amoral individuals positions refugees, as argued by Liisa Malkki, as an anomaly requiring specialised correctives and therapeutic interventions. Without roots, they are no longer trustworthy citizens and instead represent a dangerous presence in an otherwise safe society. It was this mentality that drove policymakers following the second World War to define the subject of refugees as a politico-moral problem. This moral axis by which the issue has historically been framed has proved to be the most enduring, displayed by Cirtautas when he stated, ‘Homelessness is a serious threat to moral behaviour. At the moment the refugee crosses the frontiers of his own world, his whole moral outlook, his attitude toward the divine order of life changes. The refugees’ conduct makes it obvious that we are dealing with individuals who are basically amoral, without any sense of personal or social responsibility. They no longer feel themselves bound by ethical precepts which every honest citizen respects. They become a menace, dangerous characters that will stop at nothing’. Contemporary studies of refugees, whilst much different in spirit from postwar literature still share in the premise that refugees are essentially, ‘a problem’. And it is at this point at which we find the Australian political landscape unfortunately stuck.

The very word ‘uprooted’ itself provides a basis for understanding the nature of refugee politics. It calls to mind the image of a plant removed from it’s soil; roots exposed, threatening to wither and die, taking the rest of the plant with it. The link between people and place has a strong basis in botanical metaphors; the notions of the family tree, people as the ‘salt of the Earth’, and a sense of belonging to a place marked by an emphasis on ‘putting down roots’, all command imagery of nature, and of stability. Displacement, and the seeking of asylum appears to grind against these ingrained notions of fixture and incites fear within us when we are faced with it. Worsened by the fact that Australia is a nation guarded by the sea; and those who attempt to enter Australia do so after extended periods of ocean based travel; the very opposite of the image of stability conjured up by botanical metaphors of belonging. Thus it becomes easier to understand Australia’s political penchant for pathologizing the figure of the refugee. Easier to understand, but not easier to accept.

As a country marked by its outlandish natural flora and fauna, Australia’s attachment to botanical metaphors for belonging is perhaps stronger than many other countries. Add to that the fact that we are a bounded nation, separated from other nations by the unstable preseance of an ocean in a constant state of flux, it is easy to see how a fear of displaced persons can manifest. However, the ideas I’ve put forward throughout this article are merely mental hurdles that are not difficult to overcome if one can identify them and attempt to do so. Herein lies the problem at the heart of refugee policy in Australia. We simply cannot see the obstacles for the trees.

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