What do eating oysters and receiving asylum seekers have in common-and why Europe should not follow Australia's example

In this post, Prof. Val Colic-Peisker from the School of Global, Urban & Social Studies at RMIT University reflects on Australia's place in addressing the global humanitarian migration challenge. It's the first in a series of posts this week about asylums seekers. This article is republished with permission from Nexus, The Australian Sociological Association's newsletter.


On a recent drive to our weekend destination, my partner and I exercised our middle-aged brains by reciting by heart ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’, a lengthy nonsensical poem by Lewis Carroll. This 18-stanza rhyming verse appears in Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (an 1872 sequel to Alice in Wonderland) and may seem completely silly but it contains some serious morals—if one chooses to read it that way. In short, the Walrus and the Carpenter lure the naïve young oysters out of their oyster beds by a promise of a ‘pleasant walk and pleasant talk along the briny beach’, only to eat them all a bit later.

As we drew towards the end of the poem we concluded that the hypocritical and cruel treatment of the oysters by the two ruthless characters reminded us of the Australian government’s treatment of asylum seekers: crocodile tears over those who drown trying to reach Australia, only to lock up those who survive in hot unruly hell holes on no charge and with no date or destination of release. The Walrus may be from the Labor Party—somewhat more sympathetic but at the end of the day not wanting to miss out on the electoral gain, that is, eating the oysters—while the Carpenter would be a Liberal, single-minded in his tough outlook. Here are the finishing stanzas that led to this minor epiphany:

‘It seems a shame,’ the Walrus said,
‘To play them such a trick,
After we’ve brought them out so far,
And made them trot so quick!’
The Carpenter said nothing but
‘The butter’s spread too thick!’

‘I weep for you,’ the Walrus said:
‘I deeply sympathise.’
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes.

This is not to take lightly the issue that I personally and professionally think and feel deeply about: the deteriorating treatment of asylum seekers by our government. Under the Prime Ministership of Tony Abbott this treatment reached its sad nadir in the ‘Sovereign Borders’ military operation, shrouded in secrecy. The policy does not befit a country that is not only a signatory of the Refugee Convention but also considers itself an exemplary democracy. The government of a sparsely populated, rich country built on immigration, which accepts about 200,000 settlers and an additional half a million temporary migrants annually, refuses to allow even one ‘boat person’ to find home in Australia.

If not driven by compassion and international obligations, sheer common sense could lead Australians to reject this bizarre and cruel policy. Many indeed do—protest rallies, petitions and other forms of resistance happen on a weekly basis. However, a majority of Australians support the policy, not on the basis of common sense, but rather on the basis of fear of the invasion from the north—a fear that seems to be in the bones of modern Australia. ‘Reds under beds’ and ‘Asian invasion’ preceded the fear of a flood of ‘boat people’.

The support for this policy rests on another commonly adopted fallacy: that, unlike other migrants that are ‘good for our economy’, refugees are bound to be a burden, a ‘drain on the taxpayer’. In reality, asylum seekers are mostly young people, keen to learn, work and just live like everyone else. In reality, our ‘stopping the boats’ policy is a huge drain on the taxpayer: including the cost of offshore detention, about $3 billion a year. There is no doubt in my mind that history will judge Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers in the early 21st century harshly. I live in hope that our newest PM Malcolm Turnbull will gradually dismantle the abominable ‘border protection’ policy.

The high-tech world we live in is also a world of brutal local wars in which the West has had its colonial fingers, historically and currently. These wars—in which Australia and its allies regularly intervene and regularly fail to improve the situation for local people—create steady rivers, and occasionally torrents, of forced migrants. The latest come from Syria, flowing mainly towards Europe; the European ‘refugee crisis’ has been in the media daily over the past months. It has been comforting to see that most European governments, including, importantly, the highly influential German government, took a humanitarian approach (with the exception of Hungary, with its barbed wire fence towards Serbia, tear gas and water cannons).

The humanitarian approach is the only possible one even if we prioritise Realpolitik: only force can stop a torrent of desperate people. We tow asylum seeker boats back to Indonesia waters; if European land borders were ‘protected’ by military force this would inevitably lead to violent clashes, riots, deaths and very probably a serious unsettling of the continent. It is more fruitful to protect people than borders. Europe’s population is ageing and most European nations would quickly shrink without immigration. Germany is taking 800,000 asylum seekers, which is under 1% of its population. The equivalent number for Australia would be 230,000.

In response to the German example, we have pledged to take 12,000 Syrians in an ‘orderly’ manner, while keeping the ‘disorderly’ boat people in prolonged detention—unless they agree to go back to where they came from. In a recent radio interview, the head of a Human Rights agency used the word ‘rot’ in describing asylum detention on Nauru and Manus Island. Indeed, we cause people to suffer and rot in forced idleness, alongside which they are exposed to a full selection of social deviance, from corruption, violence and substance abuse to rape and murder. In this context, taking the ‘extra’ contingent of Syrians is a weak and contradictory move, a fig leaf not able to cover Australia’s shame.

Luckily, Europe did not take the advice given by the Australian PM Tony Abbott in April this year to follow Australia’s ‘success’ in stopping the asylum seekers boats. Even European maritime borders in the Mediterranean have been treated differently. The boats that have been arriving for decades, and especially intensely following the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’, were never towed back. During this time, the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa has hosted as many refugees as there are regular residents (about 6000). Yet, Lampedusa’s ‘social fabric’ did not tear. The local people, in spite of economic losses from dwindling tourism, have been compassionate to the boat arrivals. Many of them volunteered to provide various aspects of humanitarian support and found it rewarding and meaningful. This is not to say that the European reception of asylum seekers is smooth and without problems; but at least one can see efforts to make it reasonable and civilised. Anti-immigration parties are getting stronger in many EU countries, clamouring for harsh measures; but at least these are (still) marginal parties, not the main parties as in Australia.

The stream of forced migrants originating in countries torn apart by civil wars and/or ruled by tyrannical and corrupt governments and flowing towards ‘First World countries’ will not stop any time soon. The world is a small and unequal place and people travel towards safer and richer countries just like water flows downhill. These days they are also well informed. Every adult refugee shown in recent video coverage of the European refugee crisis clutched a smart phone. Large and intense population movements, always in some sense ‘forced’, have happened throughout history, and history has not ended.

The current nations of Europe are only recent formations, and the ancestors of modern day Europeans reached Europe as ‘barbarians’ violating the borders of the ‘civilised’ Roman Empire. Populations move, merge and change and nations, empires and civilisations live and die: they are historic and social constructs, not eternal entities. What we see as an extraordinary torrent of irregular human movement is just another such instance in history. The kaleidoscope of history is turning faster than ever and population mobility is an important aspect of social change and of globalisation. Europe, North America and Australia are not the same as they were a century ago and will be different in a century’s time. Perhaps the typical First World citizen will be a bit darker-skinned then, but why should that worry us?

Nations that call themselves ‘civilised’—the architects of ‘globalisation’—should embrace a cosmopolitan ethic and strive to reduce the global sum total of human suffering. Ruthlessly defending their borders and privileges the way Australia has done in recent years is not an option that could possibly be widely adopted without turning the world into an Orwellian nightmare.

This article is republished with permission from Nexus, The Australian Sociological Association's newsletter, edition 27(3), pp.14-15, edited by Sue Malta and Christopher Baker.