R is for Refugee
Index to an Unreal World 30th August 2001: R is for Refuge...by McKenzie Wark
Crack troops from the Australian SAS boarded the Norwegian ship the Tampa as it approached Christmas island, a tiny speck in the ocean between Australia and Indonesia. The Tampa rescued 438 people from the waters, asylum seekers from Afghanistan on their way from Indonesia to Australia.
The Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, argues that the Tampa's new passengers are Indonesia's problem, as an Indonesian port was closest. Or maybe Norway's problem, as the Tampa is a Norwegian vessel. Anything but Australia's problem.
The Indonesian government refuses to accept them. The Australian government has offered 'humanitarian aid' but not the most vital of human comfort -- a place to land. The owners of the Tampa dispute the Australian government's version of international law. The Taliban claim that the asylum seekers are motivated by poverty, not by their repressive policies in Afghanistan. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, it seems, except the hapless passengers themselves. Some are on hunger strike. Those others who would speak for them can eat for them, too.
Migration is globalisation from below. If the overdeveloped world refuses to trade with the underdeveloped world on fair terms, to forgive debt, to extend loans on fair terms, to lift trade barriers against food and basic manufactured goods, then there can only be an increase in the flow of people seeking to get inside the barriers the overdeveloped world erects to protect its interests.
While the Australian, Indonesian, Norwegian and Afghani states argue over who is responsible for these 438 people, their very presence in this stateless state is testament to the absence of effective international justice. Trade between states, taking place as it is in the absence of justice, can only produce injustice, which in turn produces flows of people who come to exist outside the space of effective justice at all.
And yet putting up more barriers to trade, as some in the 'anti-globalisation' camp demand, will only lead to more asylum seekers. The most telling human critique of globalisation is not the black-clad protesters in Seattle or Genoa, it is the still, silent bodies of the illegals, in ships, trucks or car boots, passing through the borders. The placeless proletariat.
These 438 people, as yet nameless, faceless, unable to tell their stories, are in their very existence a critique of both the unequal relations of trade within the world, but also of that aspect of the anti-global crusade which only strengthens the claims of national sovereignty.
What is absent in this new world disorder is a way to make a claim, a claim to right, outside of the space of the nation state. A right to the means of existence, and a right to seek leave to travel in search of a means of existence. Those who seek refuge are a critique of the limits of sovereignty.
Asylum seekers who do manage to land in Australia are commonly held in detention centres, often Spartan facilities such as former army barracks. Most wait with extraordinary patience. There have been some incidents: riots, hunger strikes and break-outs. These asylum seekers are in the paradoxical position of being a standing critique of the failings of a regime of international statehood, and at the same time totally dependent on finding a state that will accept their claims to refugee status.
In the past, some asylum seekers have demanded access to CNN and the internet. It is the flow of information around the world, along ever proliferating vectors, that creates the possibility of seeking this leave of absence from the space of the nation and the state. As the Tampa waits off Christmas island, there are is news of other boats, waiting, waiting to see what happens.
The Australian and Indonesian states take a hard line so as not to encourage others to test their borders. But it is the rule of the border in general that the refugee challenges. Every state seeks to secure itself at the expense of other states. While the Australian government deserves special condemnation for its callous disregard for suffering, it is not the only state that stands accused by refugees of a foreclosure of justice. It is the justice of national sovereignty itself that the body of the asylum seeker refutes.
News reports sometimes play up the manipulation of the hopes of asylum seekers by their smugglers. But this hardly jibes with the clearly well calculated risk asylum seekers take. It is not they who are misinformed, it is the overdeveloped world. Asylum seekers are not all dupes of greedy smugglers. The smugglers may be greedy and their trade a pernicious one, but the asylum seekers themselves take their chances. The misinformed are those in the overdeveloped world, who fail to see in the asylum seeker a force in revolt against the privileges of state sovereignty.