Asylum seekers as Pariahs in the Australian state

During the last decade measures of overt and covert surveillance, information sharing and deterrence of the illegal movement of people has increased within and between states. Border security has come to dominate international relations, and increasingly to deflect the needs of asylum-seekers who search for a state that will offer them substantive protection under the Refugee Convention. Measures of internal and external deterrence diminish the reality of protection to genuine refugees as some of the most vulnerable individuals in the world today. Australia, as a country of relative geographic isolation, has not experienced the large-scale influxes of asylum-seekers seen in many parts of the world. Notwithstanding this, the Australian Government has in recent years implemented harsh policy and administrative measures directed at asylum-seekers with a substantial measure of public support. In August 2001, an incident involving 433 asylum-seekers was branded in popular discourse an ‘asylum crisis’. This incident involved a Norwegian freighter, the Tampa, which picked up survivors from a sinking boat who were making their way to Australian waters in order seek protection under the Refugee Convention. The Tampa was repelled by Australian security forces from disembarking the people they had picked up in distress on Australian soil. In this article, I explore the Tampa incident against the backdrop of refugee policy development from 1999. I argue that rather than responding to a crisis, the Australian government has generated the perception of a crisis in the Australian community. Implications of the Australian response to asylum-seekers are significant not only in the Asia/Pacific region, but further afield, as policy responses toward asylum-seekers by receiving states have converged in the recent past.

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