Open to a solution?

Nina Hallas doesn’t like borders, or Bob Carr

Bob Carr’s recent addition to bottom-of-the-barrel politics came last month when he attempted to change the terms of reference of asylum seekers to ‘economic migrants’. It was an announcement made on the night of Rudd’s resurrection, clarifying that the race-to-the-bottom on asylum policy was not going to slow on account of a change in reigns. His aim was clear – in undermining the perceived sense of desperation with which these ‘boat people’ reached our shores, he neutralised humanitarian arguments about our responsibility to house the persecuted in order to shore the votes of a constituency who’ve projected social and economic woes into a crass and classic ‘fear of the Other’.

Yet – while completely antithetical to his intentions – Carr’s claims become almost credulous when factoring the heavy overlap between political instability and large-scale economic hardship, rendering a distinction between their respective ‘victims’ arbitrary at best. It consequently solicits reflection on the criteria required to gain citizenship, if, indeed, any criteria or restrictions should be required at all.

Tight border controls are a relatively novel political construction, and historically, Nation-States have been much more permeable without tragic consequence. Of course, since then, the world’s populace has soared, and means of transportation have become considerably more accessible, but the assumption that Australia would be swamped with an open border policy is alarmist at best.

At its root, the ‘swamping’ theory is based on the assumption that people, if given the opportunity, will be naturally self-interested enough to seek a life in a country that provides – in all quantitative measures anyway – better prospects and conditions. It’s a bit naïve. Uprooting your whole life to start another – especially one situated in a place as geographically isolated as Australia – is seldom done on a whim, but our gut objection to such a reasonable human want goes a long way to highlight how self-entitled and territorial many of us feel about our simple luck of circumstance. Further, it prompts reflection on why there is such disparity in circumstance, and the answer, for the most part, rests in a history of colonialism and imperialism, the effects of which are still rife today, continued in either the wars we wage, or sweatshop factories we run to exploit cheap labour.

Tight border controls are a relatively novel political construction, and historically, Nation-States have been much more permeable without tragic consequence.

In many respects, the idea of our immigration policy as a nine-circle labyrinth of iron curtain hell is a bit of a façade anyway, and an open border policy would much more significantly affect discourse than intake. Border controls are conveniently variable in their implementation, highlighting yet another contradiction inherent in the globalised world, where freedom of movement is afforded to capital but not people, and tough talk of a “sustainable” population refers only to the proportionally tiny intake of refugees and not the high intake of skilled, business-friendly migrants, with whom we have boundless plains to share. And boundless plains this country does indeed have, for even accounting our desert mass, we have space enough for all who seek to inhabit it, and wealth enough to build the infrastructure to properly facilitate them.

Opening the borders, therefore, is a simple and in reality quite sustainable smoothing of this contradiction that – in conjunction with far less invasive foreign policies and the adoption of revolutionarily more equitable trade conditions to eliminate many ‘push factors’ – is the only viable solution to the refugee ‘crisis’ should our nation ever start actually looking for one.

And for the last few stragglers still clutching to a “safety at sea” argument, let’s bring it down to basics. Following a simple demand and supply model, the mere fact that boat arrivals have not been deterred by increasingly hard-line policies implies that channels to safer methods of transportation are not being provided to the degree to which they are required, keeping the dubious (but in no way inherently evil) act of ‘people smuggling’ a robust and lucrative trade. If we open more avenues to seeking asylum, we stop the boats and we stop deaths at sea, which, if their word is to be taken at face value, is the top and only priority of our dear leaders.