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Dutton’s demonisation of refugees is the latest play in a zero-sum game

The determination to avoid appearing ‘soft’ on asylum seekers continues to undermine Australia’s humanitarian credentials. AAP/Lukas Coch

Dutton’s demonisation of refugees is the latest play in a zero-sum game

According to Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, the children and grandchildren of 1970s migrants to Australia are disproportionately represented as foreign fighters in overseas conflicts. Dutton made this claim last week to support his assertion that:

The reality is Malcolm Fraser did make mistakes in bringing some people in the 1970s and we’re seeing that today.

Dutton has not put forward evidence to support his claim. It smears the Fraser government and plays on the perception that Fraser was permissive in his acceptance of Vietnamese refugees. Fraser’s expansion of Australia’s humanitarian intake and less securitised approach to boat arrivals certainly distinguished his government from the current one.

Dutton’s remarks are particularly risky in the context of media over-reporting on anecdotal evidence and the promotion of negative stereotyping of minority groups. To draw inaccurate links between criminal behaviour and ethnic origin can legitimise racial profiling.

Dutton’s assertion is also reductive and cynical. It draws a long bow between the historical migration of people from Lebanon and contemporary concerns about gang crime among Sudanese migrants and Australian nationals who engage in foreign conflicts.

Dutton’s allegations and their impacts will again demonstrate the zero-sum nature of political gamesmanship over refugees.

The only party that benefits from such inflammatory statements is the government, which is determined to characterise asylum seekers as a threat. Dutton’s comments follow the government’s introduction of legislation seeking to ban asylum seekers who travelled by boat from ever gaining entry to Australia in their lifetime.

The government’s gain contrasts with the loss suffered by all those directly or indirectly demonised by such words. This includes those who continue to face an uncertain future in immigration detention, and those who have been accepted into the Australian community from “suspect” origin countries.

More broadly, Dutton’s rhetoric and the policy positions it reflects undermine Australian society and the values of multiculturalism, tolerance and fairness.

Moral panic and refugees

On the same day as Dutton’s most recent smear of refugees, the UN’s special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, François Crépeau, ended an 18-day investigative visit to Australia. He said:

Politicians who have engaged in this negative discourse seem to have given permission to people on the street to act in xenophobic ways and to allow for the rise of nationalist populist groups.

Language has been used as a powerful tool to cause and play on moral panic regarding asylum seekers.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the official categorisation of asylum seekers travelling by boat as “illegal”. This pejorative label is a careful construction. It ignores Australia’s international legal obligations to protect people seeking asylum from persecution.

The government and some media sources have also used metaphoric “waves” to describe asylum seekers. Such language heightens community fears of an inundation of boat arrivals, despite their relatively small numbers.

This demonisation of asylum seekers and refugees provides the political basis for “tough”, control-oriented policy.

Mandatory immigration detention, for example, is an environment of hopeless despair. The suffering of detainees is deployed to deter other desperate people from attempting a similar journey.

Third-country resettlement of the ‘wrong’ type of refugees

Dutton’s comments in relation to “particular cohorts … who might not be integrating well and contributing well” were only one instance of the government hitting the moral panic button over the past week.

The government also announced it will seek to resettle refugees currently on Nauru and Manus Island in the US. However, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was concerned to ensure this proposed deal would not serve as a “marketing opportunity” for people smugglers. To counter this, the government deployed its “largest and most capable maritime surveillance and response fleet”.

This show of might is likely to be an overreaction to the perceived risk. But it follows a familiar pattern of presenting a “crisis” in order to demonstrate the need for a “tough” response.

Many of the refugees who will be sent to the US under the new agreement will be Muslim. In light of US President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign promise to ban Muslim immigration, Australia’s efforts at US resettlement raise ethical, legal and humanitarian concerns.

There have already been instances of race hate and incitement of violence toward refugees, Muslim and Middle Eastern people following the US election. Trump has reportedly advocated for a “register” of Muslims in the US.

The Australian government is obliged to consider whether its proposed third-country resettlement may have further traumatising effects or entrench mental ill-health caused or exacerbated by its detention of asylum seekers offshore. While the hope of permanent resettlement must be welcomed for those who may gain access to it, many questions about the US arrangement remain unanswered.

More broadly, Trump’s election victory has emboldened political parties in Australia that seek to discriminate against Muslim immigrants. The government has also previously endorsed refugee selection processes that favour non-Muslims.

Discriminating against people based on race or ethnic origin is contrary to Australian law. Discrimination on the basis of race, religion or country of origin is also unlawful under international law.

No risk of appearing ‘soft’ on asylum seekers

It appears the government plans to retain access to the refugee processing centre on Nauru. It has depicted the US “deal” as a one-off effort, rather than a durable solution.

The inescapable conclusion is that, should asylum seekers reach Australian waters by boat in future, Australia would end up back in the same intractable position it now faces.

The determination to avoid appearing “soft” on asylum seekers continues to undermine our international legal standing and our humanitarian credentials.