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Reader riposte: Language and migration control

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COMMENTS

16 September 2011 12:09

Ben Coleridge writes:

In his piece on The Interpreter on Tuesday, Michael Clarke referred to 'the deployment of 'the language of security and threat regarding asylum seekers' by both major political parties over the past decade'. While Michael points to the last decade, the language of 'threat' and of 'control' has been the defining vocabulary of the discourse on migration control since the late 1980s and early 1990s (and of course also has deeper historical roots).

There are several questions worth asking. Where does this language come from? Is it a uniquely Australian language? Or did its emergence in Australia reflect broader international trends?

In 1992 the Keating Labor Government introduced a series of reforms to Australia’s migration laws in the form of the Migration Amendment Bill which, amongst other things, made detention mandatory for illegal entrants. Until then detention had already been a feature of the Australian migration control system but it had been notionally short-term and limited. The parliamentary debates that accompanied the introduction of this legislation featured repeated reference, on both sides of parliament, to the need to secure Australia’s borders and ensure against any loss of control of Australia's migration program.

Philip Ruddock's language for example, is illuminating: in 1992 (while in opposition) he argued to the parliament that the increasing numbers of asylum claimants in Australia signified 'a real loss of control of our borders' and emphasised that ‘maintaining control of our borders and asserting our right to determine who does or does not enter Australia' remained 'the single most important principle underlying our migration program.' Here we have the foundations for Howard’s subsequent mantra: 'we will decide who comes to this country and the conditions in which they come.' Almost identical arguments and identical language were deployed by the Keating Labor Government.

This language reflects two notable influences: the first is conceptual — an understanding of the nation-state as both sovereign and inherently limited. This is a notion explored by Benedict Anderson in his famous exegesis of nationalism, Imagined Communities, where he argued that the nation is imagined as limited (and thus exclusive) because every nation has to be defined by boundaries: 'no nation imagines itself as coterminous with mankind'.  Boundaries come to be contested and defended against 'threats' to their integrity and out of this contestation arises the vocabulary of threat and control. This is a subject which might be discussed at length along with the question of how liberal conceptions of the state and of 'liberal society' rest upon the notion of an exclusive civic community.

The second important influence in the emergence of a vocabulary of 'threat' and 'control' in Australia was the international context of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Australian commentators tend to discuss the politics of migration control as if it were divorced from international policy trends. But the emergence of a language of 'threat' and 'control' in Australia occurred in a global context in which governments were increasingly linking migration to security issues. One conversation which Australian policy-makers in the early 1990s were undoubtedly tuned into was the post-Schengen discourse on borders and security in Europe. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the European discourse on immigration became securitised; it conceptualised transnational people movement as a threat which required enforceable policies of exclusion in response. In order to secure the internal harmony of the European Economic Community, external borders had to be guarded against illegal entrants. European governments and policy-makers identified immigrant and population flows from Eastern Europe and Northern Africa as representing security threats. In considering Australian policy developments during this period, the emerging European juxtaposition of internal cohesion with external threat becomes significant.

In Europe, the perceived threat represented by people movement also led to a change in the way asylum seekers were categorised or described — asylum seekers and illegal immigrants became symbols of a loss of state control. In the European discourse on migration control, instances of fraud and asylum abuse led to the criminalisation of undocumented immigrants who were cast in a broad category of 'illegals' (sound familiar?) and were presented as a threat to the functioning of the still developing internal European market. The category of asylum seeker became associated with African, Eastern European and Middle Eastern identities which formed a distinct 'other' and which were associated with anti-social characteristics such as criminality and welfare dependence. As such, undocumented migrants and asylum seekers came to be conceived of primarily in security rather than humanitarian terms. The category of asylum seeker no longer presented as prima facie, but instead as a category to be interrogated to establish authenticity. The consequence of this was the development in Europe of more co-ordinated and stringent border protection arrangements. Thus in 1993 the Ad Hoc Working Group on Immigration recommended the adoption of 'effective procedures for the discovery and prevention of illegal entry' and called for a harmonisation of border security measures including surveillance and interdiction capabilities. 

What is interesting about this earlier period is that it marked a shift in language as the ground for a shift in policy. The study of what influenced these shifts might be a resource for considering the formation of future policy.

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