“The latest figures available show that the number of refugees of concern to UNHCR stood at 10.5 million refugees at the beginning of 2011”, UNHCHR Website.
For many people living in the industrialized world such as Australia, the statistics above can be unsettling. Firstly, refugees are often seen as a ‘disturbance’ to order and sovereignty. Secondly, refugees who are ‘different‘ are seen not only as a disturbance but also as a threat to host country’s national interests.
Scholars such as Emma Haddad believe refugees are perceived to be a challenge to the sovereignty of state, which is thought as the main guarantor of order and ‘our’ way of life vis-a-vis other peoples’ ways of life. She also argues that the fear of this ‘floating’ people is based on the idea that refugees upset the pattern of certainty within the ‘citizen-state-territory trinity’ that our modern state system has afforded.
It is important to note that this notion of state sovereignty and territorial integrity only became the dominant discourse after the Westphalia Treaties in 1648. The Westphalia Treaties marked the shift from Respublica Christiana to a system of ‘separate, sovereign states’. Semi autonomous empires with multiple identities and porous borders governed under a ‘universal’ papacy was replaced by a system of secular, sovereign states without a supranational authority to oversee them. While in the old system religions bound different peoples together, in the new system it is generally the secular national vision of a state that determines who belongs to a state and who does not.
Haddad uses France as an example. France is imagined as a state for those who share the vision of liberte, egalite, and fraternite. Those who come from outside France’s territory are assumed to have a different vision and, therefore, ‘other-ed’. In this in this context, refugees fits this notion of ‘others’ since they are not from within the confines of French borders and, therefore, presumed to be different from normal French citizens in they way they think, behave, and act. Haddad posits that this reification of refugees as others vs the ‘normal’ citizens of the host country serves to help host state assert their sovereignty and reinforce this ‘imagined’ national identity. Haddad, therefore, establishes that instead of constituting an aberration, refugees are an integral component of our modern state system.
Haddad’s analysis is useful to explain why many countries are reluctant to welcome refugees. However, since Haddad’s thesis depicts refugees and host states in a hostile relationship, it is difficult to explain why certain refugees are more welcomed than others. White Zimbabwean refugees in Australia, for example, were not necessarily treated with the same suspicions and hostility in comparison with Afghan refugees. Similarly, in Australia, there seems to be no brouhaha about visa overstayers who, mostly, come from other Western countries such as the UK and the US. Perhaps, this is because they are seen to come from the same ‘civilization’ and, therefore, assumed to have traits like Australians or, at least, compatible with the constructed identity of the Australian society. On the other hand, Afghan refugees are seen not only as different but also dangerous. Thanks to the global war on terror and the history of jihad and crusade between Islam Middle East and the Christian West, the Afghans are one of those peoples seen by many in the West as the enemy. This suggests that it might not be the ‘refugees’ status per se that constitutes the main problem. Instead, in Australia’s case especially, it can be the demographics and sociopolitical tags attached to the refugees which primarily shape the responses of the Australian public and policies of the host state.
Indeed, the differences between refugees and the mainstream Australian public is one of the key defining features of the Australian refugee discourse. Gelber and Mcdonald argue that recent asylum seekers in Australia are often represented as possessing different values and characters from the Australian people.In the Children Overboard Affair, asylum seekers were depicted as morally bankrupt illegals who would even throw their own children onto water to be rescued and given access to Australia. This is juxtaposed against the image of Australians who believe in rule of law, fairness, and democracy. In this case, it seems to matter little to many Australians that an inquiry found the narrative used in the Children Overboard Affairs to be untrue. All of these factors are often ignored and everything boils down to the idea of ‘those uncivilized boat people’ vs ‘us, civilized Australians’.
Once the wall is erected, it becomes possible for the government to justify its harsh treatment of asylum seekers and deflect any criticisms regarding its failure to uphold international human rights norms on refugees and asylum seekers. In fact, the Howard government, then, was able to use rhetoric on ‘exclusive’ state sovereignty to garner further political support and justify its policies on asylum seekers. This ‘exclusive’ sovereignty means the right to exclude those who are, essentially, unwanted. In this case, those are asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka mainly. It also means the right of the Australian government to implement this policy without outside intervention. Against the backdrop of this ‘exclusive’ sovereignty, criticisms from international and domestic human rights organizations were dismissed as trivial ‘feel good’ matters in comparison to fulfilling ‘real’ Australia’s national interests. By this stage, sovereignty and fulfilling national interests had become a concept that were left unchallenged while ethical consideration was seen to be relevant only for the ‘ideologues and the naive’.
I support Gelber and McDonald in problematizing Howard regime’s interpretation of sovereignty. Although understandable within the logics of pluralist English school, the problem with this interpretation of sovereignty is that it does not take realities into account. Sovereignty, in real international politics, is not absolute. The Australian government insisted on absolute sovereignty for its own territory yet it has been engaged in breaching the sovereignty of other countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. If an argument can be made to support this type of obvious abrogation of sovereignty, the same argument can surely be made to support Australia’s international human rights obligations to process all asylums seekers regardless of their mode of arrival or nationalities. This is even more so in the latter case because the Australian government has voluntarily agreed to sign the Refugee Convention. In principle, this means that it has voluntarily surrendered some of its sovereignty to the international society. This does not have to be seen as a negative thing. By relegating some of its sovereignty to the international society especially in relations to refugees, the Australian government contributes to the international order and stability of which it also enjoys. It also contributes to the image of Australia as a responsible player in the international system which, in turn, will boost Australia’s diplomatic influence at the global level.
De Almeida, J.M., ‘the Peace of Westphalia and the Idea of Respublica Christiana’, IPRI, viewed on 26 March 2012, http://www.ipri.pt/investigadores/artigo.php?idi=5&ida=29.
Gelber, K., and McDonald, M., ‘Ethics and Exclusion: Representations of Sovereignty in Australia’s Approach to Asylum-Seekers’, Review of International Studies, Vol. 32, No. 2, April 2006, pp. 269 - 289.
Haddad, E., ‘The Refugee: The Individual between Sovereigns’, Global Society, Vol. 17, No. 3,
July, 2003, pp. 297 - 322.
Mickelburough, P., ‘Taxpayers Wear Burden of 60,000 Illegal Immigrants’, Herald Sun, viewed on 26 March 2012, http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/more-news/taxpayers-wear-burden-of-60000-illegal-immigrants/story-fn7x8me2-1226200621996.
Anonymous, ‘Refugee Figures’, UNHCR, viewed on 26 March 2012, http://www.unhcr.org/pages/49c3646c1d.html.
Anonymous, ‘Timeline: Tampa to Children Overboard’, ABC TV Blog, viewed on 26 March 2012, http://blogs.abc.net.au/abc_tv/2011/07/leaky-boat-timeline.html.
Anonymous, ‘Zimbabwe Crisis Exposes Refugee Hypocrisy’, the Green Left, viewed on 26 March 2012, http://www.greenleft.org.au/node/22482.
 E. Haddad, ‘The Refugee: The Individual between Sovereigns’, Global Society, Vol. 17, No. 3, July, 2003, pp. 297 - 305.
 Ibid., p. 298.
 Ibid., p. 300.
 Ibid., pp. 300 - 302.
 J.M De Almeida, ‘the Peace of Westphalia and the Idea of Respublica Christiana’, IPRI, viewed on 26 March 2012, http://www.ipri.pt/investigadores/artigo.php?idi=5&ida=29.
 Haddad, p. 304.
 Ibid., p. 304.
 Ibid., p. 304.
 Ibid., p. 304.
 Ibid., p. 298.
 Ibid., p. 298.
 P. Mickelburough, ‘Taxpayers Wear Burden of 60,000 Illegal Immigrants’, Herald Sun, viewed on 26 March 2012, http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/more-news/taxpayers-wear-burden-of-60000-illegal-immigrants/story-fn7x8me2-1226200621996.
 Haddad, p. 298.
 Anonymous, ‘Timeline: Tampa to Children Overboard’, ABC TV Blog, viewed on 26 March 2012, http://blogs.abc.net.au/abc_tv/2011/07/leaky-boat-timeline.html.
 K. Gelber and M. McDonald, ‘Ethics and Exclusion: Representations of Sovereignty in Australia’s Approach to Asylum-Seekers’, Review of International Studies, Vol. 32, No. 2, April 2006, p. 282.
 Ibid., p. 282.
 Ibid., pp. 284.
 Ibid., pp. 282 - 284.
 Ibid. pp. 270 - 274.
 Ibid., p. 271.
 Ibid., pp. 280 - 281.
 Ibid., pp. 280 - 281.