Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Refugees as the 'Other-ed'

“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.[1]

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.[2] 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.[3]

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.[4] The Westphalia Treaties marked the shift from Respublica Christiana to a system of ‘separate, sovereign states’.[5] 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.[6] 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.[7]

Haddad uses France as an example.[8] France is imagined as a state for those who share the vision of liberte, egalite, and fraternite.[9] Those who come from outside France’s territory are assumed to have a different vision and, therefore, ‘other-ed’.[10] 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.[11] Haddad, therefore, establishes that instead of constituting an aberration, refugees are an integral component of our modern state system.[12]

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.[13] 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.[14] 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.[15]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.[16] This is juxtaposed against the image of Australians who believe in rule of law, fairness, and democracy.[17] 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.[18] 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.[19] 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.[20] This ‘exclusive’ sovereignty means the right to exclude those who are, essentially, unwanted.[21] 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.[22] 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.[23] 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’.[24]

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,

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,

Anonymous, ‘Refugee Figures’, UNHCR, viewed on 26 March 2012,

Anonymous, ‘Timeline: Tampa to Children Overboard’, ABC TV Blog, viewed on 26 March 2012,

 Anonymous, ‘Zimbabwe Crisis Exposes Refugee Hypocrisy’, the Green Left, viewed on 26 March 2012,

[1] Anonymous, ‘Refugee Figures’, UNHCR, viewed on 26 March 2012,
[2] E. Haddad, ‘The Refugee: The Individual between Sovereigns’, Global Society, Vol. 17, No. 3, July, 2003, pp. 297 - 305.
[3] Ibid., p. 298.
[4] Ibid., p. 300.
[5] Ibid., pp. 300 - 302.
[6] J.M De Almeida, ‘the Peace of Westphalia and the Idea of Respublica Christiana’, IPRI, viewed on 26 March 2012,
[7] Haddad, p. 304.
[8] Ibid., p. 304.
[9] Ibid., p. 304.
[10] Ibid., p. 304.
[11] Ibid., p. 298.
[12] Ibid., p. 298.
[13] Anonymous, ‘Zimbabwe Crisis Exposes Refugee Hypocrisy’, the Green Left, viewed on 26 March 2012,
[14] P. Mickelburough, ‘Taxpayers Wear Burden of 60,000 Illegal Immigrants’, Herald Sun, viewed on 26 March 2012,
[15] Haddad, p. 298.
[16] Anonymous, ‘Timeline: Tampa to Children Overboard’, ABC TV Blog, viewed on 26 March 2012,
[17] 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.
[18] Ibid., p. 282.
[19] Ibid., pp. 284.
[20] Ibid., pp. 282 - 284.
[21] Ibid. pp. 270 - 274.
[22] Ibid., p. 271.
[23] Ibid., pp. 280 - 281.
[24] Ibid., pp. 280 - 281. 

Economic Growth, Development, and Human Rights in Indonesia

There has been a sudden outburst of optimism about Indonesia’s economic performance in recent time. The Financial Times article here ( an example of this celebratory media remark. In ‘Indonesia: Regional Economic Boom’, Deutsch and Sender echo many other journalists in praising Indonesia as ‘one of the world’s great unsung growth stories’. They applaud the expansion of this economic bonanza to the regional areas that previously were not part of the growth zones. Balikpapan in East Kalimantan, for example, has become a new epicentre of growth due to its booming coal mining industry. Despite their sanguine interpretation,  Deutsch and Sender also, rightly, point out a few key issues that are still hampering Indonesia’s economic development. These issues are mainly internal problems such as corruption, weak institutions, uncompetitive manufacturing sector, infrastructures, and bureaucratic nightmares.

This, nonetheless, still presents us with an incomplete picture. The article, indeed, has a tendency to overemphasize internal problems while ignoring external problems such as inequalities within the global economic structure. Amplifying the concern of many dependency theorists, who believe that unfair politico-economic relationship takes place between the core and periphery, Sikka in ‘Accounting for Human Rights: the Challenge of Globalization and Foreign Investment Agreements’ contends that many multinational corporations in this neoliberal climate are more powerful than governments in the developing world. Since the global economic system is fluid and multinational companies with their economic prowess can transcend national borders, these companies can dictate states on their domestic policies, especially in relations to taxes, health and safety standards, labour rights, profit-sharing, and so on. The shift from serving the interests of its citizens to serving the interests of wealthy international corporations is a dangerous move, not only for the citizens of the country but also for the government whose legitimacy depends on the popular support of the public and the large businesses whose operation is contingent on sociopolitical stability.

To counterbalance the influence of these companies and fulfill its obligations to the Indonesian public, the government needs to play a more proactive role, especially in relations to domestic policies that affect the public in Indonesia. This means engaging with multinational corporations without joining the race to the bottom. This can be done by: building and enforcing solid legal frameworks to protect the people from potential and real development-related human rights abuses;  capitalising on this commodity boom to create more sophisticated and diversified economic activities; building strong accountability within their own institutions to create clean and reliable governance; ensuring a more equitable resource distribution from the commodity boom and invest the money in the communities. 

However, these can be difficult to realise. Just like the article by Deutsch and Sender above, many in the policy-making roles still simplistically equate growth with development and, therefore, justify a pro-big business, trickle-down development approach. This misconception reflects the power of buzzwords as described by Karen and Brock in their essay ‘Beyond Buzzwords: “Poverty Reduction”, “Participation” and “Empowerment” in Development Policy’. They have warned us about the political nature of every term in development discourse. Each term frames the problem in certain ways and, thus, influences the policy outcomes which tend to benefit some people more than others. The term economic growth and development are not exceptions. Although it is true that economic growth is crucial for development, the two terms are not synonymous. 

Growth is about capital accumulation through the market. The market does not take externalities into account. The market only rewards those who have access to the means of production. The wealthy owners of the mining companies, the contractors, and bureaucrats who can approve the contracts are those who tend to benefit from commodities boom. Those with limited access to the means of production are only ‘incidentally’ benefiting from this economic boom if not becoming the victims. In the case of Mesuji in Sumatra, for instance, the economic interests of a powerful plantation company clashed with the interests of the local community. This resulted in vertical conflicts between state apparatus, which sided with the powerful business, and local people who were disenfranchised by this company. The result of this was a litany of human rights abuses. Gruesome stories of killings, torture, and riots spread like a wild fire. This is growth as far as it can go. It does not require us to question the existing power structure. Nor does it problematise poverty, inequalities, and power abuses by the powerful against the marginalised -- except when these problems eventually cancel all the benefits of growth in riots and social revolutions. 

Development (especially one that is based on a human rights approach), on the other hand, is much more comprehensive and long-term. It is about progress in economic, social, political, and cultural sphere. The purpose of development is the empowerment, liberation, and emancipation of humanity instead of capital accumulation as the end in itself. Hence, it is not only about the outcome but also about the process. Under this premise, condoning or ignoring human rights abuse in the name of growth is no longer justifiable. Legal provisions which marginalise, discriminate, and alienate certain groups of people and preclude them from enjoying the benefits of development on an equal basis with others have to be removed. The community, through meaningful consultations led by the government, should be actively involved in the decision-making process that shapes their lives. In terms of outcomes, development should be about economic empowerment for the people through resources redistribution. Taxes from the commodity boom should be invested in the communities through education, healthcare, infrastructure, micro loans, social welfare program, and so on. The wider community should enjoy the fruits of economic growth without feeling alienated by the big businesses. 

In summary, development is a process and a purpose. Growth is an indispensable element of development but should not be treated as the end goal in itself. Bringing this understanding into policy is, certainly, not an easy option. It requires a change in the way we think. Bureaucratic and economic elites have to resist short-term gratification that can be obtained through pro-big business approach. Also, at the global stage, governments from around the world need to work together to set up a minimum standard of operation for transnational economic entities. This standard should enable them to become more accountable and ethical. Although difficult, shifting to a human-rights approach of development is in the long-term interest of all parties. A proper development process produces a stable, prosperous, and productive society. Therefore, let us do what is right, not what is easy.