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making connections Arrow vol 2 no 1 contents
About borderlands Volume 2 Number 1, 2003

Making Connections: reporting refugee policy

Peter Mares, Borderline: Australia’s response to refugees and asylum seekers in the wake of the Tampa, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2002.

Cassi Plate
University of Technology, Sydney

1. At a Refugee Symposium at Deakin University in December 2002, Peter Mares spoke about an alarming new development in border control currently being tested on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It involves retina scans of refugees’ eyes in order to track identity changes, border re-crossings, or multiple assistance claims. One of the most significant aspects of this hi-tech approach is it’s administration by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), a group which is funded to protect and assist refugees, not be principally concerned with their surveillance.

2. This example raises two key issues in relation to [Mares' book] Borderline: firstly that the Australian Government’s preoccupation with security is completely at odds with its duty of care towards refugees (though not so at odds with international trends), and secondly that a book dealing with an issue as volatile and topical as Australia’s policies and practice towards asylum seekers can never be conclusive; the ground shifts daily.

3. As Mares stresses, this is a book written in the popular style of journalism, with the hope of reaching as wide an audience as possible. He has spoken in this voice as ABC Radio’s Asia-Pacific reporter for fifteen years. It is a voice which communicates lucidly and clearly, a measured voice capable of making connections across diverse subject areas. During his first years as an Asia-Pacific specialist he gave weekly rundowns on issues in the region on a morning programme I presented on the ABC’s youth network, 2JJJ. He was an ideal commentator, introducing and backgrounding information in a vital and succinct way.

4. This is the strength of Borderline. It meticulously covers most aspects of the history and debate around the Australian government’s current policies in dealing with refugees. It starts with a comparative story about the treatment of Austrian and German (largely Jewish) refugees from the Nazis, who were first interned in British camps, then sent on overcrowded ships to Australia to be detained in desolate surroundings in Hay. This episode in Australian history is now considered a matter of national shame and regret – Mares postulates that the so-called ‘Pacific solution’ will be judged the same way.(2) The irony that we continue to punish people fleeing from countries we are at war with is implied rather than stated.

5. Borderline proceeds with a painstaking accumulation of intensely researched facts and illustrative stories – the shocking level of incidents of self-harm amongst imprisoned asylum seekers; details of the attack by Woolridge (the former Minister for Health) on One Nation’s proposal for Temporary Protection Visas (later adopted by the Coalition in November 1999). Woolridge’s criticisms stand as an attack on current policy: ‘creating uncertainty and insecurity … is one of the most dangerous ways to add to the harm that torturers do’.(26) Mares details how, in Australia, asylum seekers and refugees are seen through the lens of national sovereignty. The regulatory approach in response to breaches of national borders is essentially one of control rather than compassion, and those who arrive unlawfully are considered second-class refugees, destined to receive second-class treatment. This is an issue Mares returns to relentlessly, exposing fundamental flaws in government policy. In fact it could be argued that they are less than second-class – asylum seekers in the community on Temporary Protection Visas receive less than $33 per week, per family.

6. This hierarchy of citizenship rights is part of a much larger reconfiguration of power and restructuring of the international labour market, issues which are beyond the scope of the journalistic style of Borderline. The Sydney Daily Telegraph recently reported, in a front-page story (10.1.03), on categories of people without full citizen rights who become exploited as extremely cheap labour. Many broader political questions are not visited by Mares – there is no place in Borderline for an analysis of the ‘No Borders’ position, the cruel long-term effects of Temporary Protection Visas in disallowing family reunion or even contact (although Mares clearly documents how the increase in 1999-2001 of women and children attempting dangerous sea crossings is directly related to the family reunion prohibition for TPV holders, he stops short of naming this practice as a form of genocide), or the racialised system of access to visas, which guarantees that all people from ‘refugee risk’ groups will be denied visitor visas that would then allow them to apply internally.

7. However, although limited by the discourse of journalism, Borderline details the impossibility for many of the ‘illegal entry’ asylum seekers to apply for refugee status from OUTSIDE Australia, and critiques the International Convention 51 for not allowing refugees IN, in order to claim refuge. In pursuing this argument he exposes the contradiction and duplicity at the heart of Ruddock’s (Federal Minister for Immigration) current policy. In an interview with Mares, Ruddock inferred that recent arrivals to Australia, a group of people ‘whose claims are generally upheld’ are not ‘bona-fide refugees.’(108) Mares refutes these distorted claims about people who have finally made it through every hurdle with detailed statistics – it would be hard to pick a fight with Mares and win – and inserts judicious examples of incendiary media statements by politicians (John Howard’s ‘One Australia’ anti-Asian immigration statements in 1988) to identify how a climate of resentment and fear of outsiders is constructed and fed. He draws on a wide range of contemporary examples to demonstrate the production of invasion fears, including the work of popular teenage fiction writer John Marsden (Tomorrow, when the war began) which, he argues, plays into a long line of beliefs that plentiful Australia is at risk from over-populated countries to the north. (29-30)

8. Some of Borderline’s most valuable information lies in comparisons with overseas examples and policies. This is clearly a polemical book, aiming to influence government policy (specifically the government-in-waiting) on treatment of refugees. While harsh in its criticisms of the effects of current policies, all suggestions for change are pragmatically moderate. Mares documents the detention and treatment of children, many with ‘no access to formal education’. ‘In May 2002 there were 351 children in the camps in Manus and Nauru, and they had been detained between six and nine months’ … ‘an inquiry by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission into the situation of children in immigration detention in Australia did not extend to those held overseas.’ (133) By comparison, ‘Children are never detained in Sweden beyond the briefest possible period, because Swedish law bans the detention of children for more than six days.’ (250)

9. One of the book’s strengths lies in the use of Sweden as a comparable model. As Mares details, the two countries receive roughly the same number of asylum seekers each year, however, with a smaller population and fewer natural borders (70% of people claiming refugee status arrive illegally), Sweden has more to deal with per capita. As a result of the Bosnian war in the early 1990s, Sweden received up to 80,000 asylum seekers annually. Their response was not to use detention as a deterrence. Instead, between 1997-2000 immigration detention policies in Australia and Sweden went in opposite directions – as Australia privatised its detention centres, Sweden went public in a desire to ‘civilianise’ the process. While most people are housed in the community, for those in detention, in the words of the Swedish spokeswoman, ‘apart from the fact that they cannot leave the premises, they are entitled to the same rights as any other person would be … we guarantee that they have contact with the outside world, they have freedom of information.’ (247-8)

10. A major critical difference is the assigning of a case-worker to each asylum seeker, who works with them through each stage of the process. Mares compares this with the extreme trauma of long-term (up to three years) detention in Australia, with no personal support or guidance to mediate, or offer advice and comfort. Sweden eventually expels a high proportion of asylum seekers – 80% – but rarely has to resort to coercion for removal, due to the case-worker system, the trust, and the respectful treatment which allows failed claimants to ‘maintain their dignity’. (253-4) By comparison the Australian process is horrendous, traumatic and dehumanising at every stage. The Justice for Asylum Seekers alliance (JAS) proposes the introduction of a case-worker system in Australia, as part of its ‘alternative detention model’ and argues that increased costs ‘would probably be offset by a reduction in expenses flowing from trauma, violence and destruction of property’. (255)

11. Borderline is a definitive, timely, and necessary documentation of Australia’s response to refugees. While this multi-award winning reportage does not break new theoretical ground it is a valuable starting point for change. A more comprehensive and detailed set of sub-clauses under the contents list for each chapter would allow the reader greater access to the wealth of research available. Supplementary reading includes David Walker, Anxious Nation; Anthony Burke, In Fear of Security: Australia’s Invasion Anxiety, and James Jupp and Mary Kabala, The Politics of Australian Immigration.

Dr Cassi Plate is a broadcaster, curator and writer. She has written for the UTS Review, The Australian Financial Review (‘Millennial Fever, Federation and White Australia: Aliens Within and Without’), and edited the Borderpanic Reader for a symposium and art event in Sydney and Amsterdam, 2002. She teaches in Cultural Studies at UTS. Email:

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