Why refugee activists should support open borders

Thousands of people have rallied in recent months to welcome refugees arriving in Australia by boat. Yet there remains a common sense idea that we need to set some limit on refugee numbers, as part of Australia controlling and regulating its borders.

This is an unjustified concession for refugee supporters to make. To consistently oppose the attacks on refugees, activists need to support open borders.

Accepting the need for border controls means accepting some form of “border security” measures. For instance some in the refugee movement advocate short-term detention of asylum seeker boat arrivals for health and security checks. This is a concession to the idea asylum seekers on boats might be a security or health risk. There are no special checks for tourists arriving by plane, and the evidence is that terrorists are not likely to come by boat.

The Australian government also uses the need for “border security” to justify spending hundreds of millions of dollars harassing refugees through tracking people smugglers, disrupting asylum voyages from Indonesia, and working with regimes like Rajapaksa’s in Sri Lanka to prevent boats getting here.
Accepting the need for border controls also misunderstands the purpose of the government and media scaremongering about refugees coming here.

Borders and border control measures have never been primarily about stopping migrants and refugees. Asylum seekers are portrayed as criminals who use vile people smugglers and “come the wrong way”. The hysteria about refugee boats is designed to portray asylum seekers as a threat to ordinary people. The implication is that they threaten people’s jobs and waste government money. This encourages racism and scapegoats asylum seekers for unemployment and the run down of public services.

Borders also reinforce nationalism, by creating an artificial divide between those inside the nation and outsiders. It encourages the idea that all of us share something in common as Australians, blurring the class divide between workers and the rich.

The government is happy to spend enormous amounts on the deterrence and detention of refugees to reinforce these ideas—much more than it would cost to resettle significantly higher numbers of people in the community.

Labor had planned to spend $7.5 billion over four years to imprison asylum seekers in Australia and offshore on Manus Island and Nauru. The PNG Solution added another $600 million to the bill. This money could be used instead to resettle many more asylum seekers. The cost of detaining each asylum seeker within Australia for instance has been estimated at over $120,000 a year—easily enough, for example, to pay for resettlement services for three asylum seekers, or pay for several asylum seekers to live in the community on bridging visas.

Demanding open borders

With the PNG deal now effectively closing the Australia’s borders, the demand to open the borders has greater resonance and immediate relevance. This doesn’t mean that the refugee campaign should adopt “open borders” as a general demand.

Most people assume “open borders” would mean the immediate arrival of millions of new migrants. But where open borders have been adopted, such as the UK opening its doors to migrants from poor countries like Poland, Estonia and Latvia through the EU, the rise in immigration has been easily manageable. Migration to the UK increased only from 150,000 to a little over 200,000 a year after it was adopted in 2004.

However, perceptions that Australia would be swamped are so entrenched that the accusation of supporting open borders is a standard tactic used to try to discredit refugee supporters.

Adopting it as an explicit demand would narrow the refugee movement, cutting it off from those that don’t hold an open borders position, including union members and members of the Labor Party and The Greens. Many of these people sincerely want to welcome all those currently arriving on refugee boats.

The number of asylum seekers arriving here remains modest. In the year to June 30 there were about 25,000 boat arrivals, a record figure. That was still less than 15 per cent of Australia’s overall immigration intake for the year, and just 5000 more than the Labor government’s allocated refugee intake.

By challenging the PNG deal and calling for policies to welcome refugees, it is possible to build a campaign which is implicitly for open the borders that can draw the largest numbers of people onto the streets and into active campaigning.

We can’t leave it there of course. Socialist are for open borders. Accepting any “border security” arguments ultimately undermines the refugee campaign. “Border security” is an excuse to maintain persecution and exclusion of asylum seekers and the poor. No such exclusion applies to the rich. By continuing to argue for open borders inside the refugee campaign, we build a stronger activist core able to stand up to the arguments about border security.

By James Supple


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