I want to modestly propose a potential solution to the ‘boat people’ problem (or should that be boat people ‘problem?’…sometimes I think certain segments of the right wing pronounce it boat ‘people’ problem. Like the term ‘Christian Scientist’, where I’m never sure which word the sceptical quote marks should embrace). Let’s call it the asylum seeker issue. Because words matter, and I’ll choose the blandest ones possible while navigating fraught political waters.
Here is the proposal.
If you are being processed as a refugee, as an asylum seeker; if your papers are not in order; if you’ve come by boat and have no papers; if you’re one of these ‘difficult to process’ people, the current solutions offered to you by the Australian government are… how do the politicians put it? Ah yes: ‘Less than ideal.’ Now I’m not a doctor, but as far as I understand it, the current procedure is to send you, the difficult person looking for a better life to which you are (definitely/maybe/not) entitled back to where you came from. Other solutions include preventing you from being annoying to real people Australians by shanghai-ing  you en route and putting you in a camp until your legal invisibility permeates your sense of self worth and you become transparent and disappear (?). I can’t say I really have my head around the (political) science, but I think that’s how it’s meant to work.
Ok, so you  are a difficult person to process. You want to come to Australia, but we’re  worried you might be an ‘economic migrant’ (someone who wants a better life, filthy freeloading chump), instead of a ‘real’ refugee (someone who wants not to die please, please). Here’s my modest proposal to you. I will phrase it in the form of a question, because I want you (the reader) to ‘join the conversation’ (please don’t threaten to punch me). What’s wrong with the idea of the Australian government presenting asylum seekers with this choice: You can be processed at the normal speed through the normal channels, or you can opt in to a fixed term of indentured servitude, national-service style for five years, after which we will give you a grant of money and let you loose in the community as a full citizen. What’s wrong with that idea? Other than the obvious problems with this maybe being a sort of illegal indentured servitude, obviously.
Certainly, the potential for abuse of power over vulnerable people who have thrown themselves on our mercy is…well actually, that potential seems somehow less ghastly in the glow of current and ongoing human rights abuses in our processing of refugees.
Indentured servitude is basically slavery, but it’s not indefinite detainment without hope of parole or escape or release – this proposal is in the form of an optional fixed-term contract. You’d buy your Australian citizenship with the sweat of your brow. I mean, even if you are a sneaky horrible person trying to buy a new life by risking limb and children on a leaky boat, old mate RSL racist is hardly going to say you haven’t worked for your right to live here if you’ve worked for your right to live here by working for your right to live here.
Think of the proud history of Australia! For hundreds of years, we’ve been exploiting beleaguered, displaced and harried people’s desire for a new life to build our nation! Convicts who were sent to Australia in the first couple of fleets would work out their prison term, and on being released, were often given a grant of land as an incentive to stay and build the new nation and then we had a nation with people in it. We let immigrants in to Australia to build the Snowy River thingy and now we have milk bars and people with ethnic grandparents who ask intrusive questions about your dating life. Jews snuck into Australia on dodgy papers after WWII and now we have my granny (she’s dead now though. Are you happy, bigots?).
It’s not just an Australia thing either. People join the French foreign legion all the time! Creepy people trying to escape dodgy histories can become French citizens just by doing push-ups for five years and risking their lives in dangerous warzones. I once met a French guy who told me that all Japanese people looked like monkeys. Are you saying the French are less racist than we are?
Seriously though. How is my proposed solution worse than the current situation, where new immigrants are treated like second-class citizens, and desperate asylum seekers are thrown into a limbo of discomfort and purposelessness and uncertainty for an indefinite period of time.
The fear of sneaky and calculating economic migrants would be allayed; anyone who is seeking to game the system for an easy life in Australia is likely to be turned off by the prospect of years and years of hard work. Even if you are a fake refugee, even if you are not running from persecution, or if you’re attracted to the idea of living in a better place, if you’re willing to work hard to build things to make a better Australia, you deserve to be here. Most great nations have been built on the backs of slaves and convicts, because there’s work that builds nations which is too expensive or long-sighted to justify in capitalist economic terms. Why not make slavery into a win-win situation? Let’s put people on infrastructure building; jobs that are not being done by Australian citizens, jobs where it’s too expensive to hire labour.
I do understand that the idea of people signing away human rights is insane. In the end though, people are usually happier signing away rights to achieve some end goal than having rights forcibly taken away. Just look at how willing we are to have people look at our dirty underpants in airport security.
Unfortunately, we’re not facing a situation where people and politics will accept kind, compassionate and generous immigration policies. Politically, if you’re a government that wants to be voted back in, you need to be seen to be taking a hard stance on asylum seekers. Why not let asylum seekers choose how hard they want to work for us?
1. The last thing I want is to write a whole article about transpacific boat travel and then have somebody from the transoceanic community accuse me of excluding the boats that happen to be crossing the Atlantic. That would totally hijack the discussion, making it about bodies of water and not about what we can practicably do to solve the problem of politically driven human geo-re-location.
2. No offence meant to the people of Shanghai. The term ‘to shanghai’ has co-opted and misrepresented your identity in a very colonial way, but since it is in common use, I will keep using it until I can think of another one. Sorry again.
3. Not actually you, ha ha of course. They don’t let refugees have the internet, don’t be an idiot.
4. Mainly older people who listen to talk-back radio, and idiots. Sorry (not sorry) if my repeated use of the term idiot to mean anyone that doesn’t agree with me is offensive.
5. This analogy is not entirely correct because it’s not illegal to seek asylum.