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The Way We Talk About the 'Refugee Crisis' Robs People of Their Humanity

An interview with Professor William Maley about people living in the deadly space between ideals and reality.

In this photo taken on Saturday 10th September 2016, African refugees and migrants wait aboard a partially punctured rubber boat to be assisted, during a rescue operation on the Mediterranean Sea, about 13 miles North of Sabratha, Libya. (AP Photo/Santi Palacios)

The 20th century is littered with noble texts. The Conventional Relating To The Status of Refugees ; the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms ; the Convention on the Rights of the Child; the Convention Against Torture. As the crisis of borders and movement intensifies ­– as barbed wire fences and migrant detention camps becoming a regular feature of the landscape – the importance and uselessness of these texts has never been clearer. Professor William Maley's new book, What Is A Refugee?, looks between the lofty proclamations of international law and the world as it really is. He focuses on the people caught in this deadly space.


Like other authors writing on this topic – Reece Jones' Violent Borders: Refugees And The Right To Move comes to mind – Maley looks to the 17th century to find the source of today's disorder. (It's a sign of just how fucked up things are that you have to go back that far.) This was when the Peace of Westphalia was signed, which ended the Thirty Years' War. The Westphalian settlement marked the beginning of European sovereignty being conceived of in terms of physical territory. He follows the development of this ideology of space into the 20th century, when technologies of control – passports, visas, border monitoring systems – created the modern system of states we have today. In one of his most striking sentences, he writes that state violence towards those forced to move today, from the Mediterranean to the parapets of Donald Trump's imaginary wall with Mexico, "can almost seem like sovereignty's last gasp".

We spoke to Professor Maley – a professor of diplomacy at the Australian National University – about the way we talk about refugees.

VICE: Much of the book is concerned with the definition of refugees. What does the way we, in the so-called host countries, talk about refugees reveal?
Prof Maley: I think in a lot of host countries there's a disposition to see refugees as the Other; people who are intrinsically different from us and from whom we are, therefore, remote and distant in the responsibilities that we owe them.


One of the crucial distinctions is between how we define refugees, which is often a legal exercise, and how we characterise refugees. It's not as if there's just one pathway that leads people to be refugees: some people are outside their country when circumstances change for the worse and they can't return (refugees sur place); others have been forced to flee with nothing (acute refugees); others have seen what's coming and decided to get out before the sky falls in (anticipatory refugees). They may all be "refugees" in the legal sense but their experiences are very different.

Even the term "refugee crisis", which we use without thinking, suggests the problem belongs to the refugees rather than the states that refuse to accept them.
Yes that's right. There are two different dimensions to this issue. One is the disposition of people in wealthy countries to complain about the burden they're carrying, whereas if you look at the distribution of refugees worldwide only 6 percent are in Europe. The vast bulk is in Africa and different parts of Asia. So even a basic statistic raises questions about where the "crisis" is.

It's also the case, however, that refugees are very much a product of the system of states. If you don't have states and borders then people simply move from one part of the world to another. This is very much a phenomenon of the late 19th and early 20th century; until the First World War it was relatively simple to travel the world without a passport. Visas came in in the 1930s largely as a device for preventing the entry of Jews from Germany who already had German passports.


If we're talking about the way bureaucracies are weaponised by different politics and ideologies, one mobilising force that's relevant is racism.
There's no doubt historically there have been deeply ingrained prejudices, which have come into play in animating a disposition to reject refugees. At the Evian Conference in 1938, which President Roosevelt called to address the problem of refugees from Germany, the Australian delegate, T.W. White, stood up in front of all the other delegates and said, "Since [Australia] does not have a race problem, delegates will understand that we are not anxious to acquire one." About a chilling a statement as you could imagine. And, yes, these days one doesn't have to dig far to find similar attitudes articulated by what in the past would have been fringe politicians but who now are making their way closer to mainstream politics.

Your area of expertise is Australia. Let's talk about the recent revelations of tortuous conditions in the Australia's offshore refugee detention camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea. Is there sufficient political will to get them abolished?
The Supreme Court of Justice in Papa New Guinea has ruled the centre established in Manus is in violation of the constitution of Papa New Guinea. So that's a hot potato that's bounced into the lap of the Australian government. The pressure is certainly building up within Australia to do something about these dreadful places. On the other hand, the Australian government may well be calculating that the continued existence of this is a way of attracting the votes of the far right. Given the government in the 2nd July election was returned with only a slender majority in the House of Representatives, it really can't afford in terms of its own interests to alienate politicians on the right, whether it's members of the ruling party – the Immigration Minister is a pretty far right figure – or the racist One Nation Party, which has returned with four senators in a finely balanced Upper House.


So while all the rational and decent arguments are in favour of shutting these places down as quickly as possible, there may be very neat calculations of domestic politics that slow down any movement in that direction. It would take a strong leader to move and people are really doubtful as to whether the current Australian Prime Minister is a strong leader.

You make it clear that "dehumanisation" isn't an exaggeration – it's explicit Australian policy.
In 2001 the office of the Defence Minister issued an instruction that "humanising" images of asylum seekers rescued from boats in the Indian Ocean were not to be distributed – really one of the most chilling directives I've ever heard surfacing from an Australian ministerial office. And I think that was because of a recognition from the government at the time that the moment ordinary people can put a human face on the victims of these policies it begins to change the dynamics of discussion. Politicians who do this kind of thing know what they're doing.

In the final chapter of your book, you sketch some potential solutions to the crisis, emphasising that "arguments based on economic costs… might carry more weight [than moral ones]". But if we start arguing that we should accept refugees because business will like that we can get them to work for low wages, aren't buying into a logic that sees them as quantities rather than humans?
I don't see the argument based on economic factors as the predominant principled argument for offering protection to refugees; the argument for offering protection flows from their humanity. It's simply a point which is often neglected by the people who want harsh refugee policies: the policies they're advocating are very costly, both in terms of the direct cost from running systems of detention and deterrents, but also in terms of the economic losses that flow from it. But, for me, the overwhelmingly important arguments are the ethical arguments.


Having said that, I don't think there are magical solutions to refugee problem. One of the ways in which one can seek to ameliorate their situation is having less intrusive and aggressive ways of preventing people moving from one part of the world to another.

People who come from refugee-producing countries like Somalia or Syria find it virtually impossible to get visa to travel to Western countries. In that sense, the Western policies of shutting down legal routes are driving people into the arms of people smugglers.

The UN estimated in 2015 there were over a million people in the world in need of immediate resettlement; and the number of resettlement places made available in 2014 was just over 73,000. So there's a gross discrepancy between the need and the supply of resettlement; and there's nothing more predictable under those circumstances that a black market will emerge.

'What Is a Refugee?' is published by Hurst on the 29th September


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