Calais ‘crisis’ a product of the failures of our political class

  • 02/19/2019

Last week, I had the privilege of traveling through the Channel Tunnel on my way to London.


My trip occurred under the backdrop of the so-called “migrant crisis” that has engulfed the French town of Calais — a “flood” of asylum seekers trying to migrate to the UK in the darkness of the tunnel.

The crisis has engulfed UK politics over the past couple of weeks. Prime Minister David Cameron has made the issue a top priority, increasing protection at the border with fences and dogs, and even releasing new legislation that will force landlords to evict immigrants who are not in the country legally. The Conservatives have done their best to make immigration an issue, being accused of dehumanising asylum seekers in the process. 

Moving to the UK about six months ago I arrived with a particular perception of Australia’s immigration politics. Like many others I saw Australia as a weird anomaly — an extreme government going against the standards of the world. We hear this a lot. Australians hate asylum seekers; a hatred that has arisen due to a unique racist history (largely based in White Australia Policy). Many even felt vindicated when the leader of UK Independence Party, known for their anti-immigration policies, said even he wouldn’t go as far as Tony Abbott with his immigration policies. Look how bad we are! 

Living in Europe though I realised that Australia is not alone. The Calais crisis comes after months of discussion about the Mediterranean immigration crisis that has engulfed Europe. Over recent months tens of thousands of immigrants have fled northern Africa, with thousands of them drowning on the way. The response has been eerily similar to that back at home —  the demonisation of those fleeing war torn countries, a refusal to increase settlement numbers, cuts to search-and-rescue services, and even proposals to use the military to seize and destroy boats used for transporting asylum seekers. Watching the debate has transported me straight back to Australia. 

But in doing so, it has highlighted a valuable lesson. When it comes to immigration, everywhere in the world is largely the same. The debates, excuses and demonisation — all largely the same. While this may sound depressing it is actually an important lesson to learn. Because in seeing how the debate transpires globally you can start to see the real cause of the deep crevasse we’ve found ourselves in. 

In making our asylum debate some unique problem for Australia we have, inadvertently missed the reality of why we’re treating asylum seekers so poorly. For years we have primarily blamed the debate on an inherent racism in our society that our politicians have worked to exploit. Reacting to this, immigration advocates have framed our response through the lens of “human rights”. We work hard to humanise those trying to reach our shores, arguing our treatment of them is denying the very rights we all deserve. 

In many ways this humanisation has worked. The SBS show Go Back to Where You Came From caused global headlines, our newspapers regularly contain hard-hitting pieces of those suffering on and off our shores, and support often floods to those battling the system. Despite all of this, our policies continue. Why? Look at the global perspective and you can quickly see its because the frames we use are on the periphery of the debate. While racism is clearly a factor, it certainly is not the leading cause. 

So what is the cause? Tad Tietze argues that when you look at the global history of immigration politics you can find a common thread — economics. In times of economic growth governments welcome immigrants, whether coming “legally” or “illegally”, with open arms. Immigrants are needed to fill the increasing numbers of jobs, so we let whoever we can in. 

On the flip side though, when things get tough, governments start to crack down — at least to some groups. Immigrations levels tend to stay high as immigrants are still needed for the economy to survive. However, governments crack down on a particular part of the immigration equation — in modern cases that is asylum seekers. Asylum seekers are used as scapegoats, a deflection away from the real causes of our problems. 

This is why we hear so much about asylum seekers ‘stealing our jobs’, or attacks of them being ‘economic refugees’ instead of real refugees. In times of economic trouble immigrants are used as a way to stop us from turning towards the bankers, business owners, employers, and the politicians who have caused the problems. It is here how you can understand the growth of anti-immigrant ideals since the 2008 economic crisis — from Scandinavia to Greece, the UK to Australia. A crisis caused by the banking system has seen banks get massive bail outs, while immigrants have faced increased restrictions on their right of free movement. 

But in many ways this is now moving beyond economics. Over recent decades we have seen a major eroding in the trust of our political class — what many are calling a rise in ‘anti-politics’. Politicians are losing authority by the day, and as they do so they turn more and more towards external scape goats. Hence the domination of the asylum in Australia for decades in now. It is a way for our political class to shift away from their failures and try to rebuild authority in doing so. 

This is the lesson we can learn from Calais. The asylum debate is not due to some inherent evil within the Australia system. It is not due to our inherent racism, or even the failures of any individual politician or political party. Our asylum debate is about political economy — the use of innocent people as scapegoats for the increasing failures of our political class. 

While campaigns around human rights and international law therefore must continue, we can, and will, only change the debate when we look at the global cause of the problem. That cause is political, and economic. It is the nature of our capitalist system. Until we understand that we will remain in this awful stalemate for a very long time.

Simon Copland is a freelance writer and climate campaigner. He is a regular columnist for the Sydney Star Observer and blogs at The Moonbat.


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