Global Conversations Beyond Discipline

People smugglers or trans-national entrepreneurs? An examination of the discourse on asylum seekers in Australia

Like so many, I am astounded by the cold-hearted attitude towards asylum seekers that is displayed by the current Australian government. In my next couple of blog posts I will attempt to highlight some of the things I find particularly disturbing about it. However, the subject of this post is the framing of the discourse on asylum seekers in terms of people smuggling.

While we certainly have our own shortcomings in my home country, Denmark, I was taken aback when I first became acquainted with the discourse surrounding asylum seekers here, in Australia. Partly, this is because of the prolificacy of the term ‘people smuggler’. I had never before heard this term being used in this context before. In Denmark, that term is mostly associated with people who lure young girls from Eastern Europe into becoming prostitutes in Western Europe. See the film Lilja 4-Ever for an idea of the moral deprecation these individuals are deemed to suffer from. The point is; the term denotes someone who manipulates and takes advantage of poor, innocent people in order not to alleviate, but increase their suffering.

It should be noted that the discourse surrounding asylum seekers in Denmark does contain the semantics of people smuggling. However, it does not evolve around it. The moral deprecation of the people smuggler is not highlighted as a threat and something to be combatted. Accordingly, when I write that I was taken aback, it is because I could not understand why the term ‘people smuggling’ was being bandied around with such vitriol and intent. The attributes I associated with the people smuggler did not apply to those assigned that role by the government of Australia.

Really, are they not just providing a service where there is a demand? Can we not call them ‘trans-national entrepreneurs’ instead? – Since it is NOT illegal to seek asylum, the legal landscape in which they move is, at worst, grey. Also, especially in light of the neoliberal agenda espoused by the Australian Government, does ‘trans-national entrepreneur’ not seem a more fitting title for these people? However, whether or not this is accurate, there is, of course, a reason for their name.

I have previously argued that neoliberalism should be seen more as apologetics for corporate power than actual theory, and this example broadcasts yet another inherent contradiction to neoliberal ‘theory’. The corporate power, that is so intrinsically ‘anti-human’, needs to drum up hideous xenophobia in order to distract its victims from the excesses of its power. It is from this logic of depravity that the proliferation of the term ‘people smuggler’ has its origin. It is this logic that excludes less violent descriptions of these people.

The Liberals – although Labour should not feel exempt from the criticism – in their quest to avert discontent over its policies – in their quest to create this aforementioned distraction, seek to solidify the solidarity of the Australian ‘in-group’ around evangelised and romanticised, supposedly traditional, Australian values. However, as David Brown has argued that “the moral virtue of the in-group is (…) counterposed by the moral degeneracy of the out-group; the fiction of the one being manipulated by the fiction of the other”, ((David Brown 1994, The State and Ethnic Politics in Southeast Asia, Routledge: London, p. 271)) the solidarity cannot be achieved without a common foe: Without the perceived morally deprived out-group, the in-group cannot be solidified. Accordingly, when asylum seekers are branded as illegal, queue jumping terrorists, it is because they have been unwittingly enlisted as the ‘out-group’, and when the captains of the boats they use to come to Australia are branded ‘people smugglers’, it is because the depravity associated with that word epitomises the intended projection of the moral degeneracy necessarily inherent to the ‘out-group’.

The people smuggler, and the people associated with him, is everything that the Australian is deemed not to be, and in this twisted logic, Australians are made to feel content by chastising asylum seekers and, most importantly, the people smuggler – in turn forgetting about all the ills of the neoliberal excesses recently so excellently undressed by Scott Ludlum. This is the function of the ‘othering’ of asylum seekers, the assignation of them to the ‘out-group’: It serves the purpose of distracting the people from excesses of neoliberal power.

Thus, acknowledging the power of discourse in this process, we must take back control of it. We must stop referring to asylum seekers as illegal, queue jumping terrorists, ((Some variety of these attributes are clearly a part of the underlying stigma attached to asylum seekers – as evinced by a recent poll where 60 percent voiced their opinion that the Australian Government should “increase the severity” of its policies towards Asylum Seekers.)) and we must stop referring to their enablers as people smugglers. We must disable the twisted logic that hands out negative moral judgements on people who are in need of help, only in order to give people who are not a manipulated sense of belonging and security.


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