If you weren’t put to sleep by its Hallmark rhetoric of “humanity”, this week’s UN summit on refugees seemed less like a greeting card than it did a game of Crazy Eights. Here, world leaders convened to discard the kinds of asylum seekers they didn’t want — I’ll swap you some Muslims for some Central Americans — while feigning concern for the drowned bodies of toddlers.

These powerful players did agree to pick up 360,000 lives, although Australia did not increase intake and just threw a little embarrassed change at a pile of more than 60 million. What all failed to do, however, was meaningfully address the cause of all this heartbreak. That would mean looking in the mirror.

Obama made much of Alan Kurdi, “that little boy” who “could be our son or our grandson”. He made nothing at all of his own nation’s culpability in this and other deaths. “That little boy”, a little boy who should have been hearing stories about the wine-dark sea and not dying in it, did not just happen to find his way into the Aegean. It wasn’t a supernatural monster, but US policy of the past few decades that drew him to his death.

But when it comes to speaking of asylum seekers, either at this elite level or in informal conversation, we in the West have come to take this very Christian view: people flee their nations due to some sort of inevitable force. If, like Obama, you’re a liberal and you keep your language nice, you take a sort of Matthew view of the whole thing and you just shrug and you say that evil things will always happen and that the destitute will always be with us. If, like Trump, you’re a crude nativist, you give that evil a name. You call it Islam.

It’s not god, the devil or any particular religion that claimed the life of That Little Boy, and millions of others. It was, in very great part, the work of the world’s only remaining superpower. The US may not have printed the propaganda for ISIS as it did for its future Taliban foes, but it wrote their emergence all the same. In his brief moments between racist Vaudevillian skits, even Trump gets the pivotal role of the US in the creation of this force right.

In Australian media and political life, we have come to adopt the same views on asylum as can be seen in this international conversation. Which is to say, we no longer stop to address the catastrophe at its source but we see it as either, as per Trump, evil or, as per Obama, inevitable.

Whether one is of a “stop the boats” or a “let them all come” view, one fails to address the reason for the unsteady motion of the boats, which should either be stopped or welcomed.

Plenty of good people have written about why Australia’s hard cultural right are wrong to fear asylum seekers, so there is little need to restate here how persons fleeing conflict are far less likely to engage in criminal activity, etc, than those born here. You can say all you want that asylum seekers pose no threat and promise a great source of labour, but it doesn’t matter. After 15 years of non-stop Muslim securitisation talk, the fear many citizens have acquired, most volubly from the Howard and Abbott governments, will take a generation to reverse; not reason and not Obama-style humanitarian talk will undo this damage in a hurry. The obfuscation, that started with the terrible lies of 2001, was pretty thorough.

It was an obfuscation so thorough, according to yesterday’s much-reported Essential data, that even 34% of Greens voters fancy a ban on Muslim immigration. Greens voters. Those nice knowledge-class people much more likely than the rest of the general population to post candles on their Instagram for the people who have suffered in Manus and Nauru.

But the thing about Greens voters is that they seek most often to “light the dark” only for people currently in Australian detention centres, and not for those millions fleeing conflict and persecution, so often the result of US foreign policy. Greens voters may have a lot more compassion than those who prefer to give their vote to the anti-immigration right. But they have just as little reason.

A Greens voter is likely to believe what Obama says he does: that the refugee crisis is a “test of our humanity”. Actually, it’s a test of our complicity with US foreign policy. When a Greens voter says “not in my name”, it indicates that their views have been just as obfuscated by Muslim securitisation propaganda as have those of the hard cultural right.

It’s not about “my name”. Nor is it about “my humanity”. It’s surely about a commitment to building prosperity and peace in the regions from which people flee. But not since the mass demonstrations of 2003 against the Iraq War, just two years into the local securitisation of Muslims, has there been any meaningful protest against the reasons for the refugee crisis. Now, if you don’t say “stop the boats”, all you can say is “let them come”, and if you were to propose that maybe they would prefer to stay home — and most of us would — then you’ll probably have a fight with a Greens voter.

My own view on the matter of asylum intake is fairly old-timey: we make a mess, we clean it up. It was this former national sense of moral obligation to victims of a war in which we had participated that eventually pushed Malcolm Fraser — and he did need to be pushed — to accept Vietnamese refugees. But this impulse is now missing from our national conversation. Even among Greens voters.

In Australia, we either have an Old Testament view of opposition to the devil, or a New Testament view that the destitute will always be with us. At worst, we are like Trump and fearful of others, whom we see as some sort of undifferentiated evil force best left to perish. At best, we are like Obama, and we think only of refugee resettlement as a “test of our humanity”, which is not the same thing at all as accepting their humanity. They serve to make us look good. Either way, the reasons for the terrible push are obfuscated by sentiment.

Call me old-fashioned, but I think it’s time to go beyond “stop the boats” and “let them all stay” and consider our complicity in all this terror.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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