Asylum seekers

Pushing and Pulling: Asylum-Seeker Flows, External Drivers, and Government Policy

The following piece began life as a footnote to my previous blog post. However, given that it rapidly metastasized into an essay in its own right, treatment as a separate blog entry was unavoidable. It certainly isn’t for everyone: I spend much of my time trying to conduct some fairly fine-grained analysis, which many people are bound to find rather dull or abstruse. But it does reveal the inevitable complexity of just one element of a much broader issue, and the consequent need for sustained examination.

Introduction

The seemingly interminable debate in Australia over asylum seekers has thrown up a host of subsidiary disputes. One such dispute concerns the comparative weight of external drivers and internal government policies as determinants of asylum seekers’ behaviour. In my previous post on the UN’s condemnation of boat turnbacks, I indicated that the ALP’s decision to dismantle Australia’s tightly-controlled border protection regime in 2008 ultimately led to a massive influx of boat-borne asylum seekers – and with them, the oft-repeated tragedy of drownings on the high seas (some estimates suggest that about 1,200 asylum seekers ended up dying en route to Australia between 2008 and mid-2013). I don’t claim that this was the intention of the government at the time. Not at all. However, I do claim that there exists a causal connection between Australian government policy and the behaviour of asylum seekers – a connection that can produce fatal results.

This remains a controversial opinion. Some have argued that the claim is an unwarranted assumption, not borne out by the evidence. Many advocates, analysts and observers argue that government policy, or “pull factors”, are at best negligible in their influence on asylum-seeking behaviour.

Various attempts have been made to rebut the idea that Australia’s suite of border protection policies affects asylum seekers’ choices in any way. It has been argued, for instance, that asylum seekers are largely ignorant of a country’s domestic legislation concerning border protection and irregular migration. The conclusion is that people seeking asylum are not (directly) influenced by such policy settings, for their conduct cannot be consciously shaped by things of which they are not aware. Others have asserted that the example of New Zealand – which has long had a more relaxed border protection regime than Australia – demonstrates that “pull factors” aren’t all the determinative. Since NZ hasn’t seen a great deal of change in the number of asylum seekers claiming sanctuary within its borders over the past 15-20 years (despite its being just as stable and prosperous as Australia), some have suggested that a country’s policy response to the issues of irregular migration isn’t terribly significant. Opponents of the “pull factors” theory prefer to see “push factors” – external drivers connected with the state of the international environment, or within individual source countries – as far more influential. Whether this means poverty or persecution, war or civil strife, advocates strongly argue in their favour to explain relative changes in asylum-seeker numbers. They cite both statistical and qualitative evidence to substantiate this basic contention.

Now, I certainly wouldn’t want to dispute the effect that disturbing phenomena such human rights abuses or civil unrest would have on a person’s thinking, or how they might drive someone out of his or her country of origin. That seems to me to be common sense, as does the proposition that the volume of asylum-seeker flows partly reflects the state of human security around the world. But I am far from fully convinced by the positions staked out above, for several reasons.

How Much do Asylum Seekers Really Know?

Regarding the claim that asylum seekers have been greatly unaware of Australia’s policies in this area, the evidence is mixed. On the one hand, Frank Brennan, a Jesuit priest and legal scholar, has written poignantly of Hazara asylum seekers desperately fleeing their homes in Afghanistan, and being shepherded to Australia by a hazily-understood network of people smugglers – all while being completely ignorant of their ultimate destination, and entrusting themselves to those they believed would be able to guarantee passage to safe territory. There is also formal research which suggests that some asylum seekers know very little about their intended destination, if they know anything at all.

On the other hand, anecdotal data exists indicating that many asylum seekers are very much aware – indeed, quite sensitive to – changes in the government’s border protection policies. I have already referred to the outgoing head of the IOM in Indonesia, Mark Getchell, in my previous blog essay. In the related article, he says that both asylum seekers and people smugglers are currently “testing the water” – i.e., they are watching closely for any sign that Australia might relax its policies concerning boat-borne asylum seekers. This is of a piece with other evidence suggesting that asylum seekers aren’t the naïve, ignorant rubes they’re sometimes portrayed to be; many over the years have been monitoring changes in legislation, and have made decisions about their future on the basis of such changes. As journalist, Michael Bachelard, noted a few years ago, some asylum seekers have travelled to Indonesia from their countries of origin “despite full knowledge” of Australian policy in this domain. Why some asylum seekers would travel to Indonesia, knowing they can’t successfully enter Australian territory, is an interesting question. But that some people seeking refuge in our region are often cognizant of the country’s border protection regime seems reasonably clear.

Moreover, even if asylum seekers don’t always appreciate the implications of Australian domestic policy, people smugglers in South-East Asia and elsewhere do. Tightening up the country’s border protection regime – whether by the judicious use of boat turnbacks, or enhanced cooperation with (e.g.) Indonesian authorities – will almost certainly influence the activities of people smugglers, who are the very people asylum seekers rely on to facilitate their passage to Australian territory in the first place. If smugglers realize they can no longer penetrate the “virtual border” erected and maintained by the Australian Navy, or see their networks dismantled by diligent police work, then they have nothing of value to offer the desperate souls they purport to help. Their so-called “business model” eventually collapses, leaving asylum seekers stranded and unable to reach Australian shores. Smugglers, meanwhile, may respond to Australian policy changes by re-directing their activities elsewhere.

The New Zealand “Connection”: A False Analogy

What about the argument that New Zealand’s comparatively relaxed approach to asylum seekers has apparently had no effect on the numbers of such people attempting to enter that country? Does it prove that domestic policy isn’t all that significant in shaping the choices of people in so desperate a situation?

This claim can be dispensed with fairly swiftly. Advocates, such as the online news outlet, Crikey, seem to conflate the two main modes of asylum-seeking into our region: asylum via plane, and asylum sought via boat.[1] To some extent, this is unavoidable, since many reports on asylum-seeker trends do not distinguish between people who entered a territory by plane, and those who entered via some other means (boat, foot, etc.). But in the case of Australia and NZ, the distinction is fairly easy to make, since the latter is highly unlikely — owing to reasons of geography — to receive any asylum seekers arriving by boat. And of course, the issue pertains to such asylum seeking specifically. Isolating boat-borne asylum seekers for the purposes of public policy is not an arbitrary move on the part of the Australian government (whatever one thinks of its basic response). Only one of the two modes of travel has seen people perishing in large numbers. Only one of the two modes of travel relies almost exclusively on deep involvement with criminal networks – involvement that ultimately entrenches and enriches them. And only one of the two modes of travel is effectively unregulated (e.g., passing through unofficial channels and through unofficial access points, carrying people with scanty, or even no, identification), rendering a policy approach that is both open and measured extraordinarily difficult to achieve.[2]

This means that although boat-borne asylum seekers have at times been outweighed by asylum seekers entering the country via plane, the issue is not negligible (pace Crikey). What’s more, during the latter years of the Rudd-Gillard Government, asylum seekers attempting to enter Australian territory via boat far exceeded those arriving by plane. In any case, the key issue concerns the former type of asylum seeking; one needs to compare apples with apples, not with oranges. The volume of asylum applications within NZ territory – the vast majority of which would be made by individuals entering the country via legitimate means – is largely irrelevant to the debate.

Push and Pull Factors: The Weight of Statistics

The Significance of Global Data

Sceptics of the “pull factors” theory have cited statistical data in an effort to undercut whatever explanatory power it might bear. The Crikey piece to which I have already referred provides some interesting – and, one must admit, quite powerful – evidence in this regard. Using regression analysis, the article showed that the relative volume of asylum seekers arriving in Australia between 1994 and 2008 largely reflected global trends. As the writer of the piece argued at the time, “the relative patterns through time of boat arrivals in Australia is itself a function of broader global asylum seeker trends”.

The United Nations’ own statistical data would seem to confirm this, at least on the surface: in a 2011 UNHCR report concerning asylum-seeker trends, author Vivian Tan said that there had been a “dramatic drop” in the number of people claiming asylum around the world during the previous decade. Certain year-on-year differences tell substantially the same story. In 2006, for example, there were 11% fewer asylum claims globally than there were in 2005 (596,000 as against 674,000). It’s also worth observing that the UK-based Migration Observatory showed that the United Kingdom experienced a sharp decline in asylum applications between 2002 and 2005, in much the same way that Australia did during that time. As far as I am aware, the UK did not introduce a raft of restrictive policies, aimed at deterring asylum-seeking behaviour. That fact could be construed as evidence that the strength of a country’s border protection regime does not, in the final analysis, play a very significant role in determining the volume of irregular migration: if the UK and Australia both experienced sharp falls in asylum-seeker numbers, despite adopting different policies towards those looking for sanctuary, then what does this say about the relative strength of “push” and “pull” factors? As a consequence of such information, Crikey concluded that “pull factors” (i.e., government policies) are “simply swamped…” by changes in the global environment (with the implication that domestic policy can do very little, one way or the other, about general asylum-seeker flows).

But Wait a Minute…

The apparent potency of the above data, however, belies a more complicated, more ambiguous, reality. Whilst it’s true that the numbers of people seeking asylum globally fell throughout the 2000s, it is also the case that the Australian experience reveals some subtle (though nonetheless significant) differences. In its report analysing asylum-seeking trends between 2000 and 2002, the UNHCR noted that there was a reduction of 5.4% in the volume of asylum seekers in the 37 industrialised countries it surveyed. This was at about the same time that Australia began to experience a corresponding decline in such numbers. However, the same report also observed that the reduction in Australia had been far steeper, at approximately 50% – almost ten times the rate of decline experienced by the industrialised world as a whole (pp.2-3). Favourable changes in the global environment are insufficient as an explanation; something beyond such shifts would be needed to make this fall completely intelligible. This, of course, was around the same time that the Howard Government dramatically restricted Australia’s border protection regime, in an effort to halt the flow of asylum-seeker boats. It’s hard to believe that the imposition of such policies didn’t have any effect on asylum-seeker numbers coming to Australia. Indeed, as academic evidence cited below suggests, policies instituted by the Howard Government at the time contributed materially to subsequent declines.

Similarly, even though industrialised countries around the world experienced a general fall in applications for asylum during the 2000s, we should note that Australia was, at times, an outlier. Between 2009 and 2010, for instance, the UNHCR reported that the industrialised countries surveyed showed a general fall of 5%, even though Australia experienced a 33% increase in asylum claims (p.6). This coincides with increases across the life of the Rudd-Gillard Government, and comes only two years after the ALP abolished the Howard-era laws composing Australia’s previous border protection regime. As we shall see (cf. linked graph, below), the number of boat-borne asylum seekers swiftly rose from almost nothing in 2008 to well over 5,000 by 2010. Again, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that domestic policy and asylum flows bore a causal link.

A final point on the significance of international data. It’s worth observing differences between Australia and the rest of the industralised world in the years after 2013. Whilst global asylum applications rose at around that time, boat arrivals to Australia continued to flatline. In its 2014 report on global asylum trends, the UNHCR stated that asylum applications within the industralised world had risen by 45%. Europe, North America, and Japan/South Korea all saw sharp increases of between 40%-65%. Australia, however, saw a fall of 23% in asylum arrivals (p.8). Not coincidentally, this was just 12 months after the introduction of a tougher border protection regime under the then-Abbott Government.

The Regional Experience

To this bevy of international data may be added statistical evidence drawn from both Australia and Indonesia. Together, they appear to lend further weight to the notion that domestic policy exerts some power over patterns of asylum seeking. Leaving one’s country of origin, it must be remembered, is only half the journey; one also has to find a safe harbour (as it were). And it is here that I’d argue Australia’s border protection policies have either expanded or constrained asylum seekers’ choices. Not in all cases, of course; but the anecdotal evidence I cited above does indicate that many asylum seekers – and certainly all people smugglers wanting to ferry their human cargo to Australia – calibrate their decisions with alterations in the country’s domestic policy landscape.

Take the following graph, which plots the undulating volume of boat-borne asylum seekers between the mid-1970s and 2016. As one can see from the chart (tracking calendar-year figures), the numbers slowed markedly after 2001 – around the time the Howard Government introduced a panoply of responses designed to deter such activity. In 2008, the Rudd Labor Government, in a fit of moral hubris, all but dismantled that regime; after a brief lag period, the numbers began to rise again, and by 2013, the country had received approximately 50,000 asylum seekers on scores of vessels (including over 20,000 in that year alone). However, a change of government in September 2013 saw a precipitous drop in asylum seeker flows – one that began in the dying days of the second Rudd administration – as Tony Abbott’s Liberal-National Coalition implemented its highly militarised “Operation Sovereign Borders”.

These three inflection points – 2002, 2008, and 2013 – imply an intimate connection between changes to Australia’s policy settings and the relative volume of boat-borne asylum seekers. If one only had access to data pertaining to that first of those watershed periods, then it might be possible, as the Crikey piece does, to argue that domestic figures simply reflect international trends.[3] But unless successive Australian governments somehow managed to alter the country’s border protection regime at just those moments when global flows of asylum-seeking either rose or fell, then domestic policy changes likely do exert a degree of influence over the decisions individual asylum seekers make. And whilst correlation does not always equal causation, the parallels in this case are uncanny — leading me to conclude that there is some kind of causal link. Even Robert Manne, who has been harshly critical of Australia’s border protection policies over the years, effectively concedes that government policy has significantly affected the rate of (boat-borne) asylum seeker flows into the country. His view seems to have been partly formed by the weight of this kind of statistical evidence.

Figures concerning asylum-seeker numbers in Indonesia (which has usually functioned as the main staging-post for people hoping to reach Australia by boat) complement this data-driven picture. Back in 2012, for example, IRIN News Agency – a not-for-profit humanitarian media outlet – examined the issue of asylum seekers arriving in Indonesia since 2009. The agency reported that there had been a “spike” in those numbers, “from 385 in 2008 to 3,230 in 2009, and 3,905 in 2010”, as reported by the UNHCR. The key watershed moment here lies between 2008 and 2009, when the Rudd Government’s fateful decision to relax Australia’s border laws was made. It was at that time that Indonesia saw a ten-fold increase in the number of (registered) asylum seekers within its borders. I’d argue that those increases can be attributed, at least in part, to the changes wrought by the Rudd Government: as news of those shifts trickled out, would-be asylum seekers and people smuggling networks attempted to take advantage of the new regime. Again, correlation and causation aren’t always well acquainted with each other; however, when this data is combined with statistics cited earlier, the proposition that domestic government policy can shape an asylum seeker’s behaviour – by way of either encouragement or deterrence – takes on a new cogency.

What Can Formal Analyses Tell Us?

Evidence like this is unavoidably probabilistic, of course. But the consistent parallels between alterations in border protection policy, and a shift in the number of (boat-borne) asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia, are striking. This is of a piece with formal research efforts, which have captured both domestic and international experiences in this domain. The aforementioned UNHCR report concerning asylum applications between 2000 and 2002 admitted that government policy “can affect asylum-seeker flows”. It went on to cite the example of Spain, where the imposition of stricter visa controls for Colombian asylum seekers saw applications from that country fall by 56% during the period in question (see p.3). The report also highlighted similar declines in applications within Spanish territory by people from Sierra Leone, largely as a result of similar measures).

Academic studies have reached similar conclusions. For example, Eric Neumayer, a professor of development studies at the London School of Economics, analysed refugee flows to Europe in the 1980s and 1990s. He found a number of obvious “push factors” at work (war, civil strife, persecution, and so forth), which conspired to drive people out of their native lands in search of refuge. Simultaneously, though, he concluded that the “share going to individual European countries [was] influenced by [the] specific characteristics of those countries” – among which were more lenient policies concerning asylum seekers. Economist, Tim Hatton, suggested much the same thing after analysing the Australian context. The ANU academic estimated that a tougher policy approach on the part of the Howard Government explained about 30% of the decline in arrival numbers in Australia between 1997 and 2006. He did not deny the inevitable power of external drivers, but found that internal policies also worked to shape the behaviour of asylum seekers (incidentally, evidence like this undercuts the assertion that desperate asylum seekers simply aren’t deterred by a country’s border protection regime, even if they are aware of such a regime in the first place. At least in some cases, they plainly are deterred).

Surveying the Global Situation: A Case-Study

So much for the quantitative evidence; what of the qualitative evidence? Some observers appeal to specific phenomena which reflect the state of the global security environment (i.e., “push factors”). In so doing, they purport to substantially explain the ebb and flow of asylum-seeker movements. But these, too, may rest on fragile assumptions, a selective use of data, or inadequate analysis. John Menadue’s article on the issue is a case-in-point. In that piece, the former public servant asserts that the fall in asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia from 2002 was not due to the Howard Government’s suite of border protection policies – off-shore processing, boat turnbacks, and increased cooperation with Indonesian authorities – but rather to propitious changes in the global environment. Menadue cites the War in Afghanistan and the fall of the Taliban (October 2001-) as an example: the US-led intervention did eventually see several million Afghans return to their war-ravaged country. He concludes that events like these, and not domestic border policy, were largely responsible for general declines in people seeking asylum here. Menadue makes other gestures in this direction as he seeks to undercut the notion that Australian government policy can affect asylum-seeker flows, one way or the other.

I have no wish to deny the truth of Menadue’s claims, at least in narrow terms; the Afghan War and the Taliban’s (initial) demise have indeed exerted some influence on international migration patterns by making a return to Afghanistan more attractive for many locals. Nevertheless, several telling observations may be made in relation to Menadue’s argument. First, he, like others, simply conflates boat-borne asylum seekers with all asylum seekers (regardless of their means of entry). But as I have already noted, the question concerns the causal connection – if any – between Australian government policy and the undulating volume of boat-borne asylum seekers specifically. The numerical evidence I cited earlier provides a fairly compelling picture of just such a connection.

Second, there is reason to believe that in the case of some national and ethnic groups, domestic policy settings may have indeed been decisive – or at least highly effective – in shaping the decisions of would-be asylum seekers and their ersatz migration agents. Menadue (perhaps unintentionally) ignores this evidence. Iraq is a particularly revealing case study. Menadue cites the so-called “Surge” in that country – a massive build-up of American troops during and after 2007, aimed at stabilising the fragile security situation there – as a partial driver of refugee and asylum seeker flows at that time. However, he fails to deal properly with other pertinent evidence.

An examination of what occurred, in both Australia and Iraq, after 2008 will make the point clearer. I have already noted the significant increase in boat arrivals to Australia between 2008-09 and 2013, many of which contained Iraqi nationals. Such was the volume that in 2012, the academic, Helen Ware, could write that Iraq was still one of the top three source countries for so-called “boat people” (the others being Afghanistan and Iran). Interestingly, this increase coincided with significant improvements in the security situation in Iraq. As the Centre for Strategic and International Studies has observed, “US sources estimated in early January 2010 that the overall number of security incidents in Iraq had decreased by 83% over the past two years…IED attacks in Iraq decreased nearly 80%…and car-bomb and suicide-vest attacks had decreased by 92%” (p.4). Iraq was hardly a model of peace and stability by 2010, to be sure; nevertheless, the country witnessed a significant fall in violent incidents as the sectarian strife of the previous few years began to subside. The relative declines in the number of Iraqi asylum seekers globally seems to reflect this: the UNHCR, for example, revealed that in 2012, the number of asylum seekers from Iraq fell to less than 20,000 — down from a figure of approximately 40,000 four years earlier (p.18). The report suggested that improved security was in part responsible for this shift. And yet, Australia saw a relative increase in the number of Iraqi nationals seeking aslyum via boat during this period (of course, the overall “pool” of Iraqi asylum seekers remained quite large during this time. The point, however, is that whilst global figures fell, Australian figures rose. This is counter-intuitive, at least according to an analysis guided by the “push factors” theory).

Thus, the volume of Iraqi asylum seekers entering the country began to rise steeply from 2009 – as part of a general rise in boat-borne asylum seekers attempting to enter the country – despite material improvements in Iraq’s security situation. Again, if the “push factors” hypothesis is as strong as advocates assert, then it stands to reason that we should have witnessed the reverse of what actually occurred, at least in the case of potential asylum seekers from Iraq. We should have seen, in other words, relatively low numbers in the few years after the American “Surge” campaign, when the country entered a period of comparative stability. The fact that we didn’t leads me to conclude that external factors were not always the only – or even the main – driver of the number of boat-borne asylum seekers entering Australia. Something else, it seems, was at work; the only other viable candidate is Australian government policy.

***

This brings me back to the original point at issue – namely, whether government policy can affect asylum-seeking behaviour. If my analysis has any merit, then it would appear that so-called “pull factors” can affect one’s pattern of decision-making, and do so substantially. In the case of the Howard and Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison Governments, it has led to a reduction in the number of boat-borne asylum seekers. In the case of the Rudd-Gillard Labor Government, on the other hand, it produced a dramatic increase in such numbers, accompanied by a consequent rise in deaths at sea.

[1] To be fair, the Crikey piece later concedes that there may be some divergence in numbers based on mode of entry (i.e., airborne vs. boat-borne asylum seekers). But if that is so, then what is the point of citing NZ in the first place? In what way is it a relevant comparator if one is only interested in asylum seekers who travel by boat (of whom NZ receives very few, if any)?

[2] A certain level of regulation would require any government to at least approximate some of the policies that have so far been used by Australian authorities; the alternative is simply hoping that overall asylum-seeker flows would be moderated by a relatively benign international environment.

[3] We should bear in mind that the Crikey piece was only written in 2009. As such, it would have been impossible for the author to take into account the longer-term implications associated with the Rudd Government’s abandonment of Howard-era policies in 2008. These were yet to be fully felt a mere 12 months later. And of course, not having the power of time travel, the author would have been unable to respond to the significance – if any – of the Abbott Government’s changes in this domain in 2013.

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Do Boat Turnbacks Work? Well, It Depends on What You Mean by “Work”…

I was intrigued by an article that appeared in The Australian newspaper a few weeks ago. Under the front-page heading, “Boat turnbacks don’t work: UN”, the article quoted the UN refugee agency’s chief, Thomas Vargas, who claimed that turning back boatloads of asylum seekers at sea “just [doesn’t] work”. Later, Vargas conceded that such a policy might indeed “work” for some countries (or rather, he said that some countries might claim as much), although he insisted that they put vulnerable people “in harm’s way”.

Two points about Mr Vargas’ comments are worth noting. First, whether or not the policy of turning back vessels laden with asylum seekers “works” rather depends on your definition and your starting-point. If by “work” one means “the successful calibration of means with ends”, then I’d say that boat turnbacks have “worked” tremendously well. To my knowledge, not a single life has been lost at sea during a turnback operation, as the government has successfully used the tactic to deter asylum seekers from making the perilous voyage from the southern fringes of Indonesia (and, on occasion, other nations) to Australian territory. It has been so successful that at least one former immigration official has said that it makes offshore processing redundant (“Boat turn-backs ‘make offshore detention meaningless'”, The Australian, October 25, 2018; article paywalled).

As of October last year, about 36 boats had attempted to reach Australia since the re-introduction of the turnback policy in 2013. In that time, only one boat has made landfall – a vessel travelling directly from Vietnam. Every boatload of asylum seekers sailing from Indonesia has been successfully halted. Where the vessel has been deemed seaworthy, it is forcibly turned around. In other instances, orange lifeboats – complete with internal motor, life jackets and on-board supplies – have been used to ship asylum seekers back to (e.g.) the Indonesian mainland. Such vessels, it needs to be remembered, are practically unsinkable, so any safety issues are all but non-existent.

In any case, if the goal of turnbacks was to maintain the country’s maritime borders and dissuade asylum seekers from such an irregular – not to mention dangerous – means of travel, then the policy has “worked” perfectly. Even the outgoing director of the International Office of Migration’s Indonesia station, Mark Getchell, has stated that boat turnbacks have been the “single biggest” deterrent in the Australian government’s effort to reduce sea-borne asylum seeker flows (“Turnbacks best deterrent, says IOM chief”, The Australian, February 1, 2019; article paywalled). Now, Mr Vargas may dislike the policy; he may condemn it morally. At this point, however, he has chosen to critique Australia’s approach on practical grounds. The ethics of turnbacks is a distinct — though related — argument (I for one am not exercised morally by the enforced repulsion of asylum seeker vessels, provided such practices are conducted in a safe and humane way. Turnbacks have also been crucial in preventing deaths at sea, which means they can, in part, be defended on ethical grounds as well). As far as I can tell, its utility cannot be gainsaid.

Second, it’s somewhat ironic that Mr Vargas should castigate Australia for a policy that apparently places people in mortal jeopardy. His favoured approach – “…rescuing them [i.e., asylum seekers], bringing them to safety and then figuring out how best they can be helped” – is sure to lead to the very loss of life he so desperately wishes to avoid. I don’t doubt Mr Vargas’ sincerity or good-will. I assume he is genuinely concerned about the plight of asylum seekers, refugees, and internally displaced persons around the world. But what he is advocating has been shown to lure asylum seekers to their deaths.

How has this been demonstrated? Well, soon after winning office in 2007, the ALP began dismantling the border protection regime implemented by the Howard government. Whether or not they intended to, the Labor Party offered a fairly clear signal to both asylum seekers desperate enough to make the dangerous voyage across the Indian Ocean and to the (often unscrupulous) people smugglers who were only too willing to facilitate their passage. The result was an explosion in the number of vessels bound for Australian territory, far beyond anything the Royal Australian Navy could handle. In the five years that followed, at least 1,200 people either drowned in open water or were dashed against the treacherous shorelines of outlying islands. Navy personnel have recounted the trauma of having to retrieve the decomposing bodies of infants and children from the ocean, after yet another unseaworthy vessel sank. Labor policies between 2008 and 2013 – policies to which Mr Vargas would like to see Australia re-commit itself – set in motion this tragic state of affairs.[1] Again, one may wish to question the ethics of boat turnbacks. But I wouldn’t be too quick to condemn something as potentially fatal, especially if my preferred solution was likely to lead to precisely that outcome.

***

Mr Vargas’ views on this issue are a product of the rigid application of globalist logic to what, in many respects, is a national or inter-national problem. As an employee of the UN, he is of course wedded to the idea that these problems must admit of a global, multi-national solution; any effort on the part of individual states to carve out an independent response to irregular migration is condemned as intrinsically immoral. Perhaps. But states do have a right to maintain the integrity of their borders, something that needs to be weighed against the rights of individuals to seek asylum. Notwithstanding efforts to trivlialize the concept of national sovereignty, it remains one of the basic building-blocks of the international order.

This shouldn’t be interpreted as wholesale support for Australia’s current border protection regime. As I have indicated elsewhere, the country’s system of offshore processing facilities has clearly failed on multiple levels, exacerbating the trauma and mental ill-health that asylum seekers have already experienced. The government’s response to that troubling body of evidence looks increasingly stern and cold-hearted; many people on Manus and Nauru, meanwhile, continue to languish under the weight of acute psychological distress. I also think Mr Vargas is right to criticise the government for dramatically reducing the numbers of refugees it selects from Indonesian detention centres. It simply seems churlish to exclude asylum seekers based in Indonesia from the opportunity of re-settling in Australia — and, in light of the overall success of the country’s border protection regime, completely unnecessary (accepting people from mainstream, legitimate sources probably won’t encourage a re-activation of the people smuggling trade. If anything, the present policy would likely be an incentive towards irregular migration to Australia, at least in the absence of a broader deterrence approach).

But put all that aside for now. Mr Vargas’ views on the issue at hand aren’t simply in diametric opposition to reality; they unwittingly – and indeed, ironically – contain the seeds of a policy that would see the kinds of tragedy he earnestly seeks to avoid.

[1] I realize this is a contentious point, and that not all commentators agree that there is a causal link between Australia’s policy settings in this space and the relative volume of boat-borne asylum seekers. I shall attempt to substantiate my position in a forthcoming post.

 

 

More on Manus

It’s been almost three months since the Manus Island crisis slipped out of the news cycle. But having written about the issue at the time, I now continue to reflect on it. Indeed, the plight of asylum seekers on both Manus and Nauru still impinges on my thinking, often making its presence felt at the borders of my consciousness. Some of my more recent reflections have been stimulated by reading works like The Undesirables: Inside Nauru, written by Mark Isaacs. With simple, powerful prose, Isaacs documents his time as a Salvation Army welfare worker on Nauru in 2012 and 2013. It has helped me to examine the issue anew, requiring me to approach it via the perspectives and experiences of the men who were first transferred to the re-opened processing centre. I hope to blog about Isaacs’ book in the future, but it’s first-hand accounts like his that have further nuanced my views on the matter. With that in mind, then, I want to re-visit what I wrote about the Manus Island crisis.

In my original piece on the subject, I focused on what I saw as a certain lack of subtlety in the way activists portrayed life on the island. I won’t really re-hash what I said there, except to say that such portrayals seemed designed, not to represent Manusian society with the appropriate shades of nuance and complexity, but to further a political-ideological goal. I still think that claims made by (some) refugee advocates are at least partly motivated by the desire to see a basic shift in Australia’s response to boat-borne asylum seekers. Whether the government would be right to undertake such a shift isn’t my point; nor would I wish to challenge activist claims with the equally simplistic assertion that the island is some kind of Edenic paradise. I merely wanted to highlight the inordinate influence such a goal appears to have had on the lurid assertions being made about Manus (and, by implication, local Manusians).

I myself tried to adopt a position that was more sensitive to the rolling complexities of the situation. But one thing I failed to properly appreciate was the role that past and ongoing experiences of trauma would have played in the men’s subjective perceptions of their own safety and wellbeing. It’s an important point to consider. Many of the asylum seekers have fled horrors most of us will never have to face. It doesn’t require much imagination to see how this might undermine a person’s sense of self, and shatter their trust in the world. Furthermore, the late Michael Gordon – who up until his untimely death was writing for the Fairfax papers – filed a report in 2016 about the deleterious mental health of asylum seekers on Manus. He wrote of the re-traumatising experiences some of the men have had whilst staying on the island. I think, for example, of the riots that have occurred at the (now-defunct) processing centre at the Lombrum naval base, or the handful of documented assaults on asylum seekers whilst they were outside the compound. For people who have already endured their fare share of suffering, such incidents were sure to have had a profoundly debilitating effect on their sense of safety and resilience.

This extends well beyond a series of isolated incidents, however. The more mundane, quotidian aspects of life in the Manus Island compound have had their own effects. As I wrote at the time, the conditions in Australia’s offshore processing centres remain deeply inadequate (to say the least). Whatever success it may have had in helping to stem the flow of boat-borne asylum seekers, the system has been marked by chronic mismanagement, degrading conditions, and what appears to be an endemic, almost crushing, lack of certainty. All told, it’s quite clear that they have played their own, independent role in the deterioration of already fragile individuals. As Gordon noted 18 months ago, poor conditions, open attacks and pre-existing trauma have conspired to produce a pervasive sense of vulnerability among certain of the asylum seekers on the island. Moreover, there is likely to be a contagion effect under such trying circumstances. Living in close proximity with other “exposed” individuals is certainly going to heighten, expand and intensify feelings of insecurity, whether or not a particular asylum seeker has been subjected to violence or assault. Indeed, what may germinate with a handful of people initially can quickly spread, “infecting” much of the centre’s residents.

Of course, it’s not the case that Manus is awash with violent, unremitting xenophobia after all. As I have already said, despite the fact that the island certainly wrestles with its own share of anti-social behaviour (just as every community does), I remain convinced that some activists are determined to paint as bleak a picture as possible. Even so, it’s also true that the subjective perceptions of some of the men are likely to have been shaped by prior experiences of abuse. For example, interpretations of the wider significance of individual incidents of violence – brutal enough in themselves – are likely to have been viewed through the lens of past trauma. We’ve all heard of people who have been assaulted or robbed struggling with the residual consequences of such an ordeal, even long after the event in question. Objectively, the threat to one’s life may no longer exist, or is somewhat diminished; an acute sense of subjective vulnerability, however, may well persist for many years. This is consistent with clinical research, which indicates quite clearly that people who have suffered different kinds of trauma are more likely to experience the world around them as dangerous and threatening (again, regardless of what is objectively the case). Much the same likely obtains here: concerns around safety (which are entirely legitimate) are undoubtedly going to be amplified, given the deep psychological wounds a number of the men have already been nursing. In fact, they probably have more reason to wrestle with an enduring conviction that they remain at risk. This is so, partly due to the manifest inadequacies of their present living circumstances, and partly to the ripple effects of the contagion phenomenon I noted earlier.

Whatever the (more complicated) reality of Manus Island might be, then, it would make sense for many asylum seekers there to feel unsafe — perhaps desperately so. It would certainly help explain the reluctance some men expressed last year when asked to move out of the Lombrum compound into new lodgings (of course, it’s also possible that others among them deliberately exaggerated such fears for their own gain, but I doubt this could ever be substantiated). Again, this doesn’t mean that the reality of life on Manus Island corresponds neatly to activist portrayals. It does suggest, however, that a significant proportion of the men have been shouldering genuine fears – borne out of past experiences, and compounded by present ones – that understandably colour their perceptions, and magnify their belief that future acts of violence are likely.  Accurate though I may have been on other points, I should have been far more attuned to these particular facts from the beginning.

Manus Island and Misunderstanding: Some Clarifications

Well, it seems that my article on Manus Island has generated a fairly robust response: one commenter in another forum even accused me of justifying torture. As if on cue, my point about the “riven nature” of this debate — where people on both sides throw sobriety to the wind — was proven quite emphatically. If I were being facetious, I would say that in order to justify torture, one would first have to admit that it was happening — something that I never did in the course of writing my essay. I’d also point out that condemning my view as an apology for torture is about as insightful (and helpful) as arguing that a person who supports a relatively lax approach towards asylum seekers is thereby complicit in the drowning of innocents.  This is hardly a meeting of minds; entrenched estrangement is more likely, I think.

Nevertheless, I’ve re-read the article to try and see whether anything I’ve written could be (mis)construed in that fashion. Honestly, I am at a loss as to how a person could place that interpretation on my piece; it certainly wasn’t something that I was wanting to convey (one would think this doesn’t need to be said — “No, no, I’m actually not defending torture”). But so that there are no misunderstandings, I think it worth my while to clarify a number of points I’ve already made.

  • Even though my essay on the Manus Island saga could be construed as relatively conservative, I am not interested in providing a blanket defence of the federal government’s offshore processing regime, or its approach to boat-borne asylum seekers generally. This is something I tried to make clear from the outset, as I focused on one particular strand of this debate. In fact, I think it’s quite apparent that there have been a number of serious and significant failures on both Manus Island and Nauru, exacerbating whatever trauma the men, women and children on those two islands may have already suffered. This needs to be admitted without reserve: whether one is referring to medical or psychiatric services, physical facilities, the supply of food and water, or basic amenities, it’s reasonably clear that the centres have fallen short — far short — of the standard of care one would expect a wealthy, developed nation to provide. Where failures have been identified or exposed, they need to be rectified with as much alacrity and efficiency the government can muster. My point is that I am not concerned to downplay the wider issue concerning conditions in these environments, and nothing in my initial piece should be interpreted otherwise.
  • One complainant expressed incredulity that I could call footage purporting to show PNG authorities beating the men who remained in the Lombrum processing centre “inconclusive”. As a result, I have gone back and watched the footage a few more times. (I should apologise, since I initially failed to provide a link to the video in question. In addition, I can only find one such recording purporting to show local police assaulting asylum seekers. If any others exist, I would want to view them also). I have tried to watch the footage with an open mind, and in good faith. And yet, I still come away with much the same assessment: it is exceedingly difficult to tell what is going on. The video is at times pixelated or out of focus; a metal frame (possibly a bunk bed) and what appears to be a towel succeed in obscuring the events from full view; and the footage only lasts for about 30-40 seconds. In that time, I can see one PNG officer picking up a blue swag. Two others are brandishing long poles, and have raised them in an offensive manner. The asylum seekers in view are mostly sitting down, trying to avoid the guards. At one point, one of the guards lowers his pole, as if to touch or strike an asylum seeker on the ground. However, he is almost completely concealed by the offending towel. Consequently, it’s impossible to tell whether he struck the man, or simply threatened him. This is what I meant when I described the footage as “inconclusive”. I did not attempt to mislead or downplay the events in question, but commented on them as accurately as I could.
  • When I referred to multiple criminal allegations being levelled at the asylum seekers on Manus Island, I did not intend to imply that all were guilty of criminality. I certainly wouldn’t want to be accused of tarring every asylum seekers with the same brush. However, I probably wasn’t clear enough in my language, and could have given the impression that I was criticising or labelling the asylum seekers en masse. It’s true that there appears to be a significant criminal element within the cohort of men on Manus — an element which has probably contributed to the rising tensions between them and local Manusians (see below) — but they likely constitute no more than a restive minority. I would imagine that most of the asylum seekers housed on the island are simply looking for a better life, and are no more prone to criminality than I am.
  • I’m willing to admit that someone reading my comments about criminal acts perpetrated by asylum seekers, and their role in fuelling tensions between the men and PNG locals, could come away with the impression that I am excusing the violence some asylum seekers have suffered. But this was not my intention at all. Rather, I sought to provide an explanation, or framework, within which antipathy towards the men might make sense as something other than irrational, visceral xenophobia (the narrative some advocates appear to be operating with). That is what I meant when I talked about such attitudes being “comprehensible”: not that every manifestation thereof could be excused, but that they did not occur in a vacuum. Where an asylum seeker has been attacked, such brutality is to be condemned in no uncertain terms. But having said that, those actions, reprehensible though they are, could be seen as part of a wider cycle of tension and criminality — one that may have been generated, in part, by the actions of asylum seekers themselves. To take an analogy: we might understand how a young man, having grown up in a broken home, could turn to a life of drugs and petty crime. One doesn’t condone those choices, but they are hardly beyond the reach of explanation. The same goes for local attitudes and (some) actions on Manus.

At any rate, I hope this helps bring some clarity to the original piece. More than that, I hope that where people disagree on certain issues — even emotive issues like this one — we can all learn to truly, genuinely, hear one another, and conduct our debates in good faith.

Manus Island, Narrative Frames and the Politics of Truth

After almost a month, the Manus Island crisis has come to a close — at least for now. As the crisis rolled on, its ongoing ubiquity force me to reflect upon it at some length. Images of men, despondent and listless, lying on soiled mats or drawing fetid water from makeshift wells, still confront me. Major media publications are replete with sobering stories about the increasingly decrepit structures some asylum seekers inhabited, their stubborn efforts to remain in the processing centre, and the deepening tensions between the men and local Manusians. When  such a steady stream of words and pictures is presented to one’s consciousness — and in so stark and persistent a fashion — one is compelled to pause and think about it.

None of us receive an unmediated view of what’s occurring on Manus Island. In fact, the entire debate surrounding asylum seekers — particularly as it relates to the state of Australia’s offshore processing regime — has been conducted amidst a thick pall of fog, shrouding the truth from view. There are a number of reasons for this. The present government’s foolhardy decision to maintain some kind of media blackout around Nauru and Manus Island has surely contributed to the information vacuum. Its incessant refusal to adopt a more transparent approach to the system over which it presides has only encouraged rash speculation and innuendo. Moreover, discussion concerning asylum seekers seems to give people on both sides of the divide license to abandon all sobriety; I am often bewildered by the way rumour is frequently elevated to the level of substantiated fact. On the one hand, Australia’s offshore processing centres are regularly denounced  as “gulags” or “hellholes”; on the other, every act committed by an asylum seeker is dismissed as a cynical, manipulative attempt to force the government’s hand. When divisions run this deep, a meeting of minds appears impossible.

But behind the riven nature of these debates lie competing ideological narratives, which shape and constrain one’s interpretation of the broader issue generally, and the Manus Island saga in particular. Used wisely, narrative frames are extraordinarily helpful, providing us with the means of sorting and organising the mass of information regularly assailing us. At the same time, they can encourage simplistic interpretations of what are, in reality, often complex and ambiguous events. Indeed, where they inspire slavish devotion in people, narrative frames can actually be quite misleading.

Reporting around the unfolding events on Manus — specifically as it relates to the now-concluded standoff — provides small, but telling, examples of this broader point. I should note here that my aim is pretty modest: I am seeking neither to condemn nor endorse Australia’s current approach to boat-borne asylum seekers. Nor am I concerned to provide a blanket defence of this country’s offshore processing regime. Rather, I wish to critically examine one particular strand, and to challenge it with a more balanced, nuanced perspective. Furthermore, even though I am concerned to correct what could be called a “left-wing” narrative (simplistic though I regard that term), I certainly wouldn’t want to argue that only one side of the ideological divide is susceptible to “streamlining” the truth. I think, for example, of crude conservative  voices, which characterize all refugees and asylum seekers as either potential threats (of the terroristic or criminal kind), or as nothing more than a drain on the country’s economic resources. All of us are vulnerable to motivated reasoning and unbalanced accounts. In any case, I hope in this exercise to avoid the pitfalls that have plagued the debate for so long.

It may be recalled that one of the main reasons behind the stand-off between the asylum seekers on Manus and local PNG authorities was the refusal of the former group to move to a new transit centre near the island’s main township, Lorengau. In part, it was because the men who remained in the (now decommissioned) processing centre at Lombrum claimed to fear for their safety if they moved to their new location. Tweeting about the impasse, Australian politician Nick McKim said that the detainees’ “big concern” was just that — safety. It seems plausible enough, to be sure: a number of asylum seekers have been attacked by locals, whilst violent incidents at the centre have seen several individuals either maimed or murdered. The most notorious of those was a riot in early-2014, in which Reza Barati, a young Iranian man, was bludgeoned to death. During this recent standoff, some locals (perhaps with a fair amount of braggadocio) have promised to form lynch mobs to block the transfer of asylum seekers to the new facility. These facts are not in dispute.

However, in their zeal, some activists and refugee advocates have moved beyond these basic facts to weave together a rather Manichean narrative, in which a band of innocent, beleaguered men, languishing in a tropical prison, are constantly beset by a population marked by unremitting hostility. The men themselves are often beatified — transformed into paragons of the purest morality — whilst their reluctant hosts are implicitly denigrated as an apparently rabid and merciless group, driven by little more than xenophobic animus. The same phenomenon was observed some while ago in relation to apparent tensions between asylum seekers and native Nauruans. Notwithstanding his own reasons for wanting to portray life on Nauru in a certain light, former shadow immigration minister, Richard Marles, had a point when he chastised activists for depicting the sleepy Pacific outcrop as a hotbed of rape and violence. As he noted then (and as one ought to do now), crime, whilst always traumatic for its victims, exists everywhere. Manus Island certainly isn’t immune. The temptation to repeat these errors — where every unverified claim is aired uncritically — is proving too great for current commentators and advocates.

The reasons for some of these  lurid dramatizations aren’t difficult to find. Not only was the issue of safety used to justify the remaining asylum seekers’ ongoing act of resistance (decrepit though their lodgings may be);  it provided a prop to the argument that the men, like their counterparts on Nauru, are still subject to palpable, obvious and unrelenting harm as a result of living among the native population. The conclusion is then drawn that those on Manus will only be truly safe if transferred to Australia. Behind this lies a basic view of Australia’s current policy settings vis-à-vis asylum seekers.  Certainly, there are many who would like to see the entire edifice of offshore processing dismantled, and who have sought to use incidents of violence to argue for the complete cessation of present government practices. To do this, they have emphasized attacks against asylum seekers, and magnified the danger they face. The ultimate goal, of course, is to elicit sympathy from the Australian public, thereby generating a groundswell of support for a substantive shift in policy.

Human rights lawyer Daniel Webb is representative of this view. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Webb had argued that violence against asylum seekers “highlighted the urgent need to bring those on Manus to Australia”. Similarly, lawyers Greg Barnes and Anna Talbot, in arguing for much the same position, have written of “regularly learn[ing] about asylum seekers being violently bashed by locals” (emphasis mine).  In what has to be one of the more extreme — and, as far as I can tell, unsubstantiated — claims, Elaine Pearson, Australian director of Human Rights Watch, said:

“While the October 31 deadline looms [regarding the closure of the Lombrum centre], refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island have been getting stabbed, beaten, and robbed”.

(In the interests of fairness, two points should be noted. First, it’s not entirely clear what kind of timeframe Pearson is operating with: six months? A few weeks? If the former, then it might be possible to interpret her claim as capturing past incidents of violence meted out against individual asylum seekers. But the latter interpretation seems to fit the context more neatly, which would seem to render her statement inaccurate. Second, as the last remaining asylum seekers were being removed from the defunct processing centre, footage emerged purporting to show some of the men being beaten — consonant with Pearson’s allegation — by PNG authorities. Having viewed the footage online, I can only say that it is inconclusive. Whilst it shows police brandishing batons in a threatening manner, knowing precisely what’s happening is far from easy. Additionally, local police commanders have denied allegations of police brutality, saying that where force was used, it was in response to restive or obstreperous asylum seekers. This doesn’t clinch the argument by any means, but it makes it exceedingly difficult to ascertain the real tenor of recent events).

It’s indeed illuminating to reflect upon the way some have framed the vexed issue of boat-borne asylum seekers at this particular point. Urgent claims that the men on Manus are in imminent danger, and were therefore engaging in a heroic act of resistance by remaining in the decommissioned centre, taps into this plotline. All shades of grey have been leached, and other facts — ones that seem to challenge, or even simply nuance, the preferred narrative — have largely been ignored. A closer examination of the issue is thus required.

A number of telling facts present themselves. Take the movement of the men on the island, for example. Even though the asylum seekers who remained in the processing centre claimed to be concerned for their safety if they moved, there were at least 77 men living in the new lodgings, outside Lorengau, by the 4th November. If those concerns were as grave as some of the men (and their advocates) have argued, is it likely that a large swathe of asylum seekers would then move to the very township which is said to be the main source of danger? It’s possible that the 77 who transferred to the transit centre reasoned that the threat of violence was outweighed by the relative comfort of functional dwellings. But again, this fails to neatly cohere with what some activists are suggesting — namely, that asylum seekers who move to their new dwellings will be “rapidly in danger“. Even the earlier-noted reference to the formation of lynch mobs seems not to have eventuated, and may well have represented the bluster of one, frustrated individual. At the very least, I think the fact that so many asylum seekers have voluntarily transferred to the apparent epicentre of anti-refugee opposition raises questions as to the various motives driving such claims.

Of course, this proves little in isolation (even if it nods in the direction of a situation more complex than some would care to admit). But reports regarding the actions of some locals — trying as they did to provide aid and succour to the remaining asylum seekers during the impasse — as well as the activity of the men themselves, would seem to cast further doubt on the broad picture that refugee advocates seek to propagate. Some media outlets referred to local Manusians making numerous attempts to supply the men with a variety of basic goods whilst they remained in the processing centre. For example, The Australian recently reported that in addition to asylum seekers leaving the centre to retrieve caches of food and medicine, locals living nearby “were regularly allowing the men to access water and recharge phones”. It was also said that local PNG authorities were turning a blind eye to this practice, and that even police themselves were bringing the men food and water — something one senior officer said reflected Melanesian hospitality (interestingly, this adds another layer to the implicit depiction of PNG authorities as violence-prone thugs).

Now, I wouldn’t want to lionise local Manusians at all; as I noted above, several acts of the most appalling barbarity have been perpetrated against asylum seekers living on the island. Openness on the one hand is consistent with violent minority opposition on the other. However, the feared brutality of the mob has so far failed to materialise, even though the stand-off had been dragging on for some weeks. Where there may be a risk, the Australian government has said that security at the new centre has been arranged. More importantly, the reported generosity of many PNG residents undercuts the monochromatic portrayal of Manus Island as a place brimming with an irrational hatred of those seeking asylum. The picture that emerges instead is one that is quite common: a people that is generally hospitable, but which grapples (as do all societies, to greater or lesser degrees) with its share of sometimes-violent criminality.

But if it’s true that the character of local New Guineans has at times been unfairly reported, then it is also the case that refugee activists have failed to paint an accurate picture of the asylum seekers on Manus Island. As I suggested earlier, the men who remained in the processing centre have been portrayed in highly flattering, if simplistic, terms. However, one might be surprised to learn that since October 2013 (around the time the current Coalition  government implemented its Sovereign Borders policy), PNG police have recorded “161 incidents of various offences involving residents [i.e., asylum seekers]…[including] assault, aggressive behaviour, unlawful entry, property damage, and contraband” (‘Sex and drugs’ at Manus village, The Australian, November 11-12, 2017; article paywalled. For further reporting, see here). Many incidents occurred in Lorengau, which implies a degree of movement between the processing centre and the island’s main township. Some of the allegations relate to sexual contact with underage girls, which would seem to cohere with other reports (featured in sympathetic media outlets like The Guardian Australia and the ABC) concerning the prosecution of crimes committed by asylum seekers against Manusian women.

Leave aside the question as to whether Australia ought to accept such men (if the allegations prove to be true). I think we can draw several tentative conclusions from the information above. Crucially, it further undercuts various features of the picture activists wish to propound: i.e., the notion that innocent asylum seekers are routinely being set upon by members of the local population, simply because they are despised by their would-be hosts. Crimes committed by some asylum seekers — particularly where they involve the exploitation of minors — would help explain whatever animus exists between them and local Manusians. On this reading, antipathy towards the men isn’t arbitrary; it hasn’t emerged from a vacuum, but remains a comprehensible (if at times utterly inexcusable) reaction to criminal acts. Indeed, current local opposition to the asylum seekers is partly grounded in fears that they might threaten the safety of PNG residents — fears that would seem to be somewhat justified, given the grave nature of some of the allegations.

These accounts also place the asylum seekers in a far more ambiguous light, morally speaking. One shouldn’t be surprised: as ordinary human beings, asylum seekers are prone to the same moral failings that everyone else is. Of course, asylum seekers aren’t uniquely gifted in the practice of human perversion — but nor are they the sainted protagonists of activist hagiography. Again, a key plank in the narrative plotted by refugee advocates is not quite as strong as it seems. This, too, appears to be true of claims that the asylum seekers could not leave the centre for fear of attack. The reports in question suggest, rather, that the men have had few qualms about travelling into Lorengau, whether for licit or illicit purposes. Contrary to the suggestion that the remaining asylum seekers were rendered paralysed by terror — and for that reason, remained holed-up in the Lombrum facility — the many allegations of misconduct outside the centre implies frequent movement, unencumbered by such concerns.

***

I referred earlier to the power of narrative to govern the way we see an issue; this, I think, has been borne out during the Manus Island saga, especially as it concerns the claims I have surveyed here. Certainly, the situation there is far more complex than the black-and-white portrayals some advocates have created, which suggests that the basic narrative frame with which they operate has, in this case, led them astray. Of course, one’s view on any issue is inevitably partial. What we are accorded does not arrive in pristine, undiluted form, but passes through many layers of mediation. A narrative frame is a particularly powerful type of mediating agent, for it establishes the very boundaries — the basic criteria — of what one considers true, plausible or even worthy of attention. This is true of both individuals and collective — including media — enterprises.

It’s not that grasping the truth remains impossible. However, facts are rarely apprehended in isolation; they are held together in a variety of ways, used to sustain whatever “plotline” the speaker or writer finds compelling and wishes to promote. Where the plotline is flexible, a dialectical process of mutual influence usually prevails: the significance of facts is shaped by one’s pre-understanding, whilst that pre-understanding is (where necessary) modified in accordance with new data. Of course, if one it too beholden to his preferred view, the salience of specific facts can either be minimised or magnified; simultaneously, countervailing data may be downplayed in order to maintain a certain frame of reference. I’m not suggesting that this is always done deliberately or consciously; much of the time, a person’s basic view of the world exerts its influence at a subterranean level. But we must remain alert to the fact that the truth we do grasp is always going to be leavened by a welter of other concerns, whether personal or political — lest we end up promoting a largely distorted, one-dimensional perspective. Helpful as they can be in rendering coherent a mass of otherwise disparate information, narrative rigidity is a constant danger, constraining insight, and blanketing comprehension. Sobriety and prudence, then, should be our watchwords. Given that events on Manus are mired in confusion and ambiguity, that warning seems especially germane.