Lessons About Refugees From an Australian Immigration Crisis

Refugee from Myanmar with child, living in Malaysia

This article first appeared in the Huffington Post 18. August 2014.

I am an anthropologist, I live in Australia and I work with refugees in Malaysia. None of these attributes in and of themselves make me an expert on what is happening along the U.S. border at present. However, as anthropologists we try to understand issues from other people’s perspectives and we try to make sense of the world around us. When it comes to the current crisis of children refugees you don’t have to be an anthropologist to want to dig deeper and understand what is driving the large numbers of children to flee to the U.S., you just have to be human.

Living in Australia adds another dimension to wanting to get to the bottom of this. In the lead-up to the 2001 federal elections in Australia the now infamous ‘children overboard affair’ shocked the Australian people. The government announced that the Australian navy had intercepted a boat carrying 223 asylum seekers. This was not unusual, but several government ministers declared that the asylum seekers had threatened to throw and indeed had thrown children overboard. A subsequent inquiry found this assertion to be untrue. In any case, as increasing numbers of children and especially unaccompanied minors arrived in Australian waters the government decided to implement ever-harsher deterrents for asylum seekers reaching Australian shores. The deterrents were implemented ostensibly to stop people drowning on the treacherous sea-journey, but also to assure the electorate that the Australian government was in command of Australian maritime borders.

The protection of the inside, the nation-state and its people, from the outside, usually seen as dangerous and unknown entities, is an age-old preoccupation of governments. To show strength is to lock down the border and let in only those people who are of benefit to the nation: skilled migrants, who will help maintain or construct the nation; tourists who will aid the economy by spending money; and foreign investors, who will employ locals.

As I opened the morning papers in Hawaii recently I was faced with America’s ‘children overboard’ stories — those of children showing up in unprecedented numbers at the Mexico-U.S. border. Over 50.000 children had been detained in just the past nine months. Driving the exodus is what we regard as a basic right for children in the West, safety — to feel and be safe in one’s community, without persecution and harassment. These children are seeking asylum, which should not become a political tool for electioneering, as it has done so often.

As anthropologists we like to get behind the headlines and locate the context of a given event or world issue and examine the issue on a micro level. I have just finished filming for the massive open online course Worl101x: The anthropology of current world issues on the edX platform in which we discuss borders, the nation and refugees in some detail. My own work in Malaysia focuses on how refugees make a home for themselves in a place that does not afford them legal recognition.

The stories I have encountered in Malaysia share crucial elements with the asylum seekers of the ‘children overboard’ affair in Australia and those of the children detained along the U.S.-Mexico border as reported by anthropologists and journalists in recent months. At the core of these stories there are push and pull factors that impact the decisions to leave one’s home and seek out a place for a new life.

The push factors are often violence, conflict and a sense of insecurity, be it personal or for an entire community, ethnicity or other group identity. When life becomes unbearable and too hard it becomes a matter of survival and instinct to seek an escape route to a better place. And here the pull factors come in. The United States of America, Australia and Europe stand out as safe and prosperous places to live, work and make a life for oneself. It is our success in creating stable and peaceful societies that attract others to them. Both push and pull factors are more complex and depend on individual trajectories and anthropology has a wealth of stories to tell about why some people make the journey and others do not.

Anthropology connects stories and makes clearer the reasoning and logic behind decisions that may at first seem counterintuitive. Why would anyone let their children travel thousands of miles, often with strangers or alone, to an unknown country — the dangers seem overwhelming. Especially as in both cases, Australia and the U.S., these children have to traverse dangerous transit countries and inhospitable natural environments (the sea and desert respectively).

This makes it all the more important for everyone, that’s you and me, to be more aware of how our neighbors are living and faring in an ever more interconnected world. The answers can only start with a concerted regional effort that provides aid to our neighbors, whether across borders or within them, and provides new hope for people who often have only the hope of a new life elsewhere to hang on to.

I am a migrant myself, but one of those lucky ones, who can migrate for work with visas that allow me to legally stay in Australia and access healthcare, education and work. Indeed, I can travel freely around the world and have just returned from a trip around the Americas. When I arrived at the U.S. border at Honolulu International Airport I was quizzed by the official about my intentions, the places I was staying at and how much money I had with me. In fact, at each destination I had to present my credentials, my passport, for a government official to look it over and allow me into their country. I am very privileged to have a passport that allows me to freely move across the world. Many people are not that lucky.

social/cultural anthropology MOOC in production for edX

I have been busy traveling around the globe to interview several eminent fellow anthropologists about their work and anthropological journeys as well as follow some University of Queensland anthropologists into their fieldsites in places like Cuba, Toowoomba, the Atacama desert in Chile and Northern Queensland and my own fieldwork sites in Malaysia. The idea is to show students what anthropologists do and how they do it – you can look forward to discussions on consumption in Cuba, refugees in Malaysia, water in a Chilean desert and indigeneity in Australia.

We’re working hard to put it all together for our September 1st start date on edX, so please check out our website for more info by clicking HERE. Or follow us on facebook or connect via twitter. Please spread the word.

 

Gender segregation and the campus

This article first appeared in the Australian newspaper, Wednesday 7. August 2013Image

I am currently revising an article about my work in Malaysia with what can be described as fundamentalist and secular Muslims. One of the debates I am engaging is what role the researcher, in this case an ethnographer, plays in describing, analysing and writing about confrontations between universalisms and worldviews. Last Wednesday I took some time off from revising this paper to attend an iftar (breaking of fast) event I had been invited to by a student of mine.

The university’s Muslim Student Association had organized a big event and invited non-Muslims to share in the experience of breaking fast together in a park on the university’s campus. Mats were laid out on the grass to allow people to sit down. The event included the breaking of the fast (with water and a date or snack), a prayer and the communal dinner.

Upon arrival I was directed to sit down on the left-hand side of two clearly separated seating areas and told that this was the men’s section, whilst women had to be seated in the corresponding women’s section. As a staff member at a function of a university union affiliated club I was aware of my position in what would come next. If I quietly sat down in the designated male section, I could be seen (as could the university) to be condoning gender segregation. If I began questioning the practice and decided to leave or sit elsewhere I could be causing offence.

In my fieldwork in Malaysia I often came across gender segregated events and as part of my research work I would often question the reasons behind certain practices and document the reasons people gave for them. More importantly, during Ramadan the breaking of fast and communal meal was generally a communal experience in which families came together and men and women were not segregated. The prayers, especially if held at a mosque would be separated, but most people break their fast at home or in public places with only a short prayer.

Here, I was not in my field; rather, I was there as both a participant and member of an Australian university with my own views about the position of religion on the campus, so I engaged the first and second and third person who directed me to sit in the men’s section by asking them who had decided upon the seating arrangements (the organizing committee) and on what basis gender segregation was practiced here. A few students engaged me as I sat down on the sidelines of the event. I valued the interaction and discussion I had with these students as it afforded me an opportunity to question and respond with my views on Islamic traditions and the history of gender segregation.

The event raises important issues beyond the immediate seating arrangement relating to both gender equity and religious tolerance and discrimination. Some of these issues have been raised by a similar incident at Melbourne University in April, but universities have not responded resolutely in addressing them. More importantly, though, I want to raise this issue to elicit a debate about the role of religious organizations on campus, whether Muslim, Christian or any other, and the role of the university as a place that can accommodate difference, whilst safeguarding universals. I see the university as a progressive space in Australian society that should engage separate views in its community and debate openly motivations for and against gender segregation derived from religious commitment. The pointy end of this issue is whether Australian universities are prepared to accommodate religious practices in public areas of the campus which contradict policies regarding student and staff behaviour.

PNG deal – regional solution or co-dependency

This is a pre-edited version, final version on theconversation.edu.au.

We are yet to find out the details of the deal struck between Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O’Neill. What we know so far is that the agreement will see all boat arrivals without visas to Australia diverted to PNG for processing and potential resettlement. This sounds like a political and short-term stroke of genius to appeal to an important electoral minority, but regionally and for the long-term sounds like another ‘regional solution’ disaster.

From the performances and theatrics that we saw yesterday, as well as the media onslaught via youtube, facebook etc., this announcement is deemed (by the government and grudgingly by the opposition to some degree) to be the ‘silver bullet’, the circuit breaker to end the flow of the boats. Australian politicians have been working to find a solution to the increase in boat arrivals ever since the Tampa incident and Howard’s infamous declaration in 2001 that “we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”. Ever since then the issue of refugees in Australia has been inextricably linked to border protection. The view holds that as long as we can police our borders we are in control of who comes here and how many people come here.

Indeed, Australia’s borders are amongst the best protected and policed considering the sheer size of the continent. The issue of control, however, is beside the point, because every boat carrying asylum seekers without visas which arrives on Australia’s shore is doing so legally. It is, after all, legal to ask for asylum of a signatory to the Refugee Convention.

Legality though is not really the issue here. Others have written in more detail about the anxieties of a nation built by boat people and the fear of boats full of ‘others’ arriving on our shores that may displace us, our way of life and culture. Suffice to say that since Vietnamese boat arrivals in the 1970s there has been a steady unease in dealing with the uncontrollable influx of others not regimented by the migration system.

For as Howard himself said in the same speech quoted above in 2001: “we are a generous open hearted people taking more refugees on a per capita basis than any nation except Canada, we have a proud record of welcoming people from 140 different nations.” But these refugees arrived in Australia as resettled refugees via an ordered and controllable system, not a queue, but nonetheless a system that allows us to decide who we let in and who we prioritise.

The resettlement programme in Australia is amongst the most generous systems as it offers a relative direct path to citizenship and an active engagement with the host country that some others do not. This proud history is now being endangered by the bifurcation of the system supposedly rewarding those refugees waiting in camps and urban settings around the world and punishing those who risk the perilous journey by boat. Many refugees have perished trying to make their way to Australia and the government responded with an expert panel on asylum seekers. Although its recommendations were fully taken on board by the government, one crucial element of the report, namely the imperative of a regional cooperation plan on protection and asylum has received scant attention by policy makers.

The PNG deal may raise hopes that finally the government is talking about a regional solution, with regional partners and actual agreements in place, but at the moment it looks more like a policy for regionally dumping refugees for Australia’s domestic political gain. With our short election cycles regional solutions to the refugee crisis in our region seem doomed to short term rush jobs. Indeed, without the major regional transit countries Malaysia and Indonesia at the table, the PNG deal remains just another bilateral contract that will now firmly bind Australia to O’Neill’s administration in PNG.

This creates a co-dependency that is based on substantial Australian financial aid (to be largely carried by the aid budget) for the acceptance of our refugees. This sets worrying precedents for how our aid budget is spent (already Australia is the third biggest recipient of Australian foreign aid after PNG and Indonesia) and how dependent we will be in regards to our refugee treaty obligations that will be effectively serviced by PNG.

Real solutions take time and meaningful engagement with key players, namely Malaysia and Indonesia. Australia could lead these efforts, not just as the paymaster but by engaging regional partners to deal with the ongoing ethnic conflicts in Myanmar/Burma and take an active role in the wider region, e.g. in regards to human rights in Sri Lanka.

All of that takes time, political will and compromise between partners, not Australia demanding regional countries to succumb to their short-term political exigencies.

Malaysian General Election May 5th: Who can meet the expectations of the majority?

Malaysia’s thirteenth general elections (GE13) will be a battle of the coalitions, pitting the world’s most successful ruling coalition – the 13 party Barisan Nasional (BN/National Front) against the 4 year old, three party Pakatan Rakyat (PR/People’s Pact/People’s Alliance).

It is not easy to categorise the two opposing coalitions and its members as they are disparate, complex, and, with multiple agendas, often fractured. This is primarily the outcome of Malaysia’s recent history. The disparate regions and people that make up Malaysia today are, after all, an artificial construct whose only common denominator was that they were all subject to British Imperial power. A peninsular with 9 Malay kingdoms at the end of Asia’s land mass whose citizens were populated in majority by a polyglot of people from the Malay Archipelago, the Chinese and South Asian subcontinents, with a sprinkling of Arabs, Turks, remnants of past colonialists, various unique groups that were created through inter-marriages, and not to mention the many indigenous peoples aggregated together with two geographical entities on the island of Borneo, that is separated by 800 kilometres of the South China Sea, and whose people have greater cultural affinities with the peoples of the Philippines and Indonesia, and who themselves are disparate in culture, ethnicity and language.

However, all these societies did have one feature in common – feudalism. This was buttressed by British efforts to violently suppress progressive elements in the Malayan polity, preferring instead to hand over power after independence to conservative elements, primarily as a means to protect British interests. The feudalistic nature of these societies gave rise to what has become a very successful model of politics practised by the ruling coalition since the first elections before independence in 1955: Consociational politics, where the elites bargained and struck a deal where each group – first three, then rising to 14, now 13 political parties – had some share of political and economic power under the hegemonic power of the Malay and increasingly Islamised United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). This system has served BN well, chalking up electoral victory after victory at the past 12 general elections.

More importantly, the BN and its predecessor, the Alliance, were able to monopolise power because they were able to forge a ‘syncretism’ in their style of government i.e. governing via a variety of ideological orientations and political practises. The BN was successful not only because of its competent stewardship of the Malaysian economy but mainly because they were able to straddle competing (social, economic and political) interests within their coalition as well as address competing interests outside it by either co-opting them into BN, stifling them through draconian measures or skilfully manipulating these competing interests. The opposition parties and coalitions of the past were not able to successfully mount a challenge to the Alliance and BN partly because the electoral process and system was stacked against them, but also because the opposition parties could never successfully find a way to manage the competing interests that they each represented.

In the past decade or so, especially since the sacking of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and the East Asian Financial Crisis of 1997/98, the BN appears to have lost this unique ability to straddle the competing interests of its members and the communities they represent, while the opposition, led by, ironically, the sacked former Deputy Prime Minister, appears to be increasingly adroit at managing these tensions.

Therefore, one big question at GE13 is how the two coalitions are projecting themselves as true representatives of the people’s wishes, and how they go about addressing the key challenges that Malaysia as a country and Malaysians as a people face, in a way that satisfies the myriad competing interests.

The key reasons for widespread dissatisfaction with the present situation are manifold, but the key issues that both coalitions have to address are the rising living costs, demographic change, rapid urbanisation and increasingly uneasy race-relations.

The BN, in the past, has been very successful with their politics of development and key among these has been the reduction of absolute poverty to below three per cent and shaping Malaysia into a middle income economy by 1994 on the back of a low-cost, export-oriented economic model whilst at the same time creating a Malay middle class, primarily through the expansion of the public sector and government linked corporations (GLCs) jobs that is financed primarily through Malaysia’s revenue from non-renewable resources.

However, this particular model has two unintended effects: widespread relative poverty and high income inequality. The low-cost model has seen wages for 80 per cent of Malaysian households stagnate over the past three decades. These households earn less than RM3,000 (around AUS$ 1,000) a month in a country where the average monthly income is RM4,025 (around AUS$ 1,250). More critically, the bottom 40 per cent of households earn on average RM1,440 a month (around AUS$ 450). Most shockingly, the vast majority (71 per cent) of people in the bottom 40 per cent are bumiputeras – literally sons of the soil, a  designation that includes Malays and a range of indigenous groups – despite 40 odd years of affirmative action for this group. Indeed, their well-being is and has been the raison de être of UMNO, the backbone of the ruling coalition.

People have been able to get by in spite of rising living costs, because they have been kept at bay by infusing government funds into basic social services, food staples and a fuel subsidy. The last especially has proven effective, but any attempts to rein in costs have been met by popular resistance as a motorised populace has become addicted to cheap petrol.

There is also a significant demographic change in Malaysia. 71 per cent of Malaysians are under the age of 40 with 34 per cent aged between 20 and 40. They face a major challenge. Malaysia is in a middle income trap and must either develop or procure high quality human capital as a pre-requisite to transition into a high income economy. However, Malaysia’s poor quality education has not prepared them for the necessary challenges of a knowledge intensive economy. International benchmarks and surveys shows that the quality of education in Malaysia, at all levels, is no match to the successful East Asian economies that Malaysia has chosen to emulate. 80 per cent of Malaysia’s labour force has no more than the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM – equivalent to year 10 or O’levels qualifications), and the 57 universities and the more than 500 colleges are producing large numbers of graduates that the Malaysian labour market deems unsuitable or poorly skilled. This in an economy experiencing full employment since the late 1980s, and severe skills shortage since the early 1990s. Ironically, unemployment among graduates was highest. In 2007, graduates accounted for more than one-quarter of those unemployed, while unemployment among new graduates was 24. 1 per cent in 2008. With limited employability, mediocre wages and loans to be repaid, young Malaysian graduates end up saddled with enormous debt. The bloated civil service and GLCs, which are also perceived to be inefficient and a fiscal drag on the economy, are unable to provide the expected middle class jobs for bumiputeras long accustomed to getting them as part of a perceived social contract with UMNO.

However, perhaps ironically, it has been rapid urbanisation, that has brought these once disparate communities closer together. While many urban areas are still stratified by race and class, the sheer density has increased the interaction. 71 per cent of Malaysia is now urban. Only Kelantan, Pahang, Perlis, Sabah and Sarawak have rates or urbanisation below 55 per cent.

Better infrastructure, especially information communication and telecommunications, in urban areas have also provided a platform for dissatisfied Malaysians to hear alternative views and to connect with each other. 65 per cent of Malaysians were using the internet in 2010. As the internet largely remains uncensored, the opposition coalition and civil society movements have used it effectively to mobilise support for their causes. These groups have used social media, technology and the internet to also penetrate into rural areas through free radio, websites, but also the audio-visual recording of government scandals in DVDs, and other forms. While the ruling party has also joined the information technology revolution, the opposition has been quicker and more able to marshal support online despite being out-resourced by the ruling coalition.

These developments, whose impacts were first experienced at the 2008 general election, have impacted the coalitions in different ways, and have prompted different reactions. It appears that the BN continues to rely on its tried and tested race-based, trickle-down economic growth, and welfarist approach to policies while PR sensing that the ground has shifted, appears to focus on class-based and rights-based policies.

The BN possibly believes that it is best to straddle the competing interests among ethnic, religious, cultural and regional groups by addressing their needs individually, while PR appears, in general to address issues more holistically.

In the BN, the president of UMNO and Prime Minister of Malaysia now takes precedence over the other political leaders in the coalition. Different interest groups today, do not go through their “representative” political leaders or parties to seek government support, but approach the Prime Minister directly, who then, channels the support to these communities through the “representative” political parties. This, however, applies only to Peninsular Malaysia, and not in Sabah and Sarawak which have different dynamics.

PR’s approach is markedly different. Although Anwar Ibrahim is the leader of the opposition coalition and is most likely to be the Prime Minister should PR win, several factions in PAS have indicated some misgivings, preferring their own candidate. This suggests a more equal distribution of power in the opposition coalition members. But most significantly, Anwar Ibrahim is the first mainstream Malay politician to persuasively argue for the dismantling of the race-based affirmative action and has committed to it in the PR manifesto. This alone stands in contrast to BN’s continued reliance on continuing and expanding affirmative action for bumiputeras (although the Prime Minister has made contradictory statements on this).

PR also appears to be moving towards depoliticising contentious issue such as education and language issues. While BN has made side payments to vernacular schools on a piece-meal basis, PR have promised to embed these into government budgets should they come into power. While BN has demonstrated inconsistency in its language policy in primary and secondary schools, PR has been consistent in promoting the right of communities to use their preferred language in education in vernacular schools. This was in the context of using English in the teaching of Science and Maths, that former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed introduced, and which has since been reversed succumbing to strong popular protest.

Both coalitions however have resorted to populists strategies. PR’s strategies such as free education, removal of excise duties on cars, etc. all show that they are targeting the young and lower and middle income earners, much like the BN is doing now by handing out cash bonuses to Petronas (the national oil company) workers and through its many 1Malaysia initiatives, one of which provided a cash payment to low income earners to purchase a smartphone.

Handouts and their associated media attention are economic and visual reminders of a party in trouble and a party seemingly still able to resource its mass redistribution of wealth according to the principle of affirmative action and poverty reduction rhetoric. The former has been shown to have benefitted those in power (the now infamous 1 per cent) much more than the majority it is meant to aid. The latter, too, has been critiqued, especially in Sabah and Sarawak where poverty rates remain high.

And yet, BN has maintained a strong showing in polls and a support base that does not wish to change the way Malaysian society, economy or politics is structured. The status quo is highly reassuring for many who have yet much to gain from it as well as those who deeply believe in it. And belief is crucial in a country where mosque sermons are written by politics, ‘race’ is used as an everyday descriptor of ethnic background and ‘class’ is not uttered since the crackdown on the communists in the 1950s and 1960s. Who will Malaysians believe come the next elections? Personal attacks against political leaders has been a mainstay in Malaysian politics and lurid stories abound, backed up by court cases, exposes as well as much rumour, gossip and coffee shop talk.

Malaysia today is not the feudalistic society it once was, but the political is still dominated by communal topics such as race and religion and the need to ‘secure’ both against some unknown and often unnamed threat. Many people are willing to move beyond the politics of fear into a brave new world, but will there be a job, a car, cheap petrol and cheap food for them?

Only after the election will we see.

Greg Lopez is a visiting fellow at the Department of Political and Social Change, Australian National University and the New Mandala’s Malaysia section editor, an academic blog hosted by the College of Asia and the Pacific, also at the Australian National University.

Gerhard Hoffstaedter is a lecturer in Anthropology in the School of Social Science at the University of Queensland. He has recently published Modern Muslim Identities with NIAS Press.

Originally posted on New Mandala.