Compassionate Refugee Politics?

How to Cite

McGrath, S. (2005). Compassionate Refugee Politics?. M/C Journal, 8(6).
Vol. 8 No. 6 (2005): 'affect'
Published 2005-12-01

One of the most distinct places the politics of affect have played out in Australia of late has been in the struggles around the mandatory detention of undocumented migrants; specifically, in arguments about the amount of compassion border control practices should or do entail. Indeed, in 1990 the newly established Joint Standing Committee on Migration (JSCM) published its first report, Illegal Entrants in Australia: Balancing Control and Compassion. Contemporaneous, thought not specifically concerned, with the establishment of mandatory detention for asylum seekers, this report helped shape the context in which detention policy developed. As the Bureau of Immigration and Population Research put it in their summary of the report, “the Committee endorsed a tough stance regarding all future illegal entrants but a more compassionate stance regarding those now in Australia” (24).

It would be easy now to frame this report in a narrative of decline. Under a Labor government the JSCM had at least some compassion to offer; since the 1996 conservative Coalition victory any such compassion has been in increasingly short supply, if not an outright political liability. This is a popular narrative for those clinging to the belief that Labor is still, in some residual sense, a social-democratic party. I am more interested in the ways the report’s subtitle effectively predicted the framework in which debates about detention have since been constructed: control vs. compassion, with balance as the appropriate mediating term. Control and compassion are presented as the poles of a single governmental project insofar as they can be properly calibrated; but at the same time, compassion is presented as an external balance to the governmental project (control), an extra-political restriction of the political sphere. This is a very formal way to put it, but it reflects a simple, vernacular theory that circulates widely among refugee activists. It is expressed with concision in Peter Mares’ groundbreaking book on detention centres, Borderlines, in the chapter title “Compassion as a vice”.

Compassion remains one of the major themes and demands of Australian refugee advocates. They thematise compassion not only for the obvious reasons that mandatory detention involves a devastating lack thereof, and that its critics are frequently driven by intense emotional connections both to particular detainees and TPV holders and, more generally, to all who suffer the effects of Australian border control. There is also a historical or conjunctural element: as Ghassan Hage has written, for the last ten years or so many forms of political opposition in Australia have organised their criticisms in terms of “things like compassion or hospitality rather than in the name of a left/right political divide” (7).

This tendency is not limited to any one group; it ranges across the spectrum from Liberal Party wets to anarchist collectives, via dozens of organised groups and individuals varying greatly in their political beliefs and intentions. In this context, it would be tendentious to offer any particular example(s) of compassionate activism, so let me instead cite a complaint. In November 2002, the conservative journal Quadrant worried that morality and compassion “have been appropriated as if by right by those who are opposed to the government’s policies” on border protection (“False Refugees” 2). Thus, the right was forced to begin to speak the language of compassion as well. The Department of Immigration, often considered the epitome of the lack of compassion in Australian politics, use the phrase “Australia is a compassionate country, but…” so often they might as well inscribe it on their letterhead. Of course this is hypocritical, but it is not enough to say the right are deforming the true meaning of the term. The point is that compassion is a contested term in Australian political discourse; its meanings are not fixed, but constructed and struggled over by competing political interests.

This should not be particularly surprising. Stuart Hall, following Ernesto Laclau and others, famously argued that no political term has an intrinsic meaning. Meanings are produced – articulated, and de- or re-articulated – through a dynamic and partisan “suturing together of elements that have no necessary or eternal belongingness” (10). Compassion has many possible political meanings; it can be articulated to diverse social (and antisocial) ends. If I was writing on the politics of compassion in the US, for example, I would be talking about George W. Bush’s slogan of “compassionate conservatism”, and whatever Hannah Arendt meant when she argued that “the passion of compassion has haunted and driven the best men [sic] of all revolutions” (65), I think she meant something very different by the term than do, say, Rural Australians for Refugees. As Lauren Berlant has written, “politicized feeling is a kind of thinking that too often assumes the obviousness of the thought it has” (48).

Hage has also opened this assumed obviousness to question, writing that “small-‘l’ liberals often translate the social conditions that allow them to hold certain superior ethical views into a kind of innate moral superiority. They see ethics as a matter of will” (8-9). These social conditions are complex – it isn’t just that, as some on the right like to assert, compassion is a product of middle class comfort. The actual relations are more dynamic and open. Connections between class and occupational categories on the one hand, and social attitudes and values on the other, are not given but constructed, articulated and struggled over. As Hall put it, the way class functions in the distribution of ideologies is “not as the permanent class-colonization of a discourse, but as the work entailed in articulating these discourses to different political class practices” (139).

The point here is to emphasise that the politics of compassion are not straightforward, and that we can recognise and affirm feelings of compassion while questioning the politics that seem to emanate from those feelings. For example, a politics that takes compassion as its basis seems ill-suited to think through issues it can’t put a human face to – that is, the systematic and structural conditions for mandatory detention and border control. Compassion’s political investments accrue to specifiable individuals and groups, and to the harms done to them. This is not, as such, a bad thing, particularly if you happen to be a specifiable individual to whom a substantive harm has been done. But compassion, going one by one, group by group, doesn’t cope well with situations where the form of the one, or the form of the disadvantaged minority, constitutes not only a basis for aid or emancipation, but also violently imposes particular ideas of modern western subjectivity.

How does this violence work? I want to answer by way of the story of an Iranian man who applied for asylum in Australia in 2004. In the available documents he is referred to as “the Applicant”. The Applicant claimed asylum based on his homosexuality, and his fear of persecution should he return to Iran. His asylum application was rejected by the Refugee Review Tribunal because the Tribunal did not believe he was really gay. In their decision they write that “the Tribunal was surprised to observe such a comprehensive inability on the Applicant’s part to identify any kind of emotion-stirring or dignity-arousing phenomena in the world around him”. The phenomena the Tribunal suggest might have been emotion-stirring for a gay Iranian include Oscar Wilde, Alexander the Great, Andre Gide, Greco-Roman wrestling, Bette Midler, and Madonna. I can personally think of much worse bases for immigration decisions than Madonna fandom, but there is obviously something more at stake here. (All quotes from the hearing are taken from the High Court transcript “WAAG v MIMIA”. I have been unable to locate a transcript of the original RRT decision, and so far as I know it remains unavailable. Thanks to Mark Pendleton for drawing my attention to this case, and for help with references.)

Justice Kirby, one of the presiding Justices at the Applicant’s High Court appeal, responded to this with the obvious point, “Madonna, Bette Midler and so on are phenomena of the Western culture. In Iran, where there is death for some people who are homosexuals, these are not in the forefront of the mind”. Indeed, the High Court is repeatedly critical and even scornful of the Tribunal decision. When Mr Bennett, who is appearing for the Minister for Immigration in the appeal begins his case, he says, “your Honour, the primary attack which seems to be made on the decision of the –”, he is cut off by Justice Gummow, who says, “Well, in lay terms, the primary attack is that it was botched in the Tribunal, Mr Solicitor”. But Mr Bennett replies by saying no, “it was not botched. If one reads the whole of the Tribunal judgement, one sees a consistent line of reasoning and a conclusion being reached”. In a sense this is true; the deep tragicomic weirdness of the Tribunal decision is based very much in the unfolding of a particular form of homophobic rationality specific to border control and refugee determination.

There have been hundreds of applications for protection specifically from homophobic persecution since 1994, when the first such application was made in Australia. As of 2002, only 22% of those applications had been successful, with the odds stacked heavily against lesbians – only 7% of lesbian applicants were successful, against a shocking enough 26% of gay men (Millbank, Imagining Otherness 148). There are a number of reasons for this. The Tribunal has routinely decided that even if persecution had occurred on the basis of homosexuality, the Applicant would be able to avoid such persecution if she or he acted ‘discreetly’, that is, hid their sexuality. The High Court ruled out this argument in 2003, but the Tribunal maintains an array of effective techniques of homophobic exclusion. For example, the Tribunal often uses the Spartacus International Gay Guide to find out about local conditions of lesbian and gay life even though it is a tourist guide book aimed at Western gay men with plenty of disposable income (Dauvergne and Millbank 178-9). And even in cases which have found in favour of particular lesbian and gay asylum seekers, the Tribunal has often gone out of its way to assert that lesbians and gay men are, nevertheless, not the subjects of human rights. States, that is, violate no rights when they legislate against lesbian and gay identities and practices, and the victims of such legislation have no rights to protection (Millbank, Fear 252-3).

To go back to Madonna. Bennett’s basic point with respect to the references to the Material Girl et al is that the Tribunal specifically rules them as irrelevant.

Mr Bennett: The criticism which is being made concerns a question which the Tribunal asked and what is very much treated in the Tribunal’s judgement as a passing reference. If one looks, for example, at page 34 –

Kirby J: This is where Oscar, Alexander and Bette as well as Madonna turn up?

Mr Bennett: Yes. The very paragraph my learned friend relies on, if one reads the sentence, what the Tribunal is saying is, “I am not looking for these things”.

Gummow J: Well, why mention it? What sort of training do these people get in decision making before they are appointed to this body, Mr Solicitor?

Mr Bennett: I cannot assist your Honour on that.

Gummow J: No. Well, whatever it is, what happened here does not speak highly of the results of it.

To gloss this, Bennett argues that the High Court are making too much of an irrelevant minor point in the decision.

Mr Bennett: One would think [based on the High Court’s questions] that the only things in this judgement were the throwaway references saying, “I wasn’t looking for an understanding of Oscar Wilde”, et cetera. That is simply, when one reads the judgement as a whole, not something which goes to the centre at all… There is a small part of the judgement which could be criticized and which is put, in the judgement itself, as a subsidiary element and prefaced with the word “not”.

Kirby J: But the “not” is a bit undone by what follows when I think Marilyn [Monroe] is thrown in.

Mr Bennett: Well, your Honour, I am not sure why she is thrown in.

Kirby J: Well, that is exactly the point.

Mr Bennett holds that, as per Wayne’s World, the word “not” negates any clause to which it is attached. Justice Kirby, on the other hand, feels that this “not” comes undone, and that this undoing – and the uncertainty that accrues to it – is exactly the point. But the Tribunal won’t be tied down on this, and makes use of its “not” to hold gay stereotypes at arm’s length – which is still, of course, to hold them, at a remove that will insulate homophobia against its own illegitimacy. The Tribunal defends itself against accusations of homophobia by announcing specifically and repeatedly, in terms that consciously evoke culturally specific gay stereotypes, that it is not interested in those stereotypes. This unconvincing alibi works to prevent any inconvenient accusations of bias from butting in on the routine business of heteronormativity.

Paul Morrison has noted that not many people will refuse to believe you’re gay: “Claims to normativity are characteristically met with scepticism. Only parents doubt confessions of deviance” (5). In this case, it is not a parent but a paternalistic state apparatus. The reasons the Tribunal

did not believe the applicant [were] (a) because of “inconsistencies about the first sexual experience”, (b) “the uniformity of relationships”, (c) the “absence of a “gay” circle of friends”, (d) “lack of contact with the “gay” underground” and [(e)] “lack of other forms of identification”.

Of these the most telling, I think, are the last three: a lack of gay friends, of contact with the gay underground, or of unspecified other forms of identification. What we can see here is that even if the Tribunal isn’t looking for the stereotypical icons of Western gay culture, it is looking for the characteristic forms of Western gay identity which, as we know, are far from universal. The assumptions about the continuities between sex acts and identities that we codify with names like lesbian, gay, homosexual and so on, often very poorly translate the ways in which non-Western populations understand and describe themselves, if they translate them at all. Gayatri Gopinath, for example, uses the term “queer diaspor[a]... in contradistinction to the globalization of “gay” identity that replicates a colonial narrative of development and progress that judges all other sexual cultures, communities, and practices against a model of Euro-American sexual identity” (11).

I can’t assess the accuracy of the Tribunal’s claims regarding the Applicant’s social life, although I am inclined to scepticism. But if the Applicant in this case indeed had no gay friends, no contact with the gay underground and no other forms of identification with the big bad world of gaydom, he may obviously, nevertheless, have been a Man Who Has Sex With Men, as they sometimes say in AIDS prevention work. But this would not, either in the terms of Australian law or the UN Convention, qualify him as a refugee. You can only achieve refugee status under the terms of the Convention based on membership of a ‘specific social group’. Lesbians and gay men are held to constitute such groups, but what this means is that there’s a certain forcing of Western identity norms onto the identity and onto the body of the sexual other. This shouldn’t read simply as a moral point about how we should respect diversity. There’s a real sense that our own lives as political and sexual beings are radically impoverished to the extent we fail to foster and affirm non-Western non-heterosexualities. There’s a sustaining enrichment that we miss out on, of course, in addition to the much more serious forms of violence others will be subject to. And these are kinds of violence as well as forms of enrichment that compassionate politics, organised around the good refugee, just does not apprehend.

In an essay on “The politics of bad feeling”, Sara Ahmed makes a related argument about national shame and mourning. “Words cannot be separated from bodies, or other signs of life. So the word ‘mourns’ might get attached to some subjects (some more than others represent the nation in mourning), and it might get attached to some objects (some losses more than others may count as losses for this nation)” (73). At one level, these points are often made with regard to compassion, especially as it is racialised in Australian politics; for example, that there would be a public outcry were we to detain hypothetical white boat people. But Ahmed’s point stretches further – in the necessary relation between words and bodies, she asks not only which bodies do the describing and which are described, but which are permitted a relation to language at all? If “words cannot be separated from bodies”, what happens to those bodies words fail? The queer diasporic body, so reductively captured in that phrase, is a case in point. How do we honour its singularity, as well as its sociality? How do we understand the systematicity of the forces that degrade and subjugate it?

What do the politics of compassion have to offer here? It’s easy for the critic or the cynic to sneer at such politics – so liberal, so sentimental, so wet – or to deconstruct them, expose “the violence of sentimentality” (Berlant 62), show “how compassion towards the other’s suffering might sustain the violence of appropriation” (Ahmed 74). These are not moves I want to make. A guiding assumption of this essay is that there is never a unilinear trajectory between feelings and politics. Any particular affect or set of affects may be progressive, reactionary, apolitical, or a combination thereof, in a given situation; compassionate politics are no more necessarily bad than they are necessarily good. On the other hand, “not necessarily bad” is a weak basis for a political movement, especially one that needs to understand and negotiate the ways the enclosures and borders of late capitalism mass-produce bodies we can’t put names to, people outside familiar and recognisable forms of identity and subjectivity. As Etienne Balibar has put it, “in utter disregard of certain borders – or, in certain cases, under covers of such borders – indefinable and impossible identities emerge in various places, identities which are, as a consequence, regarded as non-identities. However, their existence is, none the less, a life-and-death question for large numbers of human beings” (77).

Any answer to that question starts with our compassion – and our rage – at an unacceptable situation. But it doesn’t end there.

Author Biography

Shane McGrath