And the arms of the ocean are carrying me and all this devotion was rushing out of me… Review of ‘Chasing Asylum’

Things haven’t changed much since the last time I wrote that the debate about asylum seeker policy in Australia is a toxic wasteland.  There really is no discussion.  The vast majority of people are simply not able to participate meaningfully in the conversation and so they resort to a kind of identity performance: if you’re progressive, you’ll argue X; if you’re anti-progressive, you’ll argue not-X.  Most of the energy is directed at the worst parts of the other’s position, and nobody actually appears to care what other people have to say.  Get on the bandwagon or shut up.

The latest in the nuclear fallout that is the asylum seeker debate is a series of documentaries that rarely amount to anything other than overt propaganda.  It’s into this category that we find Chasing Asylum, an incoherent mess of a film that typifies what is wrong with asylum seeker advocates.

The art of politics should be about persuasion.  If I believe something passionately and want to share it with you, a disbeliever, I have to understand something about you, what motivates you, what engages you?  I need to understand why you disagree with me.  You might have extremely good reasons for disagreeing with me.  If I want to persuade you ethically, positively, and constructively, I need to engage myself with those reasons.

Asylum seeker advocates have demonstrated over the past decade that they are straight up incapable of convincing anybody of anything.  Asylum seeker policy has — and not just from their perspective — become objectively worse.  And yet they’re louder than ever.  They’re better resourced than ever.  So how can such a noisy group of well-connected people be consistent with the deterioration of the one policy that matters most to them?  I assert that they’re part of the reason why things are as bad as they are, but that’s an argument based on intuition about how the broader population responds to them (i.e. very, very negatively).

Lots of asylum seeker advocates I deal with are big fans of Chasing Asylum.  Some even thought that if I watched the documentary, I would have no choice but to agree that they have been right about everything all this time.

Chasing Asylum is hard to describe.  The vast majority of the film is based on cameras smuggled into immigration detention facilities on Nauru and Manus Island.  The justification for smuggling in cameras is that the government won’t grant them access, so the subterfuge is necessary.  To their credit, they also seem to understand the real reason why cameras are forbidden: people in the facilities are claiming that they are victims of persecution and, therefore, concealing their identities is often necessary for their ongoing protection (especially if they are returned home if they are not successful in their claim for refugee status).  For that reason, the film blurs faces and obscures identities.

But the filmmakers give a different reason for concealing identities: because the terrible Australian government will find the camera and confiscate the footage.

And this rhetoric is repeated frequently throughout the film.  The Australian Government is deliberately harming asylum seekers (no evidence is given for this state-of-mind fact, but it is asserted a lot).  The punishment of asylum seekers is part of the deterrence strategy (no evidence is given for this claim, or even that there is a deterrence strategy).  The Australian Government is hiding information because the public would be outraged if it knew the truth (again, no evidence).

If you agree with those assertions, you will love Chasing Asylum as it repeats your own views back to you.  If you’re like me, you’ll have a different experience.

The most notable experience for me was that I thought conditions were a lot worse than as presented on film.  I have long argued that we needed objective standards for healthcare in immigration facilities commensurate with the community standards.  This meant that I was logically committed to the view that we should only have detention facilities in countries where we were also committed to improving the local people’s level of healthcare.

But, watching this film, I realised that my opinions were based on reports that suggested the conditions were significantly worse than they are.

The documentary then interviews people who are known for arguing extreme versions of history and law.  If David Manne were correct in all of his assertions about refugee law, he would be more successful in his High Court cases.  There’s no acknowledgement that he’s opining in a contested area, or that his account is skewed to his advantage.  Similarly, the documentary interviews David Marr who is a journalist who doesn’t actually know anything about asylum seeker policy.  He makes a lot of historically incorrect statements and pouts at the camera.

But there are two other groups of interviews.  There’s the interviews of people who worked in the facilities as either employees or volunteers.  The people who made the documentary clearly didn’t run any background checks, and the accounts given paint a very different picture of the problem.  Although the argument is supposed to be that the Australian Government is evil and terrible, they paint a picture of the private contractors on the island as being hideous people.  Charitable organisations are recruiting people over Facebook, and the private security all come across as thugs.  The weirdest part is that one of the camera operators filming the private security seems to be the individual venting the most racist obscenities.  In comparison, the public servants seem to come across as bureaucratic, but not evil.

The second group of interviews are with people who are asylum seekers in Indonesia.  They say the usual things: they fled something, they’re sad, and they want to go to Australia for aspirational reasons.

Asylum seeker advocates want to present the problem as a beached starfish issue.  Forget about the global problem, think about this one asylum seeker and her hard luck story.  Then think about this one asylum seeker and his hard luck story.  A change in policy would matter to this one.  It’s the rampant individualism that we expect from the ideologically obtuse.  They can’t see the bigger issue.  They can’t see the global problem.

So the question to which I kept returning to was: ‘Why these people?’  The documentary claims that the expected wait in a refugee camp is ‘a lifetime’.  Actually, it’s a bit over 15 years.  The average wait for an asylum seeker who makes an application directly to a country is about 5 years.  So why do these people — who have terrible, sad stories — deserve a place in Australia’s humanitarian programme more than somebody who hasn’t been able to secure the services of a people smuggler?

It’s also why the rhetoric is profoundly broken.  ‘For the same amount that it costs to detain an asylum seeker, we could put them through medical school,’ claims one prominent asylum seeker advocate.  When the cost of the Cambodia deal came up, the audience tut-tutted on cue.  But, if you know the scale of the global problem, the issue is instead: ‘Instead of being able to spend this money resettling people in refugee camps, we had to spend it trying to correct the regional flow of irregular migration.’

Australia isn’t the only player here.  Our regional neighbours hate that there is irregular migration — along with the associated crime and social problems — from people trying to get to Australia (and New Zealand).  But those countries become invisible in Chasing Asylum.  They’re just backdrops for a discussion about Australia.

Taken literally, Chasing Asylum wants a Darwinist approach to asylum seeker policy: anybody who makes it here undetected gets a place.  It takes only a brief look at the facts to realise how utterly broken this position is.  We need people to regularise their migration pathway as soon as possible so that we can address their needs as soon as possible.  Incentivising irregular migration is not good policy.  We have created two classes of asylum seeker: those who can access resettlement countries directly and those who have to wait in camps.  Encouraging further splits between these two groups is not good policy.  There are lots of ways of addressing these policy problems, but there’s no incentive to debate them because the discussion is so toxic.

Chasing Asylum squandered a good opportunity to engage in debate.  Instead, it was weak sauce propaganda.