Will the ‘genuine’ refugees please stand up?

| July 26, 2011

The idea of a “true” or “genuine” refugee seems to have reactionary symbolic significance in Australia, but does it really mean anything?

The discourse of a “true refugee” has been mooted uncritically in the past few months of uninspiring Australian politics (not to mention the obnoxious comeback of “queues”). Somehow, we’ve managed to unearth and apply a new layer of moral judgment onto the body of people who have a right at international law to seek asylum. I use the word “we” not to apportion moral blame at large, but rather to draw out the way this debate has played out historically between the supposedly united nation-state and refugees.

From a purely pragmatic point of view, a person either has refugee status or not. It is tautological in some ways to call somebody a “genuine refugee” because to be a refugee by definition is to be a person whose claim is genuine. Legally, the status is only ascribed once a person’s claim has been found to be legitimate.

That is not to say that the processes and strict criteria used to assess claims for asylum are unproblematic, in fact legitimate criticisms can be made for the failure of the regime to take into account, inter alia, the experience of gender-based persecution and its failure to account for internally displaced peoples. Nor does it capture the disempowering way the word “refugee” has been used at times to confine people to a perpetual state of victimhood.

But tagging the word with “true” or “genuine” adds no substantial meaning to the phrase. Except perhaps as a purely narrative device that reflects the divisive nature of refugee politics in Australia today. 

A simple search on the Australian parliament’s website of the combined terms “genuine refugee” yields 456 preliminary results. Looking at the records, the words “genuine refugee”, rather unthinkingly, are scattered across media releases, ministerial speeches and transcripts dating back to 1978 when the Member for Dawson, Raymond Braithwaite, raised the question of how “Australians” would separate genuine refugees from non-genuine refugees. These debates took place of course, in context of the influx of “boat people” during and after the Vietnam War.

Braithwaite’s fragmented speech is eerily resonant to images of detention centres and off-shore processing zones we have come to associate with refugee politics in this day and age – he praised the idea of interning refugees in “quarantine and seclusion from the outside world” until they were processed and only the “desirables” would be granted entry into the country before suggesting that offshore processing policies could help make the “whole refugee problem” an international, rather than a national one. We seem to like this process of distancing ourselves away from the “problem” without looking closely enough to adjudge the legitimacy of this characterisation.

The idea of a “true” or “genuine” refugee seems to have reactionary symbolic significance. We make an arbitrary and adjectival distinction between the “genuine” refugee who either arrives in an orderly, non-confrontational manner and subject to the rules, regulations and security regimen of air travel or waits patiently, suffering in a refugee camp to be accepted into Australia through our humanitarian program; and the Other who seeks and rewards the services of sinful people smugglers and dare to arrive by boat through vast, open spaces that are unsecure and unregulated.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s speech, in which she announced the notoriously controversial Malaysia solution months ago, provides a clear example of this usage. She made distinctions between those who abide by Australia’s “orderly migration program” and “irregular arrivals” who come by boat. The “genuine refugee” is again that person who follows the rules under a migration or humanitarian program.

A dehumanising nexus between perceived threats to identity, national and personal security, a need for visibility, surveillance and order has helped shape this capricious distinction. In other words, the gratuitous inscription of “genuine” or “true” has become part of the language we use to talk about refugees because it helps distance us from their diverse experiences and the persecutions from which they seek protection. If what is happening does not correspond to irrational expectations of who we want and how we want them, the words “true” and “genuine” give us the power to control, separate and exclude so that in some futile way, it does.

The bodies and claims of refugees have almost always been politicised and positioned as a “problem” in Australian politics (and those of other states) despite the largely humanitarian motivations behind the United Nation’s 1951 Refugee Convention. We’ve recycled these ideas and images time and time again – surely it’s time to speak the language of humanitarianism?

Sheenal Singh is a Law/Journalism student. You can follow her on Twitter