Blog post by Nick Banks, a communications professional who holds an MA in Refugee Protection and Forced Migration Studies from the University of London
The Covid-19 pandemic completely changed the nature of international movement and migration between 2020 and 2022. Beginning with narrowly targeted travel restrictions directed at individuals who had been in Wuhan, China, these measures rapidly expanded into generalised tightenings of borders across the world, including various forms of quarantine and mandatory Covid tests for travellers, bans on travel to or from particular places, and blanket bans in or out of a country. The purpose of this blog post is to discuss how the policies and discourse around migration that were utilised by the Australian federal government (led by then-Prime Minister Scott Morrison) in response to Covid-19 relate to and illuminate aspects of Australia’s refugee discourse and policy, and how they point to the primacy of common underlying political considerations which have driven both areas of policy, rather than the issues that have been purported to be at hand.
In Australia, three of the most prominent and controversial measures directed at travellers during the Covid-19 pandemic were:
- Firstly, the general closure of the Australian border to non-citizens and non-residents, (the General Border Closure), which took effect in March 2020 and which was repealed in February 2022;
- Secondly, the ban preventing Australian citizens and permanent residents from leaving Australia (the Overseas Travel Ban), which took effect from March 2020 and was repealed for vaccinated travellers in November 2021 and for all travellers in April 2022; and
- Thirdly, the ban preventing anyone from arriving in Australia if they had been in India within 14 days (the India Travel Ban), which took effect on the 3rd of May 2021, and was repealed on the 15th of May 2021.
It is perhaps not obvious as to how these restrictions intersect with refugee policy. However, restrictive migration practices, and the discourses which justify them, have a long history in their relationship with refugee protection. Discussions about the repurposing of Australian refugee discourse & policy are particularly pertinent in light of their recent exportation to the UK through political strategists such as Australian Isaac Levido. Likewise, the ease with which a government’s targeting of refugees can shift to the migration-related targeting of its own internationally-connected citizens bears examination in light of the UK government’s recently proposed changes to the requirements for UK citizens to sponsor their partners for family visas.
Migration and movement are well-entrenched as the subject of intense politicisation in Australia, which is often seen most acutely in the area of asylum. Despite accession to the 1951 Refugee Convention, illiberal policies and practices regarding refugees have long abounded in Australia, including mandatory detention, often for indefinite periods of time; offshore detention; temporary protection visas; and restrictions on who may be settled in Australia, based on method of travel. These have been accompanied by corresponding discourses which justify these illiberal practices, and which construct refugees and asylum seekers as a threat from outside.
Previous pandemics have involved border restrictions, including in Australia, although numerous studies have established that such measures have limited effectiveness and are only capable of delaying the spread of a pandemic for a matter of weeks. Despite this, it has been noted in the case of the 2009 Swine Flu pandemic, ‘border screening has too strong a political imperative in Australia not to be implemented in the early stages of this pandemic’. This succinct statement goes to the heart of Australia’s political inclinations towards migration policy, and so this imperative deserves some examination.
Analysis: A threat from outside
Much like refugees, the public health issue of Covid-19 was constructed in political discourse as a threat that came from outside of Australia, and this perceived threat was used to justify migration policy. In March 2020, in a statement announcing that Australians would henceforth be banned from travelling overseas, Prime Minister Scott Morrison stated:
The majority of Australian cases of coronavirus have been from people returning overseas or direct contacts with people who had been overseas.
With regard to the India travel ban, the explanatory statement to the Determination states:
The Determination to temporarily restrict entry to Australia for people who have been in India in the last 14 days reflects the latest health advice that there is a high likelihood of COVID-19 cases arriving in Australia via a person travelling from India, or who has been in India in the last 14 days.
With regard to the general border closure, the Prime Minister stated:
Our government has taken this unprecedented step because around 80 per cent of coronavirus cases in Australia are people who caught the virus overseas before entering Australia, or people who have had a direct contact with someone who has returned from overseas.
What was left unexamined in these statements is that for much of the time when one or more of these travel bans was in effect, Covid-19 had already been spreading domestically within the Australian population. It is arguable that the justification for border restrictions ceased to be relevant after it was no longer possible to prevent Covid-19 from reaching Australia, and when people in Australia had a significant chance of contracting the virus from people who had not travelled outside Australia. Therefore, it is reasonable to ask if there existed purposes for these policies beyond that of managing the spread of Covid-19.
The construction of Covid-19 as a threat from outside provided justification for policies of exclusion, which prevented large numbers of Australians from exercising their presumed right to exit and enter their country of citizenship, and made these policies popular with a large proportion of the Australian public. Similarly, the discourse surrounding refugees constructs them as a threat from outside, which is used to justify what have often been electorally popular exclusionary policies.
Modern refugee discourse & policy in Australia, often framed as ‘border protection’, is a direct descendant of a long line of exclusionary migration discourse. Australian political narratives around migration have long centred around issues of race and selectiveness, with binary notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ immigrants a common feature over the course of many decades. Particular fears around East Asian immigration have a long pedigree—a background factor of no small importance given the geographic origin of the pandemic and the rise in anti-Chinese prejudice in many countries since the emergence of Covid-19. From the time of Australia’s Federation over a century ago, Australia has been represented in politics and media as a vulnerable outpost of the Western world, adjacent to ‘strange’ foreign nations and ‘incompatible’ cultures, which justified a ‘White Australia policy’. Such explicit representation remained pervasive well into the 1960s and has resurfaced in various expressions on a regular basis.
It is possible, therefore, to draw a continuous line following representations of particular groups of persons from outside Australia as a grave threat to the nation: from the White Australia policy through the rise of right-wing politician Pauline Hanson, and from there to the discourse on refugees of the past two decades. From there it has been a short pivot to represent the Covid-19 pandemic as a threat which comes from overseas, carried through persons from outside Australia, and to offer the reliable political solution of exclusion. Although there had been legitimate reasons to exercise caution, the rationale for such measures was called into question by their continued use once Covid-19 became established in the domestic population, and by the continued representation of Covid-19 a grave threat from overseas.
Perhaps the most egregious link to Australia’s history of selective exclusion is the India Travel Ban. At the time of enactment (3 May 2021), Australia’s borders had already been closed to non-citizens and non-residents for over a year (as of 20 March 2020) and Australian citizens had been largely prevented from leaving Australia for over a year (as of 25th March 2020). Therefore, the persons that this restriction was most likely to affect were Australian citizens or permanent residents who had been living in India for a considerable length of time, or who had obtained an exemption to travel to India. This came despite an earlier statement by the government that targeting specific countries would not be an effective measure to prevent the virus from entering Australia. Many commentators noted that the persons most likely to be affected were Australians of Indian ethnic origin, and questioned why travellers from India were targeted in this seemingly arbitrarily selective manner, and not travellers from (for example) the United Kingdom, where transmission rates had also been very high, and where large numbers of Australians had also sought travel exemptions to travel to.
The rhetorical justification for the India travel ban also contained echoes of that used to justify asylum policy, with the explanatory statement of the legislative instrument explaining that:
“The Determination protects the quarantine and health resources needed to prevent and control the entry, and the emergence, establishment or spread of COVID-19 into Australian territory or a part of Australian territory. The measures maintain the integrity of Australia’s quarantine system and allow the system to recover capacity”
This representation assumed that the capacity and vulnerability of Australia’s quarantine and health resources did not require change or cannot be changed. It assumed that an outside threat to those resources required the ‘burden’ on those resources to be reduced, rather than that they be strengthened or increased. However, Australia’s record on providing and managing quarantine resources had already been called into severe question in public discourse even before the India Travel Ban came into effect, with hotel quarantine proving inadequate to prevent transmission from incoming travellers and little explanation given for why the government failed to expand dedicated quarantine capacity.
This has significant parallels with themes in refugee discourse of Australia needing to be protected from being ‘overwhelmed’ by refugees—whether that is with regard to social welfare provisions, housing, ghettoisation etc—and likewise is based on assumptions of what Australia’s ‘capacity’ is and of its ability to expand that capacity. Narratives of being ‘swamped’ by particular ethnic groups carry an implication of being overloaded beyond the nation’s capacity to bear, and the notion of ‘queue jumping’ also has resource use connotations, bringing to mind queues for welfare or food. The reality of Australia’s management of its ‘capacity’ in these areas, like that of quarantine resources, has little to do with refugees and much more to do with its domestic economy and politics.
Movement restrictions targeted at specific groups in the context of Covid-19 can therefore be understood as parallel to the targeting of specific groups of refugees, where the selection of groups to target may be made on grounds which are not directly related to solving a real problem, but which allow an ‘othering’ discourse to present those groups as legitimate targets for specific measures.
Discussion: the primacy of electoral concerns
When faced with the parallels in discourse depicted above, a significant relationship between Australian Covid-19 travel restrictions and refugee policy is evident, where the Morrison government leaned heavily on strategies that have their roots in the discourse of Australian refugee policy. On the face of it, this can seem odd, in that the policy areas of public health and of refugee issues are not obviously closely related. However, the fact that a relationship can be observed points perhaps to the pervasiveness of exclusionary refugee discourse throughout Australian political life.
Discourses of exclusion and harsh treatment of those who can be successfully ‘othered’ have been key to several electoral victories, and these discourses present themselves readily to governments seeking to shore up public support. The Australian government’s adoption of international travel restrictions tapped into this deep vein of discourse and policy that has worked so well for governments past and present, and they found that these restrictions were very popular in the electorate, with one poll showing that over 80% of Australians supported the complete sealing of borders during the pandemic. Covid-19 therefore presented the Morrison government with an opportunity to utilise the familiar policies, practices, and discourses which had served their electoral needs in the past. This granted the Australian government the political licence to enact significantly restrictive policy not only on refugees, but on citizens and residents of Australia as well, and suggests that if both a perceived political need and opportunity arises to tap in to this vein of discourse, that future governments may make use of it in other unexpected policy areas, the ultimate aim of which is to utilise a time-honoured method for gaining re-election. As Elizabeth Hicks noted,
“What that experience can teach, however, is how quickly wholly unexpected events can ‘flip’ membership of a majority; new minorities can be rapidly constituted, including amongst those who traditionally enjoy the privilege and protection afforded by their membership of a majority. This is a lesson for all.”
This is perhaps an echo of Neal Ascherson’s well-worn adage, commenting on the UK government’s attempts to deport Saudi refugee Mohammed al-Masari in 1996, “The way a state treats its aliens is the way it would treat its own subjects if it dared”.
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