On August 27, the new Australian Border Force (ABF) put out a press release explaining that, as part of something called Operation Fortitude, ABF officials would be stopping passers-by in inner-city Melbourne and demanding to see their visas.
The announcement caused immediate outrage on social media and, after a snap demonstration of several hundred people, authorities cancelled the operation, claiming it had been misunderstood.
Though the racist “White Australia” policy was a central facet of the Australian federation until its abolition in the early 1970s, mandatory detention for refugees was only introduced in 1992. The conservative government of John Howard made deterrence a major policy platform.
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Since then, both major parties in Australia have been committed to harsh anti-refugee policies. The most controversial of these include housing asylum seekers on the impoverished nations of Papua New Guinea and Nauru in centres notorious for allegations of sexual abuse and violence.
The ABF was created on July 1, at a cost of $7m, as a result of a recent merger of the Department of Immigration and the Department of Customs and Border Protection. The organisation is led by Commissioner Roman Quaedvlieg, a former officer of the Australian federal police.
The 5,000 ABF officers wear black paramilitary tunics. Most are authorised to carry guns, detain people and conduct surveillance.
The increasing militarisation of refugee policy in Australia – a wealthy country that’s largely isolated from the world’s population traffic – reflects a broader international trend. The ABF echoes the American experience, where the US Border Patrol has been subsumed by the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection Agency. It guards the crossing from Mexico with assault rifles and military hardware, such as drones, helicopters and motion detectors.
As Todd Miller, the author of Border Patrol Nation, has written: The American approach to border security is being exported to nations where the US has interests – particularly Central America, but also Iraq, Afghanistan and South Africa.
This week, Israel announced the construction of a wall along its border with Jordan to deter what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described as “a wave of illegal migrants and terrorist activists”.
Meanwhile, in Europe, many governments are adopting military-style programmes to deter the influx of refugees, blaming traffickers for the crisis and threatening to destroy boats before asylum seekers can board them.
Hungarian authorities are considering using troops to control refugees crossing the border from Serbia. Tear gas, helicopters, barbed wire and dogs have all been deployed. Greek police threatened the refugees with batons on the island of Lesbos, French authorities have used tear gas on people trying to cross the Eurotunnel from Calais into Britain, and Macedonian officials have used stun grenades.
“Plans to use the army to stop asylum seekers in Bulgaria and Hungary are ill-advised,” warned Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muiznieks last month. “Militarisation of borders is [sic] wrong answer to migration.”
It might seem hyperbolic to identify the emergence of the ABF as part of an international war on refugees, especially since successive governments have justified Australia’s immigration policy with distinctively humanitarian rhetoric.
It is useful to note the striking parallels with recent wars fought by the West, many of which have also been promoted as humanitarian missions. There are similarities between the rhetoric of the ‘war on terror’ and the rhetoric of what we might call ‘the war on refugees’.
The camps, the secrecy, even the boat turnbacks: They’re defended as necessary for saving lives since they ostensibly deter refugees from making the dangerous crossing from Indonesia.
It’s not a war against refugees, the government says – it’s a war “for” them: a humanitarian intervention seeking to prevent drownings.
Framing militarised border policing as a humanitarian endeavour has consistently wrong-footed refugee advocates in Australia, torn between their instinctive hostility to the army’s deployment against refugee boats and their awareness of the asylum seekers drowned each year.
It is useful, then, to note the striking parallels with recent wars fought by the West, many of which have also been promoted as humanitarian missions. There are similarities between the rhetoric of the “war on terror” and the rhetoric of what we might call “the war on refugees”.
In 2003, George Bush and Tony Blair won liberal support for Operation Iraqi Freedom by advocating the mission as necessary to save the people of Iraq from Saddam Hussein.
Likewise, Western air strikes on Libya were launched as an operation to save civilians from certain death. Both interventions led directly or indirectly to large population displacements.
Indeed, technologies and strategies developed in the “war on terror” – from autonomous camera robots to security sensors – are being adapted to constrain the movement of people.
According to some estimates, the “humanitarian interventions” in Iraq and Afghanistan will eventually cost the US some $6 trillion. A small fraction of that figure could fund safe resettlement projects for all those fleeing from Syria.
The outpouring of sympathy over the recent death of Aylan Kurdi provides a glimpse of how the issue might be reframed.
Kurdi’s death encouraged many in Australia to see refugees as humans. Those travelling to Australia don’t require militarised immigration regimes.
Instead, they seek policies that facilitate their legitimate requests. Their demands are entirely reasonable.
Jeff Sparrow is a writer, editor and broadcaster, and an Honorary Fellow at Victoria University, Melbourne.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.