Placeless People: Writing, Rights, and Refugees
by Lyndsey Stonebridge
Oxford University Press
Published October, 2018
Refuge Beyond Reach: How Rich Democracies Repel Asylum Seekers
by David Scott FitzGerald
Oxford University Press
Published June, 2019
Towards the end of Spring 1933, Hannah Arendt and her mother Martha went to dinner at a house in the spa town of Karlsbad. The front of the house was within Germany, but its back door opened onto what was then Czechoslovakia. After a meal, the philosopher and her mother crossed the border inside the house and left via the back door, and as they did Arendt became a stateless person. She would remain so for the next 18 years.
Arendt’s path west from the safe house to Prague and on to France was cut against the backdrop of Hitler’s advancing forces. Her internment in Paris and at Gurs, her escape, and her trek across the refugee trails of France, Spain and Portugal mirrored that of other European Jewish intellectuals.
The same office in Marseille that supplied Arendt with an exit visa for herself and for her friend Walter Benjamin would later issue Simone Weil with hers. But where Arendt and Weil made it to Britain and on to America, Benjamin did not. Arendt and Weil were part of a highly influential generation of European Jewish writers, thinkers, and scientists who escaped Eichmann and the concentration camps. The sad irony is that in each country through which the exiles passed it became increasingly clear that their Europeanness had been violently taken from them – if, as Jews, they ever fully possessed it. Forced to reflect on their loss of nation, people, and identity they experienced, in Seyla Benhabib’s phrase, a ‘wrenching reckoning with the legacies of the European Enlightenment’ – the very process that set off their collective contribution to Western thought.
For Arendt part of this reckoning meant identifying a new category of people. In ‘We Refugees’(1943), one of earliest essays she published in America, she outlines what it means to be displaced in the mid-twentieth century. Slipping between the ‘we’ of collective experience and the third person stance of the observing philosopher, Arendt draws a line between those forced out of their homes during the nineteenth century, lone romantic figures cast from the community because of the opinions they held or the actions they took, and the mass of humanity who now flee persecution – not for what they think or do but for who they are. She catches with characteristic wit their condition: this new class of exiles are the kind of people who ‘are put in concentration camps by their foes and in internment camps by their friends’.
Edward Said arrives at a similar distinction. ‘Reflections on Exile’ (1984) marks out a place ‘just beyond the frontier between “us” and the “outsiders”’ that he terms ‘the perilous territory of not belonging’. In previous centuries, individuals were banished to this realm; in the modern era ‘immense aggregates of humanity loiter [there] as refugees and displaced persons’.
Said’s essay was written in the immediate aftermath of the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut, carried out by the Kataeb (a right-wing Christian Lebanese group) under what many believe was the tacit sanction of the Israeli Defence Force. Yet as much as the essay mourns the loss of a Palestinian home, Said is careful to place this loss and its deracinating effects within a broader history. When he makes the case that this is the ‘age of the refugee, the displaced person, mass immigration’ his chronology does not start in 1948 but in 1933, not with the creation of Israel but with Hitler’s rise to power. As he once remarked to Salman Rushdie, his people are ‘the victims of the victims’ – exiled from Palestine by the exiles of Europe.
Arendt and Said both acknowledged that theirs was a shared history. And it is this sense of continuity that makes Said’s call for decisive break from the romantic idealism of exile (sounded forty years after Arendt’s) all the more distressing. Both philosopher and literary critic were disturbed by the persistence of such idealism in the face of the brutal industrialised displacements of the twentieth century. Both actively resisted the cultural humanism that sprang from its condescending logic. The question they asked was how could anyone still believe, as many did (and still do), that the writing of exiles had a humanising effect? How could anyone cling to this assumption when to humanise so inhuman a condition as that of the modern refugee meant dignifying the loss of rights and the dependence of the rightless on the compassion of others?
Two recent books grapple with this contradiction in the post-war human rights regime and the culture that has been elaborated upon it. Lyndsey Stonebridge’s Placeless People takes the work of Hannah Arendt as the starting point to explore a set of writers who, in refusing to ‘concede the experience of mass displacement to literary humanism’, brought forth new modes of political thought and new ways to constitute the political community. David Scott Fitzgerald’s Refuge Beyond Reach reveals how systematically the modern legal structures of the global north have worked to uphold the old ways – the unwavering trust in nation-state sovereignty that Arendt sought to displace – by denying the right to asylum and with it what Arendt called ‘the right to have rights’. Each book forces citizens of the Global North to question whether our humanitarian concern betrays the fact that we have accepted a permanent refugee ‘crisis’. Reading them together is an exercise in acknowledging complicity. The most discomfiting aspect of which is the realisation that compassion towards the placeless might not be the ethical response.
In a letter to her former teacher, Karl Jaspers, written a year after the end of the war, Arendt traces to two roots the emergence of what she calls her ‘literary existence’:
First… I have learned to think politically and see historically; and second, I have refused to abandon the Jewish question as the focal point of my historical and political thinking.
Arendt’s turn towards the literary goes against what we typically think of as literature’s domain. She does not seek in literature a moral or an aesthetic response to ‘the Jewish question’ but a political one. This strange conjunction – of Arendt’s life-long preoccupation with the ‘Jewish question’ and her belief that literature offered the ideal medium for the historical and political thinking required to address it – forms the basis for inquiry in Stonebridge’s deft and incisive book. Arendt’s writings on literature serve as Stonebridge’s guide to a set of writers who saw in fiction and poetry the potential to challenge the post-war order. For Arendt and those who followed her, this challenge rested on finding new ways to write and read.
Arendt was a forceful and idiosyncratic reader. In seeking the politics that ‘follows from storytelling’ she turned to Kafka, a writer who could not be naturalised to the cosmopolitan ideal that was beginning even then to shape the modernist canon. Through Kafka’s works, Arendt developed a way to think through and critique the new political and juridical realities of the modern state. On her reading, Kafka’s novels and short stories speak to the conditions that encode the future: so great is his historical and political vision that in writing he reveals what is to come. There is no mistaking that such conditions are reflected in Arendt’s own experience. She felt that Kafka’s writing was ‘rather uncannily adequate to the reality’ in which she and the millions of stateless people found themselves. The result, as Stonebridge shows, was that Arendt placed Kafka at the centre of discussions of human rights and literary form – bringing these elements not simply into productive conversation but finding in literature a form of license that sanctions breaking down and reconstituting the human rights regime. In her essay on The Castle, for instance, Arendt argues that the lesson the villagers need to take is ‘that human rights are worth fighting for and that the rule of the castle is not divine law and, consequently, can be attacked’. In Arendt’s hands The Castle becomes a blueprint to challenge the belief that nation-state sovereignty is akin to divine law – a belief that effaced the stateless from international human rights law at the point of its formalisation.
Arendt’s Kafka becomes, then, a methodological touchstone for Placeless People, which seeks to present a modernism that does not simply evoke the spectre of rightlessness, alienation, and loss of agency but engages the political realities of those who experienced these things first hand. Like Arendt, Stonebridge is concerned with how writing gives form to rightlessness, and how literature might be a way to analyse what the increasing mass of stateless people means to our politics.
The canon of writers assembled is one of Placeless People’s great strengths. There are references to Benjamin and Adorno. And to Eric Auerbach, the great comparativist who fled Germany for Turkey. Arendt acts a tutelary spirit and Weil is given her own chapter. But unlike previous studies (Benhabib’s included) Stonebridge reaches beyond those who were exiles of Nazi Germany to include Orwell, Beckett, and Auden, along with the refugee advocate and writer Dorothy Thompson and Palestinian poet Youssef M Qasmiyeh.
The line traced in this selection reflects the symmetries between the Jewish and Palestinian refugee experiences. A symmetry that Arendt and Said recognised and that Thompson, at great personal cost, was one of the first to broadcast.
Perhaps more importantly, this trajectory also reveals that as the Jewish refugee writers became ‘émigrés’, as their talents were accommodated to the intellectual cultures of Britain and America, perceptions shifted and a new kind of refugee emerged into the public consciousness. These new refugees were not European. They were not the result of global war, or so it was incorrectly claimed, but the product of internal conflict. They were not the heroic escapees of Arendt’s ilk but a mass dependent on international charity. (The forces of historical myopia proved too overpowering for most to realise that this was precisely how the Jews of the war years were seen.) Above all, these refugees required charity. On Stonebridge’s analysis, they became the object of humanitarian concern – and not a political problem requiring a political solution. This designation was common to Palestinians, Syrians, and Kurds, the Indians who ended up in Pakistan post-partition, and the Muslims who ended up in India, as well as number of other stateless populations in South East Asia and Africa. Stonebridge acknowledges the global reach of humanitarian thinking but in drawing what is perhaps a necessarily narrow ambit from European Jews to Palestinians, she concedes that other refugee groups will find no clear place in her work.
What draws Stonebridge’s chosen subjects together is that they were opposed to the kind of cultural humanism that sanctioned the condescending benevolence of the post war global order. That Beckett, Orwell, and others voiced their opposition prior to the signing of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention reveals how prescient they were. They realised that the dynamic of giving and receiving, of conferring rights by way of citizenship on the one hand and conferring humanity upon refugees by way of humanitarian empathy on the other, ends up depriving the stateless of legal personhood.
The contribution Stonebridge makes lies in her readings. It is with close engagement that she demonstrates the ability of novels, poems, plays, and journalism to move beyond the banalising morality inherent to the idea that literature is a locus for empathy. The idea that literature cultivates empathy is more pernicious than it first appears. In empathising with as a means of humanising the other, all readers do is cement the distorted power dynamics between them. This way of reading renders refugees as objects of pity and in the end forecloses the possibly of more meaningful political outcomes. Readers who seek empathy are like the villagers in The Castle who do not question the source of the castle’s authority.
In Placeless People, literary language is shown to have its own kind of agency in redressing this dynamic. Metaphor becomes a node of connection between thought and word, word and action, action and the formation of new kinds of political and ethical communities. The agency of literary language is generative and it is also interrogative. Stonebridge’s writers ask what it is to be placeless so that we know how to be citizens; their acts of questioning seek to erode the distinction between these two categories of being.
In Orwell’s 1984, it is in witnessing that this erosion occurs. Stonebridge’s analysis begins with, and circles back to, the scene where Winston watches a film in which a boatload of Jewish refugees drown. It is this film that guides Winston’s pen, fashioning him as he tells the story:
While both camera and gunsights keep the refugee victims firmly within sadistic range, Orwell’s deft narrative shows Winston’s mind opening up to new perspectives. Even in his unpractised hands the stolen pen slows the scene down; we can see, for example, that a man is drowning, that he, like the boat, is full of holes, and that the sea is turning pink. A mother hopelessly shields her child. When the shot of a child’s sinking arm is later described as “wonderful — up, up, up” we understand that this is the same child, and that Orwell is juxtaposing one point of view—the camera eye that feeds the mob’s sadism—with another just emerging perspective.
We are drawn outwards, witnessing in turn as Winston’s mind opens to the fact that totalitarianism is built upon the bases of colonialism, nationalism, and global capitalism – a line Arendt traced in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). The image of the boat haunts but never fully emerges as central point of the novel. For Stonebridge, this shows a reticence on Orwell’s part. Aware of his limits as a British citizen, of the imperial baggage he carried and of his consequent inability to embody the perspective of the victims, he could not gain access to the consciousness of those on the boat. He did, however, give the world what Stonebridge describes as ‘one of its best lessons in how victims are created’. The boat is haunting for the reader’s gradual realisation that we are responsible for setting it to sea.
Stonebridge’s analysis reveals how literature can both communicate the material and systematic conditions of statelessness and how reading can facilitate an ethics of engagement that leads to the formation of political communities. For instance, Stonebridge reads in Weil’s often difficult prose the effects of being uprooted, teasing out how the writer’s work was shaped by the demands that exile exerts on thought. That same shattering of prose becomes in her reading of Beckett the origin for a kind of solidarity that requires the abstractions of syntax and form he experimented with in order to be communicated.
As the book progresses the perspectives of the placeless comes into their own. When it does, the critic steps back, and in so doing Stonebridge defies a critical politics that in the act of interpretation denies the placeless self-determination. To this end the book closes with a set of questions and not a definitive statement. The first is voiced by Rosetta, the English-Jewish Exile in W.H. Auden’s ‘The Age of Anxiety’ (1947). She is one of a people who have been:
Kicked in corridors and cold-shouldered
At toll-bridges, teased upon the stage
Snubbed at sea, to seep through boundaries
Diffuse like firearms through frightened lands
And so Rosetta asks ‘Who will be left to see it | Disconcerted?’
The second question is Qasmiyeh’s. In ‘Holes’ (2008), a poem ‘about what it means to exist between geopolitical and existential categories, to be visible and invisible at the same time’ he asks:
How will I die
Can see me?
A Palestinian poet writing in English, his words begin on the right of the page as they would in Arabic. The stanza that follows begins at the left. The excluded language is thus ‘experienced as a blank space of white on the page’. It is one of a series of holes in this ‘where the negative is kept visible’. Stonebridge sees the holes, keeping the negative visible by drawing out the ruptures between past and present, here and there that reflect the condition of the stateless. The poem in Stonebridge’s reading, at once light-touch and deeply perceptive, refuses to ‘move out of… borderline territories’. ‘Nothing is finally lost in the poem, because the experience it captures is still lived’. It is a living witness to the trauma of dispossession.
The poem serves, then, as the capstone to a generation of works which break existing modes of thought and writing in order to confront the mid-century crisis of sovereignty and its legacy. The writers of these works, from Arendt to Beckett, Auden to Thompson, sought new ways for their readers to engage with one another, and with the Jews, Palestinians, exiles, and uprooted they depicted. Placing them together, and reading them with an eye to how they translated the political reality of placelessness into aesthetic terms, Stonebridge ends up replicating the experience each writer sought to cultivate. As she does, we are forced to acknowledge the particularly modern trauma of statelessness. Still, we are left holding out hope, as they did, that a different kind of citizenship might still exist.
Hope without reality can only end in disappointment. Stonebridge is clear-eyed on the shortcomings of her case studies as moralists. Orwell’s anti-Semitism is not ignored. The incapacity of Weil’s ethics truly to accommodate foreignness is not shied away from either. Dorothy Thompson’s early colonialist tendencies are aired. We are not allowed to ignore the fact that Thompson’s initial support for a Jewish state in Palestine was expressed in the same expansionist idiom that she criticised in Germany and would later criticise in Israel. In the 1930s Thompson did not yet see that the idea of a home for refugees could be anything other than a nation-state – the very institution that creates refugees in the first place.
But Thompson did realise this in the end. And like the other writers of this study, her realisation cannot be separated from her position as a pariah; in Arendt’s formulation, one who confronts their status as an outsider head on. Though Arendt proposed this category to account for Jewish intellectuals, it applies to all the thinkers in Placeless People.
The message carried by these conscious pariahs is that the very systems that give us a sense of security in our rights are fragile because they safeguard those rights by affixing them to citizenship. And so refugees end up functioning as a kind of canary in the coal mine – a warning that the pariahs were able to see, either because they were refugees themselves, or because their writing fostered a kind of solidarity with the placeless. They could see that refugees disturb us because they convey the vulnerability that lies at the core of modern ideas about sovereignty and citizenship. Ideas that are to this day principally white. Perhaps Thompson put it best in 1938 when she said that nationalism was
turning the world into a jungle and the refugees are merely people forced to run away from one part of the jungle to another part of it. Their personal tragedy can only serve one great social purpose. They are and should be recognized as an advancing crowd shouting a great warning: The jungle is growing up, and the jungle is on fire.
Few would deny that white ethno-nationalism is now experiencing a vibrant and violent period of regrowth. And while the warning of the refugee is as necessary as it has ever been, it is – as it was in Thompson’s day – for the most part ignored.
In part, our defensiveness on refugee policy stems from the role asylum seekers play in exposing the hypocrisies of liberal democracies. States like the US, UK, those in the EU, Canada, and Australia take pride in affirming the universality of human rights (even in some cases the right to asylum). Yet at the same time they jealously guard their sovereign privilege, finding ways to shirk their obligations to international human rights law in the name of securing their borders.
What is particularly sinister is that this hypocrisy can be suppressed by the performance of compassion. By protecting refugees on humanitarian grounds, or at least claiming to do so, governments can deny them political agency. The borders of the nation-state remain secure and the rationale that the government has acted to ensure the safety of those seeking aid acts as fig-leaf to deny refugees their rights. Successive Australian governments have made recourse to this cynical logic when claiming that ‘stopping the boats’ prevents deaths at sea. The party line, toed by both major parties, reflects a wider tendency in international law. In Refuge Beyond Reach David Scott Fitzgerald presents a comprehensive picture of this tendency, showing how liberal democracies like ours find ever more insidious ways to deny refuge to those who need it most.
Drawing on statistics, leaked governmental memos, and personal stories of asylum seekers he outlines myriad strategies that countries of the Global North deploy in order to curtail the right to asylum. In the process he brings to the surface the deeply embedded structures of thought on which these strategies pivot.
Metaphor meets legislation as Fitzgerald reveals how a fear of strangers finds reflexive acknowledgment in policies erected in response to refugees ‘beating at our door’. The basic armature is Aristide Zolberg’s concept of ‘remote control’, the interlocked systems of passports, visas, passenger checks that emerged in the early twentieth century and kept people leaving Europe for America unless they had been screened. The main thrust of Refuge Beyond Reach is how this idea has been adapted by governments in the US, EU, Canada, and Australia (the book’s four case studies) to control the arrival of asylum seekers.
The rationale for such extensive remote control rests on the idea that there are set paths for refugees to claim asylum and that those who stray from these narrow corridors are queue jumpers or illegals – the shorthand conveying the perception that these people are no longer permitted to exist as a matter of law. The fact remains, however, that since 1994 the flow of refugee resettlement along these designated pathways has never exceeded 1% of the world’s refugee population. The systems that keep refugees from travelling without permission also allow the countries who cooperate with each other to keep these systems in place to claim adherence to the central tenet of the 1951 Refugee Convention, namely the principle of ‘non-refoulment’, while violating the Convention in practice. The signatories to the Convention made a commitment not to send refugees back into danger zones. This commitment was born of guilt, emerging from the failure of the Allied Powers to protect Jewish refugees from the Holocaust.
The various means of remote control violate the spirit of non-refoulement while staying true to just enough of its letters for a cynical measure of legitimacy. Governments say they won’t send refugees back but at the same time they maintain that they will not let refugees come to their shores. In the process millions of people are rendered placeless.
Fitzgerald’s analysis of the policies deployed to control the borders of the nation state remotely and the human effects of such policies is harrowing for the detail he amasses. Asylum policies in the US, EU, Canada, and Australia can be traced back beyond the 1951 Convention. But it was in response to the Convention that they have gradually formed an interconnected global approach to refugees. The defining feature of which is that each country or supranational organisation abrogates its responsibilities by manipulating its territories and borders. By cooperating in this pursuit, they have ensured that the refugee ‘crisis’ remains a permanent feature on the global landscape.
When Fitzgerald moves outward from national policies towards global practice he does so by way of a series of ‘medieval metaphors’: ‘cages, domes, buffers, moats and barbicans’. Because these analogies fit so well to reality, we come face to face with the fact that asylum policy is based on a basic human impulse to divide hosts from strangers. The degree of sophistication involved in maintaining the barriers enforcing such divisions paints a dismal picture of humanity, one that for all its advancements reverts to an unreconstructed desire to exclude.
Fitzgerald conceives of the overarching network of remote control created through passports, visas, and travel permissions as a dome. This dome is formed by the interconnecting legal systems that provide visa checks, issue carrier sanctions, employ liaison officers, and engage in pre-clearance operations and international anti-smuggling operations. Those of us who travel on the ‘right’ passports only experience the dome as a minor inconvenience, if at all. And yet it prevents an untold number of people claiming asylum when they have the legal right to do so.
To give a small sense of what the broad strokes of metaphor miss, Fitzgerald details the landmark case of Fauzia Kassindja who fled female genital mutilation (FGM) in her native Togo, travelled to America on a false German passport and claimed asylum once there. After a battle in court, asylum was granted – but had the systems that police sovereign borders worked she would never have been allowed to travel to the US to make her claim. In Fitzgerald’s assessment Kassindja is the ‘exception that proves the rule’. She is one case that stands in opposition to the many who despite their legitimate claims to asylum are prevented from reaching the US in the first place. And, as with Stonebridge’s focus on writers, there are moments where we are left with only singular or synecdochic grasp of the experience of asylees.
The limits of metaphor aside, the dome is particularly important to the US because of the emphasis American law places on territorial personhood. Under the provisions of the 1980 Refugee act, those who reach US soil have (with certain exceptions) a statutory right to apply for asylum. And so the imperative of governments has been to prevent people reaching US soil. Aside from the dome, the US has in place a system of buffers that includes states like Mexico who, with support from the US, detain and deport asylum seekers, cutting their access to US soil and the rights afforded thereon. With the cooperation of Canada, Mexico, and nations in Central America, the US has turned its borders into moats, the drawbridge raised and lowered selectively to provide and deny rights that both international and US law guarantee. Trump’s monomaniacal pursuit of a wall as metaphor made steel and concrete has the feel of cheap trick when set against the vast systems that bulwark the US.
For the EU, the Mediterranean acts as a moat. And Frontex (the European Border and Coast Guard Agency) ensures that all external borders provide same kind of impediment – regardless of whether they are on water or land. What struck me most in Fitzgerald’s meticulous account of the history of EU immigration law was that the operations Frontex undertakes to turn boats back are named for the Greco-Roman Pantheon. There is operation Hera, which stakes out waters between the Canary Islands and the west coast of Africa; Agios, Minerva, and Indalo in the western Mediterranean; Nautilus and Hermes in the Central Mediterranean; and Poseidon in the Aegean. The violent gods of the Classical World now defend a shared European culture against whose ramparts are those like Alan Kurdi, the three-year old Syrian boy who drowned in the Mediterranean and washed up face down on a beach in Bodrum.
Greece has itself been condemned by the EU for its policy of chain refoulement, of sending asylees back to ‘safe countries’ like Turkey, where they risked refoulement to Syria. Supranationalisation cuts both ways. The European Parliament is more likely to take human rights into consideration than some of its member states and so as a whole standards are generally lifted. But in pushing boundaries ever outwards in concentric rings of control, as has been EU policy, responsibility for these rights shifts from the centre, often far beyond Europe. Spain routinely pushes the EU’s borders into west Africa – turning boats around in Sengalese territorial waters. As do other member states when they cage refugees in what Fitzgerald calls Barbican spaces: Morrocco, Mali, and the Baltic states – places beyond the reach of European human rights law.
In their seminal study of metaphor, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson point out that the concepts that govern our thought are not simply matters of intellect. They structure what we perceive and how we make our way in the world. Metaphors define the way we think, what we experience and what we do down to the most mundane of realities. Standing behind the metaphors Fitzgerald catalogues is a desire to put the problems of others out of mind. Each metaphor of remote control conveys how governments of the Global North have extraterritorialized the dirty business of control, while ‘hyper-territorialising access to rights’.
Arendt predicted this very condition. In The Origins of Totalitarianism she argued that the ‘peculiar state of nature’ into which stateless Jews were thrown made them realise, before others, that without citizenship the so-called ‘rights of man’ were meaningless. They did not simply lose legal status in the countries they fled but in all countries. The practice of remote control capitalises on this aporia. People need to be citizens of some place to be afforded rights any place; those seeking asylum based on a universal human right to do so find themselves denied that right because, irony of ironies, their citizenship has been taken from them. If ever Kafka was needed to explain a surreal bureaucratic dead zone it is this.
Of all the actors in the Global North, Australia exerts perhaps the tightest bureaucratic control on access to refuge. In Fitzgerald’s idiom, we have ‘an exceptionally thick aerial dome’, we cage refugees in other countries’ territories, we aggressively patrol the ocean moat that surrounds us and we utilise idiosyncratic legal barbicans. A law passed in September 2001 recategorized Australian islands in the Indian Ocean (Christmas Island , Ashmore Island, Cartier, and Cocos) as ‘excised offshore places’, meaning that anyone who arrives at these places by sea is deemed ‘an offshore entry person’ and is ‘excluded from applying for a visa, including a humanitarian protection visa’. Our government can prevent maritime asylum seekers from applying for the protection to which they are entitled and at the same time comply with Australia’s long-standing recognition of its non-refoulment obligations under the 1951 convention.
This is the central loophole underpinning the ‘Pacific Solution’ and ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’. Reading Fitzgerald’s account though, it becomes staggeringly clear – in new ways – that the fixation on ‘boat people’ has little to do with policy. The majority of asylum seekers arrive by air. And yet, as opposed to those who arrive by plane with visas, the majority of those who come by boats are genuine refugees. The idea that coming by boat is a way to skirt legal controls is a fiction. But as fictions go, it has been particularly useful to governments, regardless of ideological stripe. One that centre-left governments have played on to divert populist white anxieties away from Australia’s increasingly multicultural demography and right-leaning governments have made recourse to in order to stoke those same fears without explicitly using racial categories. In both cases, the supposed threat of boat people has been stoked to defend settler sovereignty.
The contradictions inherent to this defence were on full display in the so-called Tampa affair, during which distressed refugees were cast as a threat to Australia’s sovereignty and the legal system built upon it. The national mythos of a home ‘girt by sea’ – held without irony by a nation founded by maritime invasion – has a pernicious effect on how we understand our sovereignty. The argument that we need to be ever vigilant to defend ‘our land’ conforms to what Aileen Moreton-Robinson describes as the possessive logics of patriarchal white sovereignty. When the Tampa case made its way through to the Federal Court, this logic was confirmed by the majority. Speaking for them Justice French asserted:
The power to determine who may come into Australia is so central to its [Australia’s] sovereignty that it is not to be supposed that the Government of the nation would lack the power conferred upon it directly by the Constitution, the ability to prevent people not part of the Australia community [sic], from entering.
Once more Australia is distinguished for all the wrong reasons. Of all Fitzgerald’s case studies, Australia is noted for the ‘unusually weak’ oversight the judiciary provides. A settler court is ultimately bound to reproducing the logics of white possession upon which our refugee policy operates. A sense of the metaphors, of an island fortress surrounded by moats, can help raise the consciousness of a public – who, in other places, provide the other major constraining force in refugee policy. But this awareness has to compete with the rhetoric of invasion, which endures for its capacity to produce a collective affect of fear, an affect that takes hold and spreads by a contagion that public consciousness cannot compete with.
Again, the stories that complement by individuating the metaphors might expose the weaknesses of the metaphorical approach by virtue of their own strength. One story Fitzgerald tells rings long after the heightened consciousness of metaphoric analysis recedes. I refer to the story of Hamid Khazaei, a 24-year old man whose leg infection was not treated properly at Manus, who was moved to Port Moresby before our government relented and finally admitted him to Brisbane, where it was too late. He died from something that could easily have been treated had he been admitted to Australia in time. At the request of his family, Khazaei’s organs were removed and donated to people in Australia.
Writers and metaphors might not lead us directly to a change in policy. But that is not to say that writing cannot do things in the world. It can shift our frame of reference, for one. Edward Said believed that the perspective of exiles might provide the basis for this shift. In his account, only the exile truly knows that in a
contingent world, homes are always provisional… that [b]orders and barriers, which enclose us within the safety of familiar territory, can also become prisons, and are often defended beyond reason or necessity.
To Said, the exile’s role was not to humanise but to ‘cross borders’ and ‘break barriers of thought and experience’. Said broke these barriers. Arendt did too. In their work we find the outlines for a new kind of political community, for different kinds of belonging, different ways of thinking and being together in writing. They offer a way to read that does not need to raise up the writing of the rightless but allows our consciousness to be shaped by its imbrication with theirs.
Said’s and Arendt’s example serves, then, as a plangent reminder as we read the work of Behrouz Boochani, and the first wave of writing by those our government has placed beyond us – and made placeless in the process. A reminder lest we dignify their experience or banalise it. A reminder to allow the work to set the terms for its own criticism, as Stonebridge does, so that it might break that fortress which in seeking to protect us has in the end held us prisoner to the narrowness of our moral imagination.
Ruddock v Vadarlis  FCA 1329 (18 September 2001), Federal Court (Full Court) (Australia).
Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt, 1951)
Hannah Arendt, The Jewish Writings ed. Jerome Kohn and Ron. H Feldman (New York: Schocken Books, 2007)
Hannah Arendt, Reflections on Literature and Culture ed. Susannah Young-ah Gottlieb (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007).
Hannah Arendt/ Karl Jaspers Correspondence. 1926-1969. Ed. Lotte Kohler and Hans Saner. (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1993).
Seyla Benhabib, Exile, Statelessness, and Migration: Playing Chess with History from Hannah Arendt to Isaiah Berlin (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018).
Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22: A Memoir (New York: Twelve, 2010).
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980).
Aileen Moreton-Robinson, The White Possessive: Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015)
Edward Said, Reflections on Exile and Other Literary and Cultural Essays (London: Granta, 2010).