On Deserving and Undeserving Migrants, or: Against White Sovereignty

In a media appearance recently, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton made his by-now famous comments about the literacy, numeracy and employability of refugees. “They won’t be numerate or literate in their own language, let alone English,” he said. “These people would be taking Australian jobs, there’s no question about that.”

The validity of these claims has been attacked from many angles. Several commentators have pointed out the myriad of counterexamples to the first part of Dutton’s claim: images of refugees with high levels of academic and professional accomplishment were shared under the tag “I came by boat.” Others pointed out the contradiction inherent in the notion of an illiterate, innumerate refugee who manages to steal your job as well as “languish in unemployment queues.” These are all excellent points, although it should also be noticed that racism has never had to be true or even internally consistent in order to be effective. In Eureka Street, commentator Somayra Ismailjee offered a more foundational counterpoint to the logic behind the Minister’s claims, writing of her discomfort with the celebration of only the most high-achieving of refugees:

For the majority of society, one’s worth is not dictated by the legitimacy of their future profession. For refugees, however, we demand excellence in return for the most basic human rights.

While her article is appreciative of the necessity of overcoming the negative characterisations which plague those who cross borders, she proposes a more subtle understanding of the how such characterisations might arise and might be transcended:

Negative stereotypes often gain traction through the underrepresentation of people seeking asylum, their lives and stories made invisible. However, just as invisibility dehumanises them, so does the hypervisibility we attribute to a select few stories.

Melbourne refugee and ex-detainee collective RISE – who do not use images of their members in any publications, precisely because of their political critique of the hypervisibility that Ismailjee identifies – also posted a statement. They rejected the classism and divisiveness of only profiling refugees with degrees and social stability and pointed out, crucially, that “refugees are refugees, despite if they do or don’t possess skills, degrees or social stability” (emphasis added). As Ismailjee puts it, making refugees’ acceptability contingent upon their contribution to a society that marginalises and hurts them is a “cruel and superficial metric for freedom.”

What Ismailjee and RISE’s analyses reveal are the implicit claim to the right to police borders that underpins Dutton’s comments. This is what anthropologist Ghassan Hage calls “governmental belonging”: the kind of national identification that is intrinsically tied to the right to manage the national space – and which is uniquely available to whiteness[i]. Therefore, Dutton claims that refugees are “bad,” and must not be allowed into the nation-state; dissenters counter by saying that in fact refugees are “good,” and should be. None of this in fact displaces the white sovereignty[ii] that underpins these discussions which always implacably believes itself legitimate in making such a deliberation. This places refugees (and other migrants) who are unable to successfully construct themselves as “good” in the eyes of the dominant majority in a deeply vulnerable position.

This problem was no better exemplified by a tweet published a couple of days after Dutton’s appearance by a leftist commentator who wrote that “Dutton’s speech about migrants “taking jobs” is curious; the Libs let over one million people work in Australia on temporary work visas.” This, from someone who has been openly critical of border violence in the past, was concerning; as was the tweet being reposted by a leading pro-refugee organisation. Such an analysis would seem to suggest that the problem is not one particular group of underqualified foreigners taking Australian jobs, but another – the groups in question mainly distinguished by the sympathy with which they are viewed by the Australian body politic (or at least the left-leaning part of it). As a friend pointed out, this does not depart at all, in fact, from Howard’s “we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come” – only quibbles about the who and the circumstances. It also seeks to create an artificially clear division between the “deserving” humanitarian refugee and the “undeserving” economic migrant – ignoring the fact that 457s may in some cases be the quickest and safest means of escaping war or political violence and that many humanitarian refugees labour in the same precarious and vulnerable circumstances (or worse) stipulated by the 457 visa. The temporary protection visas that many refugees are forced to contend with mean that 457s are likely to become the only available pathway to many who wish to stay in the country – in short, as a friend who read an early draft of this put it, there is an enormous deficiency involved in imagining that “visa categories express some type of underlying reality of human experience that visa holders faithfully embody.” In fact, all that is represented is the variety of tactics people employ in the face of a brutal bureaucratic wall. People may need or want to travel for many reasons, not limited to violence or poverty (which should not, by the way, be imagined as mutually exclusive). They may use just as varied means to facilitate doing so: money, skills, ability to fill labour shortages, marriages of convenience, or asylum claims. To oppose the violence of the border should entail an unwillingness to sort human beings by the (various, contingent, often desperate) methods through which they engage with it.

The use of the word ‘curious’ in the tweet is also concerning. There is no contradiction at all between the demonization and brutal expulsion of refugees and the exploitation of vulnerable migrant workers through 457 visas (and by other means). No one who properly understands border violence could ever think so – and without understanding border violence it is extremely difficult to effectively attack it. Neoliberalism has never been about simply “open” nor simply “closed” borders but about the circulation of money and bodies in ways that serve the interests of global capital[iii]. Therefore it is precisely the brutality of Australia’s border regime that facilitates the existence of highly vulnerable workers for the market to exploit: whether through 457s or through other means. Witness, for example, the recent expose of 7-Eleven’s systematic abuse of international students on working visas: who were first forced to work more hours than their visa allowed and then, terrified by bosses who threatened to report them to immigration authorities, paid as little as $5 per hour. The fact that this mechanism of exploitation and control was prolific throughout the company reveals that the possibilities suggested by the precarity of migrant workers is already of keen and explicit interest to unscrupulous employers (and this is by no means the first expose of its kind). Dutton’s racist comments; the deportations, disappearances, internments and tortures that his department is willing to undertake, feed precisely this precarity. As Angela Mitropoulos puts it in a Crossborder Operational Matters roundtable on the monetisation of the border, this is but one of the ways found to “make racism profitable.”

In 2013, Sanmati Verma wrote of the production of a sizeable class of highly vulnerable migrant workers through the dissolution of the “international education economy” of private colleges which were exposed as corrupt and closed down throughout 2009 and 2010. Many of these students, far from being “expelled” from the country (as was claimed at the time), instead disappeared into illegal and extralegal work arrangements, where they joined other marginalised migrant workers, including protection visa applicants. In her article, Verma exposes the dishonesty of rhetoric that surrounded the establishment, scandal, and dissolution/refiguring of the monetising of the border through the international education economy. The international students were derided for not being “genuine” students, but being more interested in the migration opportunities that their studies provided – despite the fact that this was explicitly marketed to them by the private colleges and the Australian government. Furthermore, the illegality that many of them were faced with after their education arrangements were cancelled is not, as is often claimed, “irregular”:

What is salient in discussions of illegality is that there is nothing irregular about irregular migration and undocumented migrants form an indispensable part of the labour market in [European, North American and Australian] contexts.

It is also noteworthy that within the reality of the labour markets that Verma details we see again the line between “deserving” and “undeserving” migrant blur: as refugees waiting on protection visas, international students rendered undocumented by the break-up of the college system, and seasonal labourers overstaying work visas work side by side.

At a series of lectures at RISE in 2012, Verma talked about the demonization of international students that stretched beyond the overt racism of late-night assaults and into a discourse which constructed them as well-heeled, dishonest, opportunistic gamers of the immigration system – “queue jumpers,” if you will. Disturbingly, in those lectures she also predicted the rise of the 457 visa holder as the next figure to emerge in a long history of racialised figments of nationalist hatred. It was three years later that I first saw a billboard on the side of Trades Hall featuring three unsmiling white men with arms crossed and a slogan attacking the rise of the 457 using the language of “local jobs for local workers” (this was unfortunately by no means the first example of unions employing nationalist discourse: see, for example, Liz Thompson and Ben Roszenweig in Melbourne Black journal, p. 14). Since then, examples have proliferated. Somehow, I doubt that Verma is pleased to be proved right.

The notion of worker solidarity across borders is at least as old as Marx himself. “We need a labour movement that has no outside,” wrote Lia Incognita in her elegant long-form essay in Right Now magazine just last year. So it seems particularly disappointing that the left in Australia has been so susceptible to the discourse of distinction between the worker to be protected and the worker to be protected from. The unfortunate reason for this seems to lie in a deep attachment to the very idea of the white nation and the border imperialism[iv] that structures it. The sooner this can be overcome in favour of a fundamental rejection of the violence of borders – as well as of the legitimacy of the violent colonial occupation which begets it – the better.


[i] Ghassan Hage, 1998. White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society. Pluto Press, Sydney.

[ii] Aileen Moreton-Robinson, 2015. The White Possessive: Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty. The University of Minnesota: Minneapolis.

[iii] Angela Mitropoulos, 2012. “Proliferating Limits: Capitalist Dynamics, Oikonomia and Border Technologies,” in John Hutnyk (ed), Beyond Borders. Pavement Books, London. Full text available here: https://s0metim3s.com/2012/01/24/proliferating-limits/ (See also “Precari-Us?” http://eipcp.net/transversal/0704/mitropoulos/en)

[iv] Harsha Walia, 2013. Undoing Border Imperialism. AK Press, Oakland, CA.

On Deserving and Undeserving Migrants, or: Against White Sovereignty