States of emergency

Dark legacies combined with ‘moral panic’ and ‘extraordinary measures’ have slowly shaped attitudes in Australia and Italy towards asylum-seekers into something increasingly dangerous.

Fethi Mansouri Riccardo Armillei
21 October 2015
Migrants on boat.jpg

Illegal maritime migration. Coast Guard News/Flickr. Some rights reserved.Over the last few decades, the Mediterranean and the Pacific seas have been crossed by the arcing trajectories of hundreds of thousands fleeing war, violence and persecution. Italy and Australia are two major destinations for migratory flows, mainly from African and Asian countries respectively. Governments in Europe and the Asia-Pacific region have tried over the years to introduce more coordinated and centralized measures to help stop ‘irregular’ migration and prevent the increasing number of deaths at sea. But Italy and Australia, in particular, have rarely used their diplomatic and economic power to directly address the causes of these flows. In many cases their actions have actually had the opposite effect, contributing to or even perpetuating the conditions that cause people to move.

They are described as ‘waves’, ‘illegals’, ‘terrorists’.

The Australian and Italian approaches towards asylum-seekers should be viewed in their proper context by deploying theories on the use of ‘emergency’ as a frame for political action. Individuals are constructed as ‘permanent migrants’, becoming ‘abjects’, neither subjects, nor objects, living ‘inexistent states of transient permanence’. This conceptualization clearly matches what William Walters calls the ‘emergence of the humanitarian border’. As Walters argues, the humanitarian construction of measures taken towards asylum-seekers turns them into something acceptable within strategies of control. The fact that Australia and Italy put in place increasingly restrictive policies regarding these people, such as the practice of repelling boats carrying asylum-seekers, envisages a clear shift from ‘democracy’ to ‘security’ in a world of citizenships and circulation. 

Debates faced by the Australian and Italian governments centre around preserving national security and ‘stopping the boats’, extraterritorial processing and repatriations, rather than human rights and global responsibilities. Although ‘boat arrivals’ only make up a small proportion of ‘unauthorised/irregular’ immigrants, both in Australia and Italy, the growing popular perception is of being ‘swamped’ by ‘irregular’ maritime arrivals. They are described as ‘waves’, ‘illegals’, ‘terrorists’, all terms that tend to dehumanize them, and are expected either to assimilate to the dominant culture or, in the worst case, to be removed or expelled. 

A boat carrying refugees arrives in Kos, Greece. Christopher Jahn:IFRC:Flickr. Some rights reserved.jpg

A boat carrying refugees arrives in Kos, Greece. Christopher Jahn/IFRC/Flickr. Some rights reserved.There is a perception that ethnicity and crime are connected, reinforced by a negative discourse about immigration (especially the issue of undocumented migrants and refugees). This concern, which takes the form of a ‘moral panic’, is exaggerated, as has been shown in a number of studies, and the fear of crime is disproportionate to the reality of crime. This often leads to the criminalization of entire communities, rather than individuals. In turn, this has provided the justification for the implementation of highly criticised immigration policies, although both Australia and Italy are signatories of the 1951 Refugee Convention and of the 1967 Protocol Relating to Refugees.

Of course, the securitisation of migration across the globe may suggest that border control is a phenomenon which cannot be confined to these two governments exclusively. There is actually growing evidence of current global trends towards the securitization of borders, which lead to the criminalization of immigration and to its managerialization through the creation of ‘prison-like’ detention centres.

The existence of ‘gaps’ in collective memory can harm the health of the democratic polity. 

But what is unique about Australia and Italy is that their approach is part of a well-established historical trend of controlling practices directed towards the ‘Other’. The issue of borders and invasion from outside, as well as the approach to cultural diversity, has often created a sense of ‘insecurity’ in these two countries. As a consequence, scapegoating attitudes emerged towards the Romanies and the Aboriginal people, for instance, often depicted as the ‘enemies’ within. To this day, their genocide has not been officially acknowledged. Placing the case of the ‘boat people’ within a wider historical perspective helps to pinpoint the existence of long-term continuities between contemporary Italy and Australia and their national histories, the ‘Fascist’ and the ‘White Australia’ eras respectively.

The role of nationalism in the governance of marginal populations is surely central to the way that the Australian and Italian governments have been constantly enacting emergency approaches in order to deal with ‘otherised communities’. In this context, recent authoritarian upsurges (for example, the ‘Northern Territory Intervention’ and ‘Nomad Emergency’ campaigns directed at Aboriginal and Romani peoples respectively), the proliferation of discourses and practices of exclusion not limited to these people — their case could be compared to the situation of Muslim citizens — could all be interpreted as an indirect consequence of the government’s incapacity to deal with a shameful past and its unbroken ties. This shows that the existence of ‘gaps’ in collective memory can harm the health of the democratic polity.  

The legacies of white Australia and fascist Italy 

A long, tall wire fence with barbed wire running through a field.

Hungarian anti-refugee fence. Erik Marquardt/Demotix. All rights reserved.Today, Australia represents one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world. Multiculturalism is often presented as a distinctive characteristic of its unique success story. Yet, the legacy of colonialism and the ‘White Australia policy’ is still visible. For many years until the beginning of the 1970s, this political strategy intentionally restricted ‘non-white’ immigration to Australia, creating particularly anti-Asian forms of racism.

Long after its rejection, the ‘Anglo-Celtic’ factor still plays a central role in maintaining the privilege to ‘manage’ multicultural settings and decide on the relative positioning of different ethnic groups within the national framework. James Jupp, for instance, defined Australia as ‘the “most British” society in the world outside United Kingdom’. Ghassan Hage has coined the concept of ‘White Multiculturalism’, arguing that Australian multiculturalism has a ‘white-centric’ past and an assimilationist present.

Australia occupies a quite unique place in the scenario of post-colonial studies. Unlike many other former colonial contexts, Aboriginal people have never taken back possession of their land, and it is still questioned today whether, in a sense, a process of decolonisation has ever occurred in Australia. In this context, the engineering of the Australian population’s anxieties and fears around race and immigration are often embodied in asylum-seekers. 

National patriotism is playing a key role in the emergence of historical amnesia and revisionism.

As for Italy, since political unification in 1861, three main features have played a key role in shaping government policies towards cultural diversity, as well as the identity of the Italians as a nation, namely: a history of authoritarian tendencies, a monocultural Catholic national narrative and well-established racist attitudes.

But the lack of an in-depth and cohesive analysis of national history has been detrimental to the acknowledgment of these approaches as a ‘temporal continuum’. The Fascist era, for instance, generally acknowledged as the darkest page in Italian history, is often described as a mere accident in the process of democratic nation-building, while its origins (racism and imperialism under ‘Liberal Italy’) and its legacy within post-war policy-making (the long dominance of the Christian Democracy) are minimized. 

It was not until recently that the crimes committed by the Fascist regime during the Second World War were thoroughly analysed and contested. The growth of national patriotism is now playing a key role in the emergence of a historical amnesia and revisionism, which is harming the health of Italy’s democratic polity, while allowing racism to re-emerge, together with the ‘myth of Italian kindness and moral superiority’. Although in the last few decades the Italian population has become increasingly diverse, immigration still tends to be considered a socio-economic ‘emergency’ rather than a structural phenomenon and a resource.

‘Extraordinary measures’

Aboriginal Australians sit on the ground in front of a wooden structure.

Point McLeay Aboriginal Mission. Denisbin/Flickr. Some rights reserved.The approach recently adopted towards Romani (‘Gypsy’) and Aboriginal peoples is quite emblematic. These two minorities represent a very small proportion of the national population – 0.2 percent and 2.5 per cent respectively – and still experience serious disadvantages due to a long history of discrimination and racism. In order to address this situation, the Australian and Italian governments have decided to enact what they have termed ‘extraordinary measures’. 

In 2007 allegations of the sexual abuse of children in Aboriginal communities in Australia’s Northern Territory were used by the Howard coalition government as a way to implement an extraordinary measure, the ‘Northern Territory Intervention’. In Italy, a number of high-profile crimes such as the violent murder of Giovanna Reggiani in October 2007, allegedly committed by people of Romani ethnicity, were extensively reported, exacerbating aggressive anti-Romani rhetoric. The presence of Romani peoples came to be addressed as a security issue, leading to the ‘Nomad Emergency’. In both cases, the declaration of a ‘state of emergency’ was strategically constructed by describing Romani and Aboriginal communities as ‘national disasters’ requiring special measures.

Eventually, the ‘Intervention’ was ‘presumed to be illegitimate’, as recently stated by the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people and the ‘Nomad Emergency’ ‘unfounded and unsubstantiated’, as reported by Amnesty International in its recent briefing to the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Although the 2007 ‘Northern Territory Intervention’ and the 2008 ‘Nomad Emergency’ developed from very peculiar premises, these authoritarian political orientations were characterised by bipartisan convergence and had similar effects on their beneficiaries. They amplified, in fact, a well-established tendency of disempowering and institutionalizing these peoples within a system of ‘welfare dependency’. 

The National Fascist Party HQ, Rome 1934. Recuerdos de Pandora:Flickr. Some rights reserved.jpg

The National Fascist Party HQ, Rome 1934. Recuerdos de Pandora/Flickr. Some rights reserved.The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, in a recent report, expressed concern for the low level of involvement and representation of Romanies in direct dialogue and consultations with Italian authorities. As a matter of fact, Romani communities are often not voiced or represented directly by themselves but rather through intermediaries. The approach adopted by Italian institutions can be interpreted in terms of ‘inclusive exclusion’ of the Romanies. On the one hand, the government makes significant investment in schooling and employment projects; on the other, it keeps promoting the ‘camps policy’, forced evictions and emergency measures. Public funds are used in this way to promote a ‘fake’ inclusion.

In a very similar way “the political positions and voices of Indigenous critics are framed as illegitimate, complicit or dangerous”, and family violence, child abuse and neglect, alcoholism, are easily represented by the federal government and the media as the result of Indigenous culture or as an inherent failure of Indigenous society itself. This aspect was particularly emphasized during the government intervention, whose implementation also helped to re-establish and justify an old trend of paternalistic control. This point was stressed by Muriel Bamblett of the Secretariat of Aboriginal and Islander Child Care. According to her, “the Intervention takes control away from Indigenous communities. It allows government bureaucrats to force themselves into our boardrooms. It takes over our land. It takes away our ability to have a say on who can come onto our freehold title land. It places bureaucrats in charge of our lives”.

Selective narratives

White persons only..jpg

Segregated beach at Stranofontein near Cape Town, 1985. A Tannenbaum/Flickr. Some rights reserved. Through the use of a selective national narrative, many aspects of Aboriginal and Romani histories have not been officially recognised yet, signalling a trend to ‘whitewash’ the traces of an inconvenient past. The introduction of special policies tends to pathologise their cultures as ungovernable or prone to violence, crime and social collapse. This is a sign of a new form of racism that moves from ‘biology’ to making ‘culture’ the site of pathology and thus the reason for state intervention.

The legacies of ‘White Australia’ and ‘Fascist Italy’ are forging new ethnocentric ‘Australian’ and ‘Italian’ identities. The approaches taken by the Italian and Australian governments towards asylum-seekers, and ‘otherised’ communities in general, can be interpreted as the by-product of the ‘model of ethnic democracy’ theorised by Sammy Smooha. 

According to this theory, the existence of a deeply divided society, where some ethnic groups are viewed as unassimilable, allows the ethnic majority to install a form of democracy with a strong ethnonationalist drive. In Smooha’s words:

If the ethnic majority perceives serious threats and thinks that its control over the state can effectively contain these threats, and wields such control while maintaining democratic procedures and norms to which the majority is committed, ethnic democracy is a rational choice.”

It’s in this context that emergency measures, reinforced by the construction of a threat as ‘moral panic’, signal the ethnic majority’s intention to continue its domination over other groups and the incapacity to break away from an entrenched authoritarian tradition. In contemporary Australia and Italy, the rise of ethno-nationalism and legacies of past colonialism are now contributing to an institutional notion of supposed ‘Australianness’ and ‘Italianness’, clearly based on excluding the ‘Other’. 

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