Boats

Today I watched a clip of Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott effectively admitting that Australian refugee policy is counter to human rights. His government was the one for the job, Abbott claimed, because any other would ‘quickly succumb to the cries of the human rights lawyers’ and fail to police the border properly – that is to say, to punish refugees sufficiently to provide a supposed deterrent. As Sean Kelly noted in the Monthly Today, which is what directed me to Abbott’s comments, ‘The importance of the PM’s words yesterday was that he finally made clear the line that divides the asylum seeker debate in Australia. The government has decided that on one side lies the ability to stop the boats. On the other side are fundamental protections for all people, as enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.’

Separately, from a different news source, I discovered that Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) will be working with Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) between May and October to assist and treat people attempting to cross the Mediterranean. A joint team will be stationed on board a 40-metre ship to rescue and care for those risking their lives on this journey. The initiative has already faced criticisms that it will only encourage more people to undertake these very perilous journeys – increasing the risk of deaths – and enrich the traffickers who profit from arranging them. (This is also the exact argument that successive Australian governments have used to justify their own inhumane policies.)

But this not the first time that MSF has considered a rescue operation for refugees at sea. The ‘Boat for Vietnam’ of 1978-79 has gone down in MSF mythology as a schism between the innovative and media-savvy founders around Bernard Kouchner and a new generation of aid workers who, notably under the leadership of Claude Malhuret and Rony Brauman, cemented the organisation’s professionalism and prominence. As people fled Vietnam by boat, an appeal published in the French newspaper Le Monde evoked the grave danger facing refugees and the moral obligation to offer them asylum. Their project was for a boat that could rescue refugees directly from the China Sea. In the end, as Kouchner explained in his own account L’Ile de Lumière (1980), the project changed due to diplomatic difficulties and the attitude of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, eventually taking the form of a floating hospital moored at the Malaysian island of Bidong.

Many accounts overstate, or at least misrepresent, the split between different factions within MSF at this time. By the time the hospital boat was operational, Kouchner and like-minded thinkers had already left and the conflation of the boat with MSF’s operations was a source of frustration to those who remained. Yet other members of MSF were not from the outset opposed to the idea of a rescue ship: Malhuret and Brauman had indeed investigated just such a possibility before deeming it impracticable. They were also not opposed to the project’s publicity-seeking approach, though the famous critique from their ally Xavier Emmanuelli entitled ‘A Boat for Saint-Germain des Prés’ did give this impression. More importantly, in the second half of the 1970s, differing conceptions of humanitarian action had begun to divide MSF: the first, with Kouchner as its embodiment, advocated flash interventions and flexibility; the second, associated with Malhuret and Brauman, favoured logistics and organisation. Debates over the Boat for Vietnam brought these tensions to a head.

A rescue boat operation today thus harkens back to a period when MSF was deciding what it stood for. It was a crucial moment of organisational discord. But a return to a rescue operation also continues the strong tradition of protest by MSF and its politically conscious leadership on humanitarian issues.

However, while the MSF movement is willing to take the radical step of being involved in a rescue operation in the Mediterranean, its Australian section has been conspicuously absent from any public condemnation or even debate on refugee policy in that country. As I’ve argued previously, the burden of criticism has largely fallen on lawyers and civil rights groups. Humanitarian organisations, including MSF despite its reputation for ‘speaking out’, have mostly remained silent.

It is not impossible for MSF sections to adopt critical positions regarding their home governments, for instance in France where it has run programmes and campaigns exposing inadequate healthcare for migrants, asylum-seekers and other marginalised groups. But the willingness to take such stands is very much dependent on the culture of each section, including its national context, as well as that of the different operational centres to which sections are attached.

These differences are one of the reasons why MSF is so fascinating to researchers – witness Renée Fox’s ‘quest’ to shine light on its complexities. They are difficult to understand as outsiders but essential to remember when thinking about these issues. How should we interpret MSF’s (or at least MSF Australia’s) ongoing public silence about the suffering of refugees in Nauru and Papua New Guinea in light of its new joint operation with MOAS in the Mediterranean? I’m not sure. But I will take the latter as a cause for hope about the prospects of change in the former.

As for the historical echoes of the rescue boat operation, it’s hard to find much hope in those. Kouchner’s hospital boat treated refugees in Malaysia and its campaigners back in Paris, including Jean-Paul Sartre and Raymond Aron, were granted a meeting with French President Valérie Giscard d’Estaing. But for all its high profile, the campaign only managed to secure from Giscard an offer of asylum to some 5,000 refugees – far short of the 45,000 visas the campaigners had proposed. I suppose one could argue it was not the job of humanitarians and intellectuals to influence government policy on refugees. But at least, in various ways, they tried.

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