Guest post by Dr Sara Dehm and Dr Anthea Vogl. Sara is a Lecturer in international law at the University of Technology Sydney. Her current research examines the jurisdictions, operations and effects of international institutions in promoting and regulating migrant workers in the post-WWI period. Anthea is a Lecturer in refugee and migration law at the University of Technology Sydney. Her research focuses on racialised practices of border control, with a particular focus on the use of administrative powers and decision-making to exclude refugees and non-citizens. They are both national co-convenors of the Australian-based research and advocacy network, Academics for Refugees.

In September 2018, the journal International Migration published an interview with the Australian Home Affairs Minister, Peter Dutton. The interview was conducted by an interviewer identified only as IM (International Migration) and was published alongside an image of Minister Dutton’s official, smiling ‘press shot’. The interview was one of three policy interviews that have been intermittently published by the Journal. On their face, these interviews aim to engage with government officials or policy-makers in order to unpack how states and intergovernmental authorities frame and regulate migration. Such an endeavour could in principle be productive, and reflects a general trend of diversifying the forms of writing published in scholarly journals. In this case, however, the published interview with Minister Dutton provided both the Australian Government and Dutton himself with an uncritical and open platform for rationalising their harmful policies and practices towards refugees and asylum seekers. This was particularly so as the interview does not mention the systemic violence and human rights violations that have been inflicted on refugees and migrants under Minister Dutton’s authority and direction. At its most basic, the interview failed to hold the Minister to critical scholarly scrutiny. At times the interviewer accepted some of the Minister’s misleading assertions as fact; in other parts of the published interview, the ‘success’ of Australia’s immigration program is explored, without taking into consideration the human effects of existing law and policy.

Artwork by Mahmoud Salameh, a Palestinian-Australian cartoonist, animation filmmaker and graphic artist based in Sydney. Mahmoud has years of international experience working as a professional artist in Syria, Lebanon and Australia as well as working for well-known Arabic newspapers and magazines such as Al Safir and Al Adaab. Mahmoud is a Palestinian refugee from Syria who was in Australian detention centres for 17 months.

https://eatenfish.com/2016/07/22/mahmoud-salameh/

As scholars of international migration, we believe that it is our responsibility to think critically about the relationship between academia and government, and to promote ethical conduct in academic research and publications. We also believe it is important to publicly challenge and hold to account scholarly endeavours and platforms that promote or rationalise practices that are harmful. In response to the published interview in International Migration and the platform it provided for the uncritical promotion of the Australian Government’s policies, we drafted an Open Letter (available here). The Open Letter was addressed to both International Migration’s Editor-in-Chief and Editorial Board as well as the Director General of the International Organisation of Migration, as the organisation that has historically published the Journal and continues to actively sponsor its publication. 

The Open Letter was circulated in Australia and internationally. Researchers who saw themselves as scholars of migration (broadly defined) were invited to sign. 135 academics, researchers or research organisations signed the letter, including a past Editor-in-Chief of the Journal, a current editorial board member, as well as numerous past authors and peer reviewers of the Journal.  The letter outlined our arguments, summarised briefly below, against the Journal’s publication of the interview. 

First, subjecting refugees and asylum seekers to mandatory and indefinite detention to achieve political outcomes should not be treated as a ‘legitimate goal’ of government. In the published interview with Minister Dutton, the interviewer explicitly invites the Minister to explain ‘what the government has been trying to achieve with the offshore detention of boat arrivals and why it was that the government chose specifically offshore detention to achieve these goals’. In doing so, the interviewer appears to uncritically accept the logic and practices of the Australian Government’s policy of deterrence, which maintains that certain refugees and asylum seekers should be subject to indefinite and arbitrary detention in order to ‘protect borders’ and prevent unauthorised migration. This policy and logic of deterrence seeks to justify the prolonged suffering of the refugees and asylum seekers imprisoned under Australia’s regime of extraterritorial processing as a political strategy to deter others from travelling to Australia by boat and to ‘saves lives at sea’. Under this policy, 12 individuals have died on Manus Island and Nauru, and children as young as ten years of age have been diagnosed with life-threatening mental and physical symptoms arising from their incarceration and the conditions of detention. At the close of 2018, the Australian Government continued to defend this regime whilst dismissing both the unlawfulness of their practices under international law and prominent expert medical opinions calling for the urgent transfer of critically ill people from Nauru and Manus Island to Australia.

The published interview makes no mention of the overwhelming evidence of the dangers and critiques of deterrence policies, or of the now up to 74 inquiries or reports documenting the isolation, overcrowding, sexual abuse, suicide and mental illness endemic to detention centres both in Australia and those funded and run by Australia in the region. The Australian immigration program cannot and should not be considered in isolation from these measures toward refugees and asylum seekers, and the effects that they have on the thousands of people who have been indefinitely detained, or still left in political limbo on Manus Island and Nauru or on temporary visas in Australia.

The interviewer notes that ‘Australia’s approach has been subject to perhaps more scrutiny than others.’ This seemingly neutral comment severely understates the nature and extent of the international condemnation of Australia’s policies. Alongside refugee and asylum seeker policies overseen by Minister Dutton, he has been part of a Government that has articulated a racist, anti-immigration politics, and criminalised migrant communities as a political strategy.

In our view, scholarly journals such as International Migration must be spaces of critical engagement with government policy and rhetoric, rather than a platform for governments to explicate and justify their particular political agenda. The editorial decision to devote space to Ministerial rhetoric without critical engagement undermines this scholarly mission. At the very least, the Journal might have considered including a response or a range of responses to Dutton’s interview in the same issue, or conducted an interview that held the Minister to account for the serious human rights abuses that have occurred under his portfolio and have been extensively documented by refugees affected by these policies (see for example here and here), NGOs (see here and here) and international migration scholars, including in International Migration (see here and here).

We are still awaiting a response to the Open Letter from the Journal’s current Editor-in-Chief and from members of the editorial board. However, a response from António Vitorino, the Director General of the IOM, which provides financial assistance to the journal, can be found here. This response states that, although the IOM does not have any role in the Journal’s editorial decisions, the IOM has suggested that the Journal’s decision to publish policy interviews be reviewed to ensure that publication is ‘in line with the expectations and standards relevant to the scientific community’. In the context of the IOM’s connection to the Journal, it is worth recalling that the IOM was contracted by the Australian Government to assist in administering Australia’s offshore processing policy in its first period (2001-2007).

Scholarly journals are key sites for the production of knowledge and for legitimating disciplinary standards and academic conduct. Yet they must also be sites of political debate about the ethics of scholarly practice and responsive to developments in their disciplines. For example, the International Association for the Study of Forced Migration (IASFM) has recently adopted a Code of Ethics that commits researchers to ‘work towards ensuring our research improves people’s situations where possible’ and to ‘proactive, thoughtful engagement and continuous critical reflection’ in scholarly activities. It is our hope that the Open Letter, in demanding accountability from scholarly platforms that attempt to normalise the Australian government’s legislated cruelty and human rights abuse towards asylum seekers and refugees, contributes in a small way towards both the dismantling of such policies as well as broader debates around the ethics of academic research and publishing.

Update: The Editor of International Migration’s reply to the Open Letter is now available here.  

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Dehm, A and Vogl, A. (2019) The Ethics of Academic Publishing and International Migration’s ‘Policy Interview’ with Australia’s Minister for Home Affairs. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2019/02/ethics-academic (Accessed [date])