A Series of Boats 2j - White Racial Logic of 'Normal Refugee Patter' and the Meaningless 'Noise' of Refugee Distress Calls


White Racial Logic: ‘Normal Refugee Patter’ and the meaningless ‘noise’ of refugee distress calls

People on the Kaniva made sixteen distress calls to Australian authorities over a fifteen hour period, the first at 7:52pm on 19 June and the last at 11:16am on 20 June, some seventeen hours before the boat sank. At the inquest, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s manager for search and rescue operations, Alan Lloyd, described earlier distress calls as ‘normal refugee patter’. Operative in Lloyd’s terming of the refugees’ distress calls as ‘normal refugee patter’ is a form of symbolic violence that would, in turn, lead to the fatal physical violence of shipwreck and drowning. ‘Normal refugee patter’ transmutes the desperate distress calls of the refugees into insignificant chatter. At work here is a white racial logic that recodes the refugees’ urgent linguistic articulations into meaningless ‘noise’  that can be simply disregarded as so much non-sense. Meaningless ‘noise’ is the ‘norm’ of refugee talk. This is the violent logic of whiteness at work: people of colour, even in the most distressing and, as proved to be the fact, fatal of circumstances are rendered into inarticulate subjects who merely vocalise unintelligible ‘noise.’


‘[At the inquest] During one particularly harrowing exchange, I noticed a man sitting alone at the back with his head in his hands. He was a survivor. I wondered, when the video from the surveillance aircraft was played, how he felt to see the tiny damaged ship bobbing low in the water a day before it sank. Or hear the repeated calls for assistance dismissed as “normal refugee patter”?’

Victoria Martin, Waiting for Mayday

Viewed in this racialising light, Lloyd’s summary conclusion — ‘Unfortunately, refugee vessels tend to follow a script’ and thus the vessel was not in distress — is inscribed with its own internal logic: the norm for refugees is to ‘follow a script’ of meaningless ‘patter’; thus there is no maritime emergency, only the usual refugee chatter that can be complacently dismissed and disregarded.

Lloyd, in his final assessment of the situation, proceeded to frame the information provided by passengers as misleading and untrustworthy, thereby reinforcing the narrative that asylum seekers are really malingerers somehow trying to ‘play the system’. What in fact emerges in the context of these coronial inquests is the evidencing of multiple levels of violence: symbolic and physical violences that intersect to produce lethal effects at sea and, after the fact of their death, the perpetuation of regimes of symbolic violence that disrespect and denigrate the refugee dead.

The apparent indifference of authorities to the scale of the suffering and death that transpired on the sinking of the Kaniva was evident to advocates who witnessed the inquest proceedings.


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