If elected, Liberal opposition leader Tony Abbott would not only bring back the punitive measures carried out under the previous Howard government's “Pacific Solution” — including temporary protection visas (TPVs) and offshore processing — but introduce extra cruel measures against refugees that arrive in Australia by boat.
Abbott and opposition immigration spokesperson Scott Morrison released the Liberal/National Coalition policy for so-called border protection on May 27.
It contained the re-introduction of many measures abolished by the federal Labor government under pressure from the refugee rights movement.
In a May 27 press conference, Abbott vainly tried to discourage the term “Pacific Solution”. But it was unavoidable: the policy included plans to use the navy to “turn back boats” and “identify alternative offshore processing and detention options … in another country”.
Under Howard, asylum seekers were locked up for years in appalling conditions on island nations such as Nauru and Papua New Guinea, where the Manus Island camp was located.
The Coalition would also revive temporary protection visas, which impose harsh living conditions, prohibit paid work or access to social security payments, and deny family reunion rights.
The Coalition would also force refugees to work for welfare benefits.
It would re-introduce the 45-day rule, under which asylum seekers who do not lodge their claim within 45 days of arriving in Australia are denied the right to work and access Medicare.
The policy also outlined what Kate Gauthier from the Refugee Council of Australia called “forced English lessons and cultural assimilation”.
Similar to the Rudd Labor government’s policy, the document was framed under the auspices of stopping so-called people smugglers.
Morrison, who has described former immigration minister Phillip Ruddock as his “mentor”, said: “The worst news people smugglers could have this year is the election of a Coalition government and that is what these policies entail.”
Abbott said bluntly: “This is about stopping the boats … Stop the boats we must, stop the boats we will.”
Abbott’s policy statement has been widely condemned for proposing measures that ruthlessly deny protection to legitimate asylum seekers just so he can look “tougher” than Rudd, whose government has already implemented harsh anti-refugee policies, for the upcoming federal election.
Even members of the Liberal Party criticised the regression in policy. Former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser cited the racist fearmongering against refugees as among his reasons for quitting the party. Several Liberal MPs expressed outrage and disappointment.
Liberal Senator Judith Troeth called it “harsh and inhumane treatment”. MP Petro Georgiou told ABC Lateline on May 27: “I think it is cruel. The policy further victimises the persecuted … It is time to stop treating refugees as political footballs.”
In carefully scripted remarks, Abbott rebuked the “moderate” Liberals.
“They're a conscientious but small group, I respect their views”, he told Lateline. “But the truth is, we need to stop the boats.”
The exact reason why we need to stop the boats, Abbott could not say. Abbott says the 128 boats and about 6000 refugees intercepted and detained on their way to Australia since Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was elected is a “very serious issue in this country”.
But the United Nations reports there are 15.2 million refugees worldwide and 26 million internally displaced people. On a global scale, Australia’s refugee population is tiny.
However, Abbott has no interest in the fact that refugees desperate enough to board dangerous boats to reach Australia are most in need of immediate protection.
TPVs and mandatory detention have been shown to compound trauma.
Under Howard, close to 9000 refugees were forced to live with TPVs; 4000 for more than three years. Many were issued to Afghan and Iraqi refugees. TPVs have been shown to target refugees who were more likely to have suffered trauma or were forced to leave their home country in haste.
Gauthier told 2SER radio the 45-day rule and TPVs were “a way of laying siege to people”.
“It's starving them out of the country — if you make it so they cannot feed, clothe and house themselves then they are more likely to give up their claim for protection.”
Most refugees reaching Australia by boat are single men who have been funded by their extended family to seek safety.
Denying the right to family reunion means family members (often women and children) are cut off from overseas channels for their refugee claims.
As a result, they must also be forced to go through the same nightmare journey: flee across borders, contract “people smugglers” and board boats to get to Australia to reunite with their family.
Gauthier said: “Temporary protection visas directly led to the very high number of women and children that were on the SIEV X that sank [in 2001], and those women and children drowned.
“There were 363 and about 90% of them I believe had husbands and fathers in Australia who had been granted refugee status or were in the process of being granted protection.”
In a country that is a signatory to the UN convention for refugee rights, and in which 97% of refugees holding TPVs were eventually found to be refugees, the Coalition’s policy can be seen as nothing but a calculated ploy to further their electoral chances by promoting fear fuelled by racism and ignorance.
Abbott is aware of the racist veins to tap in Australia. The Abbott team is trying to set itself up as tougher refugee bashers than the Rudd government.
But the Rudd government’s policies are also both illegal and cruel. One policy of Howard it did not abandon was mandatory detention, which has created significant suffering and distress for refugees on Christmas Island.
Its most recent actions have included singling out Afghan and Tamil refugees to deny their refugee claims, and deporting several back to known and documented danger.
Refugees must be an issue at the coming federal election, but not on Abbott terms, which will see a frenzy of hatred against refugees and migrants.
Instead a strong and broad refugee rights movement must slam Abbott’s opportunistic fearmongering and demand the Rudd government abandon Howard’s inhuman regime altogether.