An alternative to Australia's refugee cruelty

March 16, 2018
A refugee rally in Sydney in 2017. Photo Zebedee Parkes

There is a global refugee crisis. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported last year that there are at least 22.5 million people seeking asylum across state borders and tens of millions more have been internally displaced.

The numbers are growing as more people become displaced due to conflict and environmental disasters.

In response, from New York to Berlin to Sydney, leading political parties are building walls, figuratively and literally, instead of coming up with humane solutions.

In the United States, President Donald Trump is pressing ahead with his wall; Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is gaining more power as it ramps up deportations; and the UNHCR resettlement quota has been significantly slashed.

In Europe there are mass deportations of people from Greece to Turkey’s border; volunteers have been charged with people smuggling for rescuing drowning refugees; and there has been huge investment in barbed wire fences, border security personnel and armadas in the Mediterranean Sea.

In Australia the well documented cruelty on Manus Island and Nauru worsens as the government continues to enforce its boat turnback policy.

Worldwide, we need to change the dialogue away from the militaristic rhetoric of border protection towards a humane dialogue that looks for solutions to the refugee crisis.

Bring Them Here

In Australia this starts with Bring Them Here.

Many of the men on Manus Island are saying they no longer want to come to Australia — they just want Australia to let them go. In practice this could mean New Zealand could give safety to some of the men, as has been  offered.

The refugee movement needs to listen to the voices of those on Manus Island. However, to win their demand to be let go, we still need to advocate for Bring Them Here, as that goes to the heart of Australia’s refugee policy.

As long as there is a political advantage to be gained by holding people hostage on Manus Island and Nauru, the government will do it. The government was happy to reject New Zealand’s offer and only let a slow trickle of people gain asylum in the US.

Detaining asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru has never been about stopping boats. Boats continued to arrive after Kevin Rudd’s 2013 policy of no resettlement in Australia. It was boat turnbacks that “stopped” the boats. If the government had wanted to save lives at sea, it would have provided safe pathways for people to seek asylum.

To Bring Them Here would be a first step in changing Australia’s refugee policy from the rhetoric and fear about people seeking asylum on boats, to one of welcoming refugees. This needs to be swiftly followed by abolishing the policy of mandatory detention that was legislated in 1992 under the Paul Keating Labor government.

Repeal the laws

The next step is for Australia to repeal the law that prevents asylum seekers who apply for refugee status in Indonesia from seeking asylum in Australia.

Many refugees living in Indonesia struggle to survive. Many live in detention centres or sleep on the streets with only the rights of second-class citizens. The UNHCR has told them they have a less than 1% chance of ever being given asylum. Many feel they are the “forgotten refugees”. They need support and solidarity from the refugee movement in Australia.

Practical measures Australia can implement include safe pathways, fast processing of claims and migrant hostels with medical support for people to stay in when they first arrive. Australia, as one of the richest countries in the region, needs to help Indonesia fund this, instead of funding detention centres there, as it is currently doing. 

If people can reach Australia safely, they will not embark on dangerous boat voyages. Contrary to the view spouted by politicians and tabloid media, this will not lead to Australia being flooded with people seeking safety. In the past few decades, the highest number of people seeking asylum in Australia by boat was 25–30,000 in one year.

The majority of people seeking asylum come to Australia as a last resort when all other options have failed. Most people do not want to leave their home country and families for a life of uncertainty, and many will stay in neighbouring countries hoping they can return.

End the conflicts

The third step is to stop the wars and conflicts that make people flee their homes and seek asylum. Australia, the US and European countries that lock out refugees are often behind the conflicts people are fleeing — from conducting drone strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, to supporting the multi-billion-dollar arms trade and backing repressive regimes in countries that are rich with resources such as oil and rare metals.

Helping countries adapt to environmental disasters and deal with extreme poverty will go a long way toward dealing with the global refugee crisis. Offering aid, not bombs, would be more beneficial than providing these countries with the means to stop refugees leaving, as Australia has by giving Sri Lanka armed patrol boats.

Another step is to support the rights of migrant and Third World workers. In the US the threat of deportation is used to force undocumented Latino workers to work with fewer rights and less capacity to organise. Similar attacks on workers’ rights exist in Australia, where migrants are given work visas with specific requirements and restrictions — often leading to people working unpaid overtime in unsafe conditions.

Governments and corporations use walls to divide workers to force working conditions down. Supporting migrant and Third World workers is a key step in smashing these walls.

Alternative solutions

There are many other solutions put forward by the UN, NGOs and academics that deal with the complexities of a future where tens of millions of people will be forced to seek asylum.

We can draw inspiration from the fact that in Afrin, currently under attack by Turkey, refugees have been welcomed and given equal rights and access to vital services in the harshest of conditions.

To enact an alternative is a political question — not one of resources. The billions spent each year on border security across the world could fund many of the solutions put forward. It is a question of whether you give someone seeking safety the hand of welcome or put up barbed wire fences.

The beginnings of this alternative can be found on university campuses in the US, where students are offering sanctuary to their fellow students who are at risk of deportation. It can be found in households across Europe, where people are offering food and shelter to Syrian refugees in spite of their government building walls. It can be found in Australia in the rural community of Biloela, where locals are rallying to stop the deportation of their Tamil neighbours.

It can be found in cities and countries across Australia at this year’s Palm Sunday rally. It will be built in the work we do in our communities after the rally to welcome refugees. 

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