Asylum-seekers need aid and solidarity, not cruelty and detention

Issue 
End the cruelty. Photo: Alex Bainbridge

The global refugee crisis has its roots in the wars waged by global powers for resources and territory. These conflicts have left millions of people displaced and driven hundreds of thousands to seek safety and protection in countries like Australia.

Increasingly, climate change is becoming a second front of the refugee crisis as global food supplies are ravaged and sea level rises threaten the populations of island nations.

Since the early 1990s, the response of successive Australian governments, Labor and Liberal, to this crisis has been to launch security measures aimed at tightening our borders, and to rely on cruel and inhumane “deterrence” measures such as indefinitely detaining asylum seekers and preventing their resettlement in Australia.

Australia ratified the UN Convention on Refugees in 1954 and further ratified the UN Refugee Protocol in 1973. As a signatory country, Australia cannot discriminate against an asylum seeker who arrives without the right papers or between asylum seekers who arrive by boat or plane. Yet successive governments have done just that.

Government policies such as mandatory detention, boat turnbacks, offshore processing, non-resettlement and deportation are illegal and cruel. What's more, governments have repeatedly breached their obligation to not send someone back to possible persecution under the principle of non-refoulement.

When Cambodian refugees began arriving in Australia by boat in 1989, the Paul Keating Labor government quickly moved to detain them. A legal challenge was launched in 1992 to the detention of 15 asylum seekers held for over two years. In response, the Labor government passed laws to entrench indefinite detention.

The Howard government increased the cruelty towards asylum-seekers between 1996 and 2007.

In August 2001, heavily armed SAS squads boarded the Norwegian vessel MV Tampa when it attempted to enter Australian waters after rescuing 433 asylum seekers from drowning in the Indian Ocean. The asylum seekers were denied access to Australian courts and detained on Nauru and Papua New Guinea's Manus Island.

In October 2001, 353 asylum seekers, including 146 children, drowned when their boat sank between Indonesia and Australia.

That same year, the Howard government excised a number of Australia's island territories from its migration zone to avoid its international obligation to accept asylum seekers. Seven years later, in 2013, the Julia Gillard Labor government succeeded where Howard had failed and excised the entire Australian mainland from the migration zone.

The Kevin Rudd-Gillard-Rudd Labor governments also revived Howard's “Pacific Solution” and attempts to force refugees to resettle in poorer countries such as PNG, Nauru and Cambodia.

Millions of dollars have been spent locking up refugees and asylum seekers in onshore and offshore detention prisons. These hellholes hide the human rights' abuses committed against asylum seekers from public view. The government's Border Force laws threaten medical personnel, teachers and security staff with up to two years imprisonment for publicly speaking out about conditions in these prisons.

For 24 years, governments and media have waged a war against refugees that has resulted in a cruel and expensive detention and deterrence regime. This has led to the loss of thousands of lives. Despite the rhetoric about “stopping the boats” or the “success” of the Pacific Solution as a deterrent, asylum seekers continue making the treacherous journey to Australia by boat and drowning at sea.

But there is an alternative. Australia is a wealthy country, and could start to play its part in responding to the global refugee crisis by immediately increasing the annual refugee resettlement quota to at least 40,000 and accepting all asylum seekers, no matter how they travelled to our shores.

The Socialist Alliance campaigns for:

• Policies based on aid and solidarity – not security and deterrence, including an end to the policy of boat turn-backs and deportations to danger;

• The restoration of all Australian territories to the migration zone;

• Legal protection of medical, teaching and security staff to speak out about abuses in detention and for the Border Force laws to be scrapped;

• The abolition of TPVs – refugees need permanent protection;

• The Australian government to honour its international obligations to refugees and asylum-seekers;

• Recognition of climate refugees;

• Closure of all offshore and onshore detention centres and an end to mandatory detention;

• The right of asylum-seekers to live in the community, where they can be supported and provided with full access to medical services, English language programs and assistance with housing, education and employment; and

• An end to ASIO security veto of refugees. These powers condemn people resisting occupation, or caught up in civil wars and conflicts to a life of detention.

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