Bringing the refugee rights message to Canberra

Photo courtesy of Peter Boyle.

A “people's assembly for refugees” met in front of Parliament House on September 28 to call on the government to introduce humane policies and stop using refugees as political footballs.

More than 160 people from Victoria, the ACT and NSW were joined by Greens parliamentarians Sarah Hanson-Young and Adam Bandt, and independent MP Andrew Wilkie.

The rally was called by the Refugee Advocacy Network, a Melbourne-based coalition of refugee activist, advocacy and support groups. It was endorsed by 48 groups from across Australia.

Marie Hapke from the Refugee Action Collective in Victoria, and an organiser of the rally, told Green Left Weekly: “We saw this as a moment in time, with the new parliament.”

“Asylum seekers were a key issue in the campaign for both major parties, who ran the same old line of a punitive approach and not telling the full story.”

The refugee rights movement labelled the August 21 federal election a “race to the bottom”. In a bid to look “tough on border issues”, Prime Minister Julia Gillard promised to set up offshore detention centres and boost funding for “border control”.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott swore he would “stop the boats” by any means, including reintroducing former PM John Howard’s cruel and legally dubious “Pacific solution”.

Throughout the election campaign, visa rejections rose. As a result, more cases of forced deportations to unsafe locations have been reported. This has sparked protests from refugees terrified to be returned to known danger.

Among them was Fijian born Josefa Rauluni who tragically killed himself inside Villawood detention centre on September 20.

Pamela Curr from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, who chaired the rally, asked for a moment’s silence for Rauluni: “Let us remember his life, and his unnecessary death, as we remember that 25 people have died in custody, in detention, since 2001. This mandatory detention business is a deadly business.”

Banners held in front of media and parliament welcomed refugees and called on MPs to “stand up for justice and decency for asylum seekers”. The rally demanded the government end its inhumane policies: mandatory detention, the asylum visa freeze, deportations and offshore processing.

“Most politicians always talk about the refugee issue as if it's a problem”, Hapke said. “It's always a problem, they say, when we know that the number of refugees isn't large, even to the total refugee intake they are relatively small numbers, but it gets blown out of all proportion.

“That's a terrible thing. Those people are the most desperate, in terms of having no other options of getting here or anywhere else.”

However, refugee rights advocates are looking to the new strength of the Greens and independent voices such as Andrew Wilkie to push for refugee rights in parliament.

Bandt and Wilkie were sworn in as members of parliament before joining the rally on the lawns of Parliament House.

Wilkie told the crowd: “This is not a border security issue. This is fundamentally a humanitarian issue.”

“People who come to this country are not illegal immigrants. They are people who are exercising their fundamental human right to flee oppression and violence, and to seek safe haven.

“I call on Prime Minister Gillard to show some backbone, to stop joining in this race to the bottom with Tony Abbott.”

Bandt said his campaign in the seat of Melbourne showed what a humane refugee policy would look like: “We will extend a helping hand, and not a closed fist.”

He received big cheers when he said that mandatory detention must be ended and the “asylum freeze” — that has prevented Afghan refugees from accessing the visa system since April — immediately lifted.

The government did lift the ban two days later. It followed pressure from the Greens, which said the freeze was cruel and arbitrary, but also the Coalition, which said it was responsible for the overcrowding in detention centres.

But immigration minister Chris Bowen said the ban was lifted so more Afghans could be sent back to Afghanistan. Bowen said "the percentage of successful refugee claims is likely to be lower than in the past", despite 2010 being the most violent year to date in the occupied country.

Other speakers included Ian Rintoul from the Refugee Action Coalition in Sydney and Shane Prince from Labor for Refugees — a group of Labor Party members supportive of refugees and a humane, open policy.

Curr told the crowd it was dissenters in the Liberal/National Coalition that helped the refugee rights movement force back Howard’s Pacific solution. She said “it is only our presence, on the streets, publicly in dissent” that would create a similar situation for Labor.

Curr said solidarity with the people presently in Australia’s anti-refugee system, and all those fleeing conflict and persecution, was needed now more than ever.

She called on every person and every group who supported the people’s assembly to prepare for a long fight.

“There is about to be an onslaught on the [Afghan] Hazaras, we know that is coming, as there has been an onslaught on the Tamils. They're being knocked back; their cases are being disputed. So we are going to have to stand firm.”

Hapke said the people’s assembly was just one example of what it would take to turn the tide on the fear and misunderstanding that existed in Australia.

“It's hard to get politicians to take notice if they don't get a sense that people out there actually care about it. We're trying to build the movement and the number of people that are prepared to stand up and say enough is enough”, she told GLW.