Just after becoming prime minister, Julia Gillard told media on June 24 she could understand “the anxiety and indeed fears that Australians have when they see [refugee] boats”. She did not cite evidence for this claim. She said that, as PM, she would explain to the Australian people “what we are doing to manage our borders and what we are doing to manage asylum seeker flows”.
The next day, the ABC reported her remarks as a response to the “major challenge” in the “issue of border protection” in view of “boatloads” of “illegal arrivals”. It also quoted her as saying she would not “lurch to the right”.
On June 21, only days before, the Australian Red Cross released a survey of community attitudes. Out of 1000 respondents, the survey found more than 80% of Australians were sympathetic towards refugees, agreeing they should be able to take refuge in another country and stating they would be willing to help a refugee resettle.
Australia is not being flooded with refugees. According to the United Nations, Australia received a mere 1.6% of the world’s refugees in 2009. ABC Online reported on March 24 that Paul Power from the Refugee Council of Australia said: "If we're being flooded with anything, we're being flooded with political rhetoric from politicians who are trying to use the situation of vulnerable people to score a political point."
On June 29, political scientist Lindy Edwards said Labor was “bleeding” voters who were “polarised” over the refugee issue. She claimed the refugee issue raised strong “symbolic values issues”, but there was not much “practical discussion of the policy reality”.
Edwards said in Fairfax media: “Gillard should reject [Coalition leader Tony] Abbott's test that the challenge is to stop the boats. The goal should be to intercept the boats so that we can sort out the victims, the aspirationals and the criminals.”
Fashid Kheirollapour is a former detainee at the Curtin detention centre in Western Australia, and previously the Christmas Island detention centre. He told a June 26 refugee rights rally in Sydney that, on Christmas Island, someone had asked him what his greatest fear was.
He said his greatest fear was that he would be transferred to Curtin. When he was sent to the remote WA centre, his first experience was of a drunk guard abusing a detainee.
But it wasn’t the brutality of the guards, or the fierce heat, that was hardest to deal with. It wasn’t even the anxiety of waiting to find out about his visa application. "It was the feeling of being forgotten, of no one knowing you were there, feeling that no one cared", he said.
The Labor government plans to reopen Curtin, sending 200-300 single male Afghan and Sri Lankan asylum seekers there. The government has placed a freeze on processing refugee claims from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. It has transferred about 150 refugees to the remote town of Leonora, some 235km north of Kalgoorlie in WA, AAP said on June 27.
At the Sydney rally, Refugee Action Coalition spokesperson Ian Rintoul said conditions were worsening for refugees. “Our humanitarian intake is less than it was under [previous Coalition PM John] Howard”, he said. “There are more kids locked up in detention now than under Howard. And under Howard, refugees could appeal to the Federal Court if their visa applications were rejected. They don’t have that right today.”
Rintoul said that recently 28 Iranians had had their claims rejected. With no independent court to appeal to, the risk of forcible deportation was high. “That means we need to start an anti-deportation campaign now, we need to take action”, he said.
Gillard is right, we should be anxious: it looks like the federal election could be a festival of cruelty as Labor and the Coalition compete on who is “toughest” on border protection — by which they mean cruellest to refugees.