Europe’s Tampa moment

A protest against the Italian government's decision to turn away 600 refugees on a rescue boat Aquarius in Rome on June 11.

The fate of more than 600 people rescued at sea by the Doctors Without Borders rescue ship Aquarius is one more example of the impact of right wing populism on human rights in Europe today.

Italy’s Coast Guard was involved in rescuing these people from three dangerously overcrowded boats as they made their way from Libya to Italy, but its new right wing populist Minister for the Interior refused Aquarius access to any of Italy’s ports. Malta also refused to allow the vessel to dock and Aquarius was left adrift in the Mediterranean for two days before Spain’s new social democratic Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez stepped in to offer a safe port.

We are no strangers to government using migrants and refugees as political footballs. The Aquarius incident reminds us of Australian governments’ (both Coalition and Labor) shameful treatment of refugees. Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini even talks of “stopping the boats” and “preventing deaths at sea” — parroting the lies of Australian Minister for Immigration Peter Dutton and his ilk.

Australia's bipartisan policy now regularly includes boat turn-backs, holding refugees prisoner at sea and indefinite offshore detention.

It reached a critical point nearly 17 years ago, on August 26, 2001, when 433 asylum seekers rescued by a Norwegian vessel, MV Tampa, were on their way to Australia. When the Tampa attempted to enter Australian waters in order to drop off the asylum seekers, it was boarded by the SAS and prevented from doing so. Eventually, 140 refugees were shipped to New Zealand and others were held in offshore detention on Nauru.

For those who thought the Tampa was the low point, since then successive Australian governments have sunk even lower in their cruel, inhumane and punitive treatment of refugees. Look no further than the past few days, when the Australian government refused a dying refugee on Nauru permission to travel to Australia for palliative care. There are also the suicides, other preventable deaths and denials of medical treatment we hear about regularly.

As Green Left Weekly goes to print, thousands of vulnerable asylum seekers living in the Australian community are having their meagre income support withdrawn by the government.

Challenging the racist scapegoating of refugees and migrants can seem an uphill battle at times, especially when governments in Europe and elsewhere are enthusiastically adopting Australia’s policy of cruelty and when the so-called “Labor opposition” at home is in lockstep with the government on the issue.

People power, solidarity and internationalism will win in the end and Green Left intends to keep doing its bit to help build the people-powered movement for refugees and against racism and for a society where justice, equality and rights for all are guiding principles.

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