Fightback needed for refugee rights


The last of the 78 Tamil refugees who had protested for more than four weeks on board the Oceanic Viking walked off the Australian customs ship moored in Indonesia on November 17. For at least a month, they will be locked up in an Indonesian detention centre. They ended their protest after the Australian government promised to resettle them.

But about 250 Tamil refugees who have also fled the genocide in Sri Lanka remain crowded onboard an Indonesian customs ship in the port of Merak.

Like those onboard the Oceanic Viking, the refugees at Merak are fleeing oppression and war, and are seeking safety in a country that is a signatory to the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Australia, Papua New Guinea and Cambodia are the only countries in the region that have signed.

Despite this, the refugees at Merak have been vilified by the Australian media, demonised by the federal opposition as potential Tamil Tiger "terrorists" and refused entry by federal immigration minister Chris Evans.

On November 19, Evans said the Australian government is "not involved in the management of that situation" because the refugees were intercepted in Indonesian waters — even though they were intercepted based on intelligence provided by the Australian government.

The Kevin Rudd Labor government is determined to appease racist elements within this country and the mass media is prepared to help fan the flames of hatred. This means the task of standing up for refugee rights falls to ordinary Australians.

But the question remains — how much can we do?

The answer is that ordinary Australians have fought to end the inhumane treatment of refugees before, and we can do it again.

Under the previous Howard Coalition government, racist anti-refugee hysteria reached fever pitch with the controversial policy turning away refugee boats, introduced in the lead up to the 2001 election.

This blatant display of racism and xenophobia, encapsulated by Howard's slogan of "We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come", gave ammunition to the far right.

Undoubtedly, it helped created the atmosphere that lead to the 2005 race riots in Cronulla, Sydney.

But the anti-refugee hysteria of 2001 also gave rise to a powerful refugee rights movement throughout Australia. In March 2002, more than a thousand protesters gathered at the Woomera detention centre in the South Australian desert.

Woomera had been in the public eye since 2000 when detainees protested against the massive overcrowding and harsh conditions of the facility through mass breakouts, hunger strikes and even by sewing their lips together.

Communication and coordination between activists on the outside and refugees was vital for spreading awareness of the plight of refugees in mandatory detention. Such contact is more difficult now as refugees are now detained at Christmas Island, about 2000 kilometres north-west of Broome.

Many refugee rights activists also became involved in the anti-war movement, signifying the links between the two issues. Collaboration between the two movements was vital in raising awareness and strengthening the campaign. This collaboration can be just as effective today.

A November 2 Essential Report poll of 1122 people found 59% believed most refugees were fleeing from war and persecution. Only 41% said the recent arrivals were due to a weakening of Australia's border protection policy.

However, the refugee rights movement still has a lot of ground to cover in convincing people to reject the fear-mongering about asylum seekers. In the same poll, 66% of respondents said they still supported turning back refugee boats, while only 14% disagreed.

After the 2002 Woomera protests, which resulted in the breakout of about 40 refugees from the facility, public opinion began to shift in favour of a more humane policy of refugee rights.

By 2003, a JOBfutures poll of 1000 people found that 61% thought refugees posed "little or no threat to national security" and 71% thought refugees should be allowed to use government employment services.

And while 54% thought that refugees should return home if it is safe to do so, 55% said they preferred the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees should be responsible for determining whether it was safe to return, rather than the discredited Australian government.

The Woomera detention centre was closed that year and detainees were transferred to the notorious Baxter detention centre, near Port Augusta

But the refugee rights campaign did not begin or end at Woomera. New community groups such as Rural Australians for Refugees, a coalition of campaigners throughout rural Australia, took up the fight.

With the eventual defeat of the Howard government by the ALP in 2007, some of the goals of the refugee rights campaign were finally realised.

Temporary Protection Visas, a three-year visa introduced by Howard that denied refugees permanent protection and caused suffering and distress, were abolished in 2008. The Rudd government also promised to streamline mandatory detention procedures, reducing the time refugees spent in detention.

However, the government's concessions led to a general decline of the organised refugee rights movement. Many grassroots activists and peak bodies were satisfied with Labor's victory and the limited gains of the movement. Many scaled back their campaigning around the issue, instead of continuing to pursue the ultimate goal of ending the inhumane policy of mandatory detention altogether.

The Rudd government's response to the latest hysteria is a reminder that we cannot simply vote out a policy when it has bipartisan support.

After all, it was the Paul Keating Labor government that first introduced mandatory detention of refugees in the early 1990s.

Most of the "victories" delivered by the Rudd government have been taken away. Children are once again in detention, and "people-smugglers" who transport asylum seekers are once again being held up as scapegoats to draw attention away from Australia's humanitarian responsibilities under international law.

Ordinary Australians need to stand up and confront the racism and anti-immigration hysteria dominant in the mainstream politics. And young people are central to this struggle, just as they have been in past struggles against racism and injustice.

Young people were at the forefront of the fight against racism. In the early years of the movement to boycott South African Apartheid, it was high school and university students who first began to take the struggle to the streets.

And young people once again led the way in the movement against the racist One Nation party. In 1998, a wave of high school walkouts against racism increased public sentiment against Pauline Hanson.

Polls consistently suggest young people are more progressive than other age groups on refugee rights.

The November 2 Essential Research poll said 18-24 year olds were more likely than other age group (71%) to recognise that "nearly all refugees are coming from places such as Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, places that have seen an escalation in violence and persecution that have pushed these people to flee their homelands".

The refugee rights movement was successful at placing the humane treatment of refugees in detention in the spotlight.

What is needed right now is a movement which forces governments, Liberal or Labor, to allow refugees to enter Australia, to stop contributing to the "push" factors (such as support for brutal wars in Sri Lanka, Iraq and Afghanistan) and to finally end the illegal and inhumane practices of detaining refugees and shirking our duties under international law.