By Maria Voukelatos
Last week, the United Nations released a report stating that global inequalities in income and living standards had widened to grotesque proportions, with the richest 20% of the world own 86% of the world's gross domestic product. The UN found Australia's richest 20% earn almost 10 times that of its poorest 20%.
"The new rules of globalisation — and the players writing them — focus on integrating global markets, neglecting the needs of people that markets can not meet ... The process is concentrating power and marginalising the poor, both countries and people" , stated the program's assistant director Normand Lauzon.
Australian governments over the last two decades, both Coalition and Labor, have actively pursued such policies. Their justification has been that "economic rationalism", privatisation, cuts to the public sector, forced restrictions on wages and working conditions are necessary to bring collective prosperity and are in the "national interest".
Their emphasis on the importance of the "national interest" has provided fertile ground for the growth of racism; promoting "our" national interest requires getting one over on the "national interests" of other, usually Third World countries. This nationalism was one of the staples in Pauline Hanson's One Nation party's propaganda.
Despite One Nation's decline in the October 1998 federal election, racism in Australia has in no way been contained or lessened. The Howard government continues to find scapegoats to divert attention away from the harsh policies it is inflicting on working people. None have proven an easier target than those immigrants who arrive illegally.
The arrival of boats carrying illegal migrants, from south China and Indonesia in particular, has attracted enormous media coverage in recent months. Last month, the Sydney Morning Herald printed a two-page spread on the type of boats transporting refugees and called on Australians to take it upon themselves to watch out for the "invading hordes". In response, the federal government promised it would tighten up border controls and penalties against the "menace".
What we are seeing is a rising justification for a "Fortress Australia", immigration policies which are racist in intent and implementation, and designed to shield Australia from the poverty and misery suffered by the majority of people in the world.
Behind its mask of protecting "our" prosperity and way of life, Fortress Australia perpetuates the repression of the majority of the world's population in order to prop up the power and profits of Australia's capitalist class.
Shutting this country off from the rest of the world does not help the people in Australia either. Rather, it reinforces the minority ruling class's "divide and rule" strategy, teaching ordinary Australians to hate and fear ordinary people from other countries.
The acceleration of the Fortress Australia ideology by the pro-capitalist Australian government was predictable. Similarly repressive immigration laws and ideological justifications have been implemented in recent years in France, Britain, Germany, the United States and Japan — the major capitalist powers.
Not only the Coalition parties in government, but also the ALP is promoting the ideology of Fortress Australia. Con Sciacca, shadow minister for immigration, has tried to score political points for Labor by accusing the Howard government of cutting spending on coast surveillance too much, thereby allowing "aliens" to penetrate Australia's defence lines.
But who are these illegal immigrants we are being told to fear and hate?
Coming from poor countries such as China, Indonesia, Cambodia and Iraq, these people attempt entry into Australia in the hope of building a decent life for themselves and their families. Many pay exorbitant fees and risk life and limb to travel on rust-bucket ships to Australia.
Rather than opening its doors to these victims of poverty, underdevelopment or political repression, the Australian government labels them "illegal aliens" and accuses them of trying to "bludge" off the Australian people. They are arrested, held in concentration camp-like detention centres in the desert and, eventually, deported.
There are many recent stories attesting to how unjust and oppressive this Fortress Australia approach is:
- The eight-months' pregnant woman who was deported back to China and forced by China's one child per family policy to undergo an abortion;
- The man in his early 20s who applied for unemployment benefits unaware that his family had come here illegally when he was a baby. When government authorities were alerted by his application for the dole, the whole family was deported;
- The Iranian refugee who was deported from Australia and is now in an Iranian jail awaiting execution by stoning; and
- Another Iranian man who was held in solitary confinement at Perth Airport while awaiting deportation.
The criminalisation of immigration is a vicious weapon being employed by First World governments against the people of the Third World. The criminalisation is justified by the claim that "economic refugees", those immigrants seeking better living standards, have no right to enter a rich country because their own country's economic problems are entirely of their own making.
Of course, there is no guarantee of protection for even political refugees. The limited provisions for these "bona fide" refugees, such as the humanitarian category in Australian immigration policy, are less subject than other laws to international law and scrutiny. They are therefore more susceptible to xenophobic and racist manipulation and arbitrary application by capitalist governments.
The persecution of immigrants and refugees by governments of the rich countries is especially grotesque given that the nations these people are attempting to find refuge in are directly responsible for impoverishing the immigrants' home country: France's long colonial rule in north and west Africa, US economic domination and support for political repression in Latin America, Australia's eager participation in the exploitation of the people and resources Asia countries and its support for dictatorships which guarantee that such exploitation can continue.
The case of the East Timorese is particularly galling for those of us in Australia. Australian governments have repeatedly denied East Timorese refugees permanent residence and continually threatened them with deportation to Portugal. Underlying it all is Australian governments' support for the Indonesian military regime which has occupied East Timor and created the East Timorese refugees in the first place.
Like everyone else, refugees, whether political or "economic", have the right to be treated as equals. They have the right to seek refuge from war and poverty in a nation which is relatively stable and prosperous. When they arrive, they should have access to employment, education and health care, basic rights of all people.
The real criminals are not the immigrants and refugees; they are the Australian governments and big businesses that have helped to create the brutal conditions of life for ordinary people in countries such as Indonesia and East Timor. The only just and humane solution to the problems of the Third World that refugees are fleeing is a just and humane global order. This would include implementing a policy of open immigration and dismantling all border controls.
In France, the movement in defence of the sans papiers (immigrants who do not have official entry documents) has grown to mammoth proportions and clearly denounces the French government's anti-immigrant policies. Considering Australian governments' damning record on this issue, we too must take action against Fortress Australia.