On June 24 about 150 people attended a forum organised by the Refugee Action Collective, Labor for Refugees and the Refugee Advocacy Network on the theme “How can we get Labor to oppose offshore detention?”
Australian Council of Trade Unions president Ged Kearney told the meeting that the ACTU has recently adopted a stronger policy on refugees, based on recognition that “seeking asylum is a human right”.
The policy includes onshore assessment of refugee claims, permanent protection of those found to be refugees, opposition to the policy of turning back boats, and support for the right of asylum seekers to work.
Kearney said that union members are a microcosm of society and have varied views. It is necessary to talk to members and convince them to support the ACTU’s policy. She said it is important for union members to meet refugees and hear their stories.
Aran Mylvaganam, a Tamil refugee from Sri Lanka who is now working as an organiser for the Finance Sector Union, told the meeting of his experiences. His village was bombed by the Sri Lankan air force. Seven bombs fell on or near his school, killing more than 30 children including his brother, cousins and friends. He came to Australia by boat in 1997 and spent three months in detention. After his release he was helped by members of the Dandenong branch of the Labor Party, which he later joined.
But in 2009 he left the party as a result of the Labor government’s support for the Rajapaksa regime in Sri Lanka, which was massacring Tamils, and Labor’s attacks on Tamil refugees coming to Australia. Some Tamils who had been recognised as refugees were detained indefinitely as a result of secret “assessments” by ASIO, which claimed (without explanation) that they were a threat to Australia’s security. In addition, the “enhanced screening process” introduced by the Julia Gillard government has resulted in more than 1800 asylum seekers being sent back to Sri Lanka without a fair assessment of their claims for refugee status.
Pamela Curr from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre expressed outrage at the ALP’s support for federal government legislation aimed at undermining a High Court challenge to the offshore detention regime. She spoke of the horrors of this regime, including gang rapes of women by guards on Nauru.
Damien Kingsbury, professor of international politics at Deakin University and president of the ALP’s Batman federal electorate assembly, spoke of the need to address the problems which cause people to become refugees, through better conflict resolution, increased foreign aid and addressing climate change.
He also advocated a “regional solution” to dealing with the refugee flows that do occur. This would involve governments in the South East Asian region agreeing to have UNHCR processing centres located in their countries, funded by Australia. From these centres refugees would be resettled to countries around the world (including Australia). He said this would reduce the incentive for people to get on boats and come to Australia; but if they nevertheless did so, we should accept them.
In the discussion period, a number of people disagreed with Kingsbury’s call for a “regional solution”. Mylvaganam called instead for an “Australian solution”, including ending mandatory detention, closing detention centres and rescuing refugees at sea.
One audience member put forward a motion saying that the closure of Manus and Nauru detention centres should be delayed until a regional solution was in place. This was rejected by the meeting, and a motion calling for the immediate closure of the Manus and Nauru detention centres was adopted.
Melbourne Refugee Action Collective refugee rally 25 June