Three acts of government villainy within a week show just how far the government's vicious drive against undocumented refugee arrivals has gone — and how much we must do to stop the government in its tracks.
First, on February 11, NSW police, under orders from federal immigration minister Philip Ruddock, raided restaurants in Sydney's Chinatown and arrested 20 people suspected of entering Australia illegally.
The arrests are part of a crackdown against undocumented workers which has included 3500 police raids and 3574 people being sent to detention camps since October. Ruddock has vowed to find and detain all those who break Australia's immigration laws.
Second, on February 13, the immigration minister reacted favourably to a proposal by the Deciduous Fruit Growers of South Australia that asylum seekers locked up in detention camps be put to work picking fruit. Ruddock said such a scheme should not be dismissed "out of hand".
Ruddock added that if the scheme was introduced, farmers would have to pay award wages but that these could be taken by the government to pay for the costs of detaining, and eventually deporting, asylum seekers. The amount that remained "would not be a significant incentive" for others to come to Australia, he said.
Third, on February 14, Ruddock's spokesperson announced that the minister had suspended the offshore component of Australia's refugee program, claiming that 6000 onshore applications have swamped it. One of his advisers even threatened that, if onshore applications did not cease, the offshore program may be scrapped entirely.
The government allocates a quota of 12,000 refugee visas each year — 2000 are set aside for applicants already in Australia (mainly those the government labels "illegals") and 10,000 for those who apply in other countries.
In July 1996, it "linked" the two categories, meaning that successful applications "over quota" in one would reduce the places available in the other. This was condemned by refugee advocates as a device to allow the government to label onshore asylum seekers as "queue jumpers" who reduce the chances of others overseas gaining refugee status.
Even within the confines of the government's unjust policy, there is no reason for the offshore quota to be suspended or reduced. The government had already promised that, before cutting into the offshore quota, it would allocate to onshore applicants the 640 refugee visas not allocated in 1998-99 and the 1700 refugee visas that were granted but the holders of did not arrive.
To their great shame, none of these three measures have inspired much reply from the "opposition" parties in parliament. Labor has fully supported the government's anti-refugee crusade to date.
On February 11, when asked his opinion on the hunger strike by asylum seekers at Curtin air base in WA, Labor leader Kim Beazley would not criticise even the conditions under which the asylum seekers were kept. "Not a major problem", was his opinion.
The Australian Democrats have criticised the "ongoing vilification of refugees", but they accept the basic thrust of the government's policy: that Australia needs to protect its borders against "illegals'. The Democrats voted for the government's draconian Border Protection Act in November. Many trade unions have adopted a similar position.
There is a clear purpose in the government's actions: to further the criminalisation and victimisation of those who are in the country without the proper pieces of paper.
The government has orchestrated the stories and the images presented to the Australian people: undocumented workers are criminals and need to be arrested; "illegally" arrived asylum seekers are "bludging" off the taxpayer and should be put to work to pay for the costs of their detention; and onshore refugees are "queue jumpers" ruining things for those waiting patiently in crowded refugee camps overseas.
Such propaganda is meant to distract working people's attention from the real problems. For the Coalition, languishing in the polls, such a distraction is desperately needed.
Victimising undocumented refugees helps break down the basic bonds of working-class solidarity. There is no more defenceless section of the working class than those who have "broken the law" to get here. They have few legal rights and can be readily exploited because they are fearful of arrest, detention and deportation.
If the government can get away with picking off the most vulnerable workers, then it can and will use similar tactics against stronger groups of workers with similar impunity.
We must raise our voices against the government's anti-refugee crusade and demand that our trade unions, student organisations and community groups oppose it. We must protest against the immigration minister wherever he goes and again raise the slogan: "An injury to one is an injury to all".