History reminds us to protect refugees

A 1938 Daily Mail article attacking refugees

A picture of a 1938 Daily Mail article titled "German Jews pouring into this country”, circulated social media networks last week and drew comparison with Australia's “stop the boats” obsession.

“The number of Jewish aliens entering this country through the 'back door'” was “an outrage” and “a problem to which The Daily Mail has repeatedly pointed,” the article said.

Published the year before Germany invaded Poland and two years before the Holocaust officially began, the article described Britain's intensified border security via port police, mass detention and deportation by the hundreds, and the struggles of Jewish people, essentially refugees, living “illegally” without work or social support in pre-war Britain.

Australia's billion-dollar border control operations, mandatory detention, rising involuntary returns and the enforced “underclass” of asylum seekers who cannot work sit in close proximity to Britain's shockingly consequential policies.

The unnerving brutality of the Daily Mail's rhetorical treatment of a group of people facing escalating genocide is echoed by the Australian media's recent portrayal of Sri Lankan Tamils, Afghan Hazaras and Iranian dissenters, among many other severely persecuted groups.

And despite the harsh and appalling conditions forced on German Jews, they continued to flee Nazi Germany in ever rising numbers – a sure historical lesson that “deterrence” via cruel and hostile treatment not only fails to stop those seeking safer territory from doing so, but worsens their lives considerably.

But it is a lesson that is certainly lost on the two big parties, as they continue to tussle for superior refugee-bashing policies in the lead up to the September federal election.

Newly appointed immigration minister Brendan O'Connor did not delay issuing bragging rights over the 936 asylum seekers Australia has returned to Sri Lanka since August 13 last year.

AAP said on April 4 that 756 of these were “involuntary”, or forced returns, which O'Connor said sent “the most powerful message one can send” to people fleeing a violent and oppressive government regime.

Oblivious to the detention, torture and harassment Tamils suffer when they are returned to Sri Lanka’s capital, he blamed Liberal opposition leader Tony Abbott for the number not being even higher. “We could return more, and deter people getting on these vessels, if Tony Abbott would put the national interest ahead of his own interest.”

This contempt for Tamil refugees is repeated and encouraged by most of the mainstream media.

A March 30 Australian editorial said the recent rise in asylum boats being captured by the Sri Lankan navy, and the passengers arrested, were “encouraging developments”. It said it was a “revelation” that cooperation between Australia and Sri Lanka was “helping to beat the problem”.

The editorial went on to say that temporary protection visas should be restored, and implied that the only means of judicial appeal for refugees in Australia should be abolished – because it eases the path to permanent protection and helps “to entice people-smugglers and their desperate passengers”.

The Australian’s editorial was clearly aimed at harpooning the latest meeting of Asia-Pacific nations at the Bali Process summit on April 2.

The Bali Process is a yearly round of talks that focuses mostly on “tackling people smuggling” and linking it to measures against “transnational crime” and trafficking.

The summit is a vehicle used by Australia to force its regional neighbours to raise law enforcement against people without visas — that is, refugees and asylum seekers. It is about controlling the movement of displaced people before they reach Australia, where their claims for protection would be obligated to be heard.

This year, foreign minister Bob Carr said an anti-terrorism “training centre” based in Indonesia and funded by Australia would “strengthen efforts in the region to address both people-smuggling and trafficking in persons”.

“Providing our policymakers and practitioners with the tools for criminalising people-smuggling and human trafficking is also vital if we are to successfully prosecute these crimes.”

Carr failed to distinguish between asylum seekers seeking passage to Australia and the involuntary trafficking of people — often into exploitative labour or sex slavery — but he also knowingly ignored the true cost that Australia's anti-smuggling operations have had for people with a right to protection under our laws.

Because many “people smuggling” rings operate similarly to organised crime, prosecuting some people smugglers serves to drive others deeper underground, using remote ports and taking riskier journeys in less-seaworthy boats.

To talk of “stopping people smuggling” is to talk of eliminating the only means many persecuted people have of reaching safety. If smuggling Jewish people out of Germany was justified — Kevin Rudd called a man who secreted Jewish Germans to safety, Dietrich Bonheoffer, a hero — then it is justified for oppressed people today.

The media are usually content with tallying boat arrivals at Christmas Island and ignoring the suffering of refugees in detention on Nauru, Manus Island and Australia unless there has been some form of violence or protest.

But occasionally an editorial or opinion piece such as the Australian’s harks so startlingly back to a time when another persecuted group was vilified, demonised and ignored that it reminds us how important it is to fight these unjust laws.

It is a reminder that while most of the mainstream media, Labor and Liberal politicians and a big part of the Australian public stand largely and overwhelmingly against the humane treatment of asylum seekers, the refugee rights movement that fights for freedom for all refugees is on the right side of history.

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