Human rights overboard

Refugee rights protest, Villawood, Sydney, April 12, 2010.

Australians voted out the Howard Coalition government in 2007. But the Labor government's decision to suspend processing new refugees arriving by boat from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka means John Howard's racist refugee policies have been revived.

The suspension, for at least three months for those from Sri Lanka and six months for those from Afghanistan, is unjustified and inhumane. The refugees are fleeing a well-founded fear of persecution. Under international law, Australia has an obligation to accept refugees. By suspending asylum claims from two specific countries, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has given his renewal of Howard's refugee policies a vicious twist.

The UN Refugee Convention prohibits governments from deciding refugee claims on racial grounds. The Rudd government's new policy explicitly violates this. The government claims the suspension is justified because the situations in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka have stabilised. This claim is beyond cynical. It's no secret that the situation in Afghanistan is getting worse, not better. The brutal US-led war in Afghanistan, which includes Australian soldiers, will continue to force people to flee for safety. Meanwhile, Sri Lanka's government is carrying out a genocide against the Tamil ethnic minority. Well over 100,000 Tamil civilians are still held in government-run concentration camps. Assassination and torture of dissident journalists and political opponents is widespread. The Rudd government has refused to condemn the Sri Lankan government's atrocities and has maintained its ties with the brutal Sri Lankan army. There is no flood of refugees making their way to Australia.

The few thousand asylum seekers who make it to Australia are a tiny number compared to the number of refugees worldwide. Australia is a wealthy country and should take far more refugees than it does now. Human rights advocate Julian Burnside pointed out in the April 9 Age that, on current boat arrival rates, it would take 30 years to fill the Melbourne Cricket Ground. You would not think this to go by the media, particularly the Murdoch media, which has been claiming that the government has "lost control" of Australia's borders. Conflating the issue of refugees with discussion about projected population increases, the impression is created that within a few decades "unauthorised boat arrivals" will have doubled Australia's population! Backed by a hysterical media, opposition leader Tony Abbott has said the recent increase in refugee boat arrivals is due to the Rudd government's abandonment of the most monstrous of Howard's policies — temporary protection visas, the mandatory detention of children and the "Pacific solution". Until now, the Rudd government had responded that "push factors" — war and genocide in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka — were the real reason why refugees were coming here, not the changes in Australia's refugee policy.

Meanwhile, it posed as more humane than the Coalition, even as it maintained the inhumane Christmas Island detention centre and tried to outsource refugee detention to Indonesia. Rudd's new refugee stance capitulates to Abbott's argument and the media hysteria. Both parties will go to the federal election proclaiming "tough" refugee policies. Both will say Australia must ignore its human rights obligations. Both parties will compete to tap into the underlying racist fear of refugees in Australian society. Both will try to outbid one another in a vile competition to cast desperate refugees as a threat, as "queue jumpers", as "illegals".

But there are also many anti-racists horrified by the major parties inhumanity. If the Greens campaign strongly to defend the human rights of refugees, they should win an even higher vote in the election. Rudd went to the 2007 election with a promise of a humane refugee policy. He did so only because the refugee rights movement that emerged in the Howard years had become powerful enough to change politics in Australia. We proved that by getting into the streets and loudly pointing out facts and demanding justice, we can expose the anti-refugee claims for the hysterical and racist lies that they are. Once again, refugee supporters must be prepared to mobilise on the streets to defend refugee rights.

If we don't, then the racist groups, emboldened by the new political climate, will be on the streets instead. For example, the far-right Australian Protectionist Party rallied outside Sydney's Villawood detention centre on April 11. That its crowd was outnumbered by 10 times as many anti-racist protesters is important. But far more, and bigger, protests will be needed. The refugee rights movement must be revived.

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