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The Doctors 4 Refugees march in Sydney on November 4.
November 12, 2016

Phone calls, emails, social media posts, street protests, visits to MP’s offices and Senate inquiry submissions are building momentum to block the federal government’s latest anti-refugee bill in the Senate.

The proposed legislation seeks to place a lifetime ban on any asylum seeker who comes to Australia by boat from ever setting foot in the country. It includes refugees who are resettled in another country and wish to come on tourist, business or partner visas decades later.

The legislation applies to asylum seekers and refugees who arrived after July 19, 2013 — specifically the people who have been suffering indefinitely in the Nauru and Manus Island detention centres, with the Australian government refusing their requests to be resettled in a UNHCR-registered country.

Court cases continuing around the Manus Island detention centre and growing public protest in Australia are testing the political viability and practicality of the bipartisan policy of offshore detention.

The federal coalition has announced it needs to pass this legislation so it can resettle refugees in a third country. No third country has been announced and immigration minister Peter Dutton is apparently in secret negotiations with several countries.

The governments of Nauru and PNG have both recently appealed for international help at the UN to resettle the refugees.

Many are sceptical that a country willing to take the refugees exists and see this as just another delaying and distracting tactic, while people continue to suffer in detention.

Some rumours point to a refugee swap with the US. How that would go down with Donald “deport all Muslims” Trump is questionable.

As expected, the legislation passed the House of Representatives on November 10. In an acknowledgment of the growing support for refugees, Labor voted against it, as did the Greens’ Adam Bandt, Nick Xenophon Team’s Rebekha Sharkie and independents Andrew Wilkie and Cathy McGowan.

This is the first time Labor has shown any inclination to break away from the bipartisan refugee policy. It should be welcomed by the refugee movement as a sign that the campaign is growing politically.

It contrasts with the 2013 election, when Labor introduced offshore resettlement and reopened the Nauru detention centre to appear tougher on refugees than the Coalition. This led to a race to the bottom, to see which party could be more cruel to refugees, proving beyond any doubt that Labor will willingly send refugees to tortuous conditions if it will win them an election.

Fast-forward to the 2016 federal election. The Labor Party did not engage in anti-refugee rhetoric to the same extent. If anything, it tried to avoid talking about refugees, while still supporting the bi-partisan policy.

At last year’s national conference, Labor voted in favour of boat turnbacks and offshore detention. It has reiterated its support for this position during its opposition to the refugee visa ban bill.

This approach has come in the context of a broadening shift in the refugee rights movement this year, dating from the February “Let them Stay” movement where people from all walks of life took action for refugees.

This shift includes the heckling of Bill Shorten and the Labor contingent at the Sydney Mardi Gras parade; the refusal by medical professionals at the Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital in Brisbane to discharge baby Asha, who was slated to be deported back to Nauru; protests outside more than 50 MPs’ offices around the country in the week after the release of the Nauru Files; the thousands who rallied with Doctors4Refugees; and the exemption given to medical professionals in the Border Force Act

Offshore, ongoing Supreme Court cases in PNG have so far ruled the indefinite detention of asylum seekers and refugees in Manus Island detention centre is unconstitutional. The heroic protest by refugees and asylum seekers in Nauru detention centre continue, now approaching 250 days.

This growing momentum can block the refugee visa ban bill in the Senate.

The government needs eight cross-bench Senators to pass the bill. One Nation’s four Senators will vote for it — Pauline Hanson claimed it a victory that she has pulled the Liberal’s refugee policy further to the right.

It needs another four Senators out of the Nick Xenophon Team’s three, Jacqui Lambie, Derryn Hinch and David Leyonhjelm. Nick Xenophon has given his “team” a conscience vote. It is unclear how they will vote but they present themselves as populist politicians.

Successive governments have used anti-refugee rhetoric to such an extent it has become normalised. But this is starting to change and there is a good chance that a concerted mass campaign could force politicians to vote against the legislation.

A Senate inquiry is accepting submissions and will give a report on November 22. Anyone can send in a submission and it can include personal anecdotes.

Activists are tweeting the Senators using the hashtags #blockthebill and #auspol to try to get it trending, at least enough for the media to pick up on it. Phone calls and emails outlining your opposition to the bill, emotional reactions and personal stories all help to build critical mass. Reports on the ground say the submissions are overwhelmingly opposed to the bill.

There will be protests on November 24 in solidarity with the 250th day of protests on Nauru.

There is still a long way to go, with both major parties still committed to indefinite offshore detention, resettling people in horrendous conditions in Nauru and “turning back the boats”.

The defeat of this bill would be the first sign of a victory for the refugee rights movement and a step towards bringing them here.

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