Labor needs to change policy on refugees

Protest outside the Kangaroo Point detention hotel. Photo: Alex Bainbridge

I saw a selfie on social media the other day showing a middle-aged woman in her lounge room holding a sign that said, “Is there one sane reason for hand-cuffing refugees being moved between facilities?” The answer would have to be no.

Polls show a majority of Australians are fed up with the waste of money, as well as the needless cruelty, of immigration detention. Taxpayers lost $18 billion on this cruel exercise between 2013 and 2020.

Consider the futility and cruelty of locking up the family from Biloela on Christmas Island for more than 30 months. For more than 1000 days in her young life, five-year-old Kopika hasn't been able to go outside and play with friends, and they are not allowed to visit. Wherever the family go, they are accompanied by multiple guards.

What is the point?

Imagine how much better off we would all be had claims for asylum been assessed in the community, and if people recognised as refugees were allowed to work and pay taxes.

To help us imagine that, look at the beneficial impact on Australia of people who fled by boat from Vietnam. Many settled in Fairfield in Newcastle. In the mid-1970s, the pub was the only place open there after 6pm, but by the late 1970s, the city was blossoming, busy and bustling late into the night.

This latest influx of refugees could have been resettled as easily and for a lot less money.

Instead we have a system of dodgy companies, one with a beach shack on Kangaroo Island as their postal address, dodgy accounting and a shadowy bureaucratic monolith, the Department of so-called Home Affairs, looking after things.

Who does this department serve? Not us. It was keen to suppress video evidence of an alleged assault by Serco guards because revealing it would have a “substantial adverse impact” on the company’s operations.

Australians have a right to be fed up with this sort of thing. It’s rife. Mining interests trump Indigenous rights. Agribusinesses steal water, leaving country towns to die of thirst. It’s an ideology of power without any respect. Like cancer, it ravages its prey.

I’ve criticised the Labor Party’s “me too” on immigration policy. But, it has a chance to differentiate itself and stand up for fairness. Labor for Refugees has written a sensible and humane submission for the party’s upcoming national policy forum. The submission advocates that people seeking protection have the right to have their claims assessed on Australian soil and, following identity checks, to stay in supportive communities.

It aligns well with the #TimeForAHome campaign that launched nationally on December 3. Its goal is to free people from immigration detention.

I urge Labor to adopt the amendments proposed by Labor for Refugees. It would lead to a nationwide sigh of relief because there would no longer be the bipartisanship that has allowed the cruelty to continue, and it would add to the pressure on the Coalition to shut down the off-shore and on-shore detention centres.

Given the global and domestic challenges we face, we need every single resource — from compassion to cash, from cleverness to courage — just to survive as a society.

#TimeForAHome reflects a value common to all cultures. An Irish proverb stated: “It is in the shelter of each other that the people live”. We all have to make a home for each other.

In the immediate future there will be immense waves of people fleeing the devastating effects of climate change. This is not covered by the United Nations Refugee Convention, but Labor for Refugees' new policy provides for them to be given protection.

If governments continue to imprison and torture people fleeing their homes because they have to, then when disaster strikes here it increases the likelihood of us turning on each other rather than showing human solidarity.

[Dr Niko Leka is convenor of Hunter Asylum Seeker Advocacy. A version of this article first appeared in the Newcastle Herald on December 2.]

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