Laboring over refugee rights



The launch of the revamped Labor Party refugee policy on December
5 has generated a renewed and much-needed debate over the need for a more
compassionate refugee policy.

Marketed by Labor leader Simon Crean and deputy leader Julia Gillard
as a humanitarian alternative to the policy of the Coalition government,
the policy on refugees is grouped with a range of “border protection” measures
under the heading “Protecting Australia and protecting the Australian way”.
It includes proposals for a new coastguard, million-dollar fines for people
smugglers and stationing of more police in Indonesia to smash people-smuggling

The policy includes a US-style green card to crack down on “illegal”
workers, essentially a work visa, something which was lobbied for by the
Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union.

Labor’s new policy pledges to boost aid to refugee-producing countries,
without specifying amounts and to the United Nations High Commission for
Refugees, but only from $21.6 million to $25 million per year. The return
of failed asylum seekers will also be monitored.

The policy summary states: “Labor will maintain the excision of Christmas
Island [from Australian immigration zones] in order to pilot the processing
regime it will advocate should be adopted globally. Christmas Island will
be the prime asylum seeker processing and detention facility.” There is
a proposal for 90% of refugee claims to be processed within 90 days.

Furthermore, “Those with claims of merit, who are ASIO security cleared,
health cleared and who pose no risks will be able to live in hostel-style
accommodation. Christmas Island will have a supervised hostel. Any other
supervised hostels required will only be located in regional communities
that bid to have one.”

The Refugee Council of Australia has welcomed the new policy. In a press
release, president David Bitel said: “At last we have seen a break away
from the bipartisan approach to refugee policy that has stultified creative
thinking”. He did, however, point out that the changes didn’t go far enough.

Director of A Just Australia, Howard Glenn, enthusiastically welcomed
the changes as a big shift in policy, and an indication that “Labor is
now going to make this an issue on which they fight the government that
breaks the bipartisanship for bad policy”.

Most refugee-rights groups have criticised the new policy as a continuation
of bipartisan refugee policy.

The Queensland conveners of Labor for Refugees, a group formed following
the last federal election to campaign for the party to adopt a more humane
policy on refugees, have criticised it as a missed opportunity which “fails
the test of compassion”, and “a policy fundamentally at odds with the views
of rank and file members”.

John Robertson and Nick Martin, the two Labor for Refugees representatives
on the short-lived ALP refugee policy working party said “in particular
the use of punitive language such as 'mandatory detention’, the continuing
excision of Christmas Island and the maintenance of temporary protection
visas” falls well short of the principles endorsed by state ALP conferences.

ALP parliamentarian Carmen Lawrence, who quit the front bench over the
policy, said that the opposition had become a pale imitation of the government.

Greens Senator Bob Brown said the policy would still leave asylum seekers
locked up as if they were criminals, with Christmas Island an effective
prison camp.

In a statement put out by the Canberra Refugee Action Committee, Phil
Griffiths remarked that while Labor was marketing its new refugee policy
as humanitarian, it was nothing of the sort. “It is paranoid, repressive
and unfair.” At a December 3 rally organised by RAC, Griffiths said: “The
new ALP policy bears out all the fears held by the refugees’ rights movement.
It includes mandatory detention, a fixation on border protection and a
Christmas Island solution to replace the Pacific solution. The ALP is being

The RAC statement notes that, “Under Labor, there would be no freedom
for the 2500-plus asylum seekers still detained by Australia, including
those on Nauru and Manus Island, many of whom cannot be returned to Iraq
or Iran, but who rot in never-ending detention”.

The border protection rhetoric that much of the policy has been built
around, and the reinforcement of Prime Minister John Howard's paranoid
racism, have been particularly condemned. “Labor admits that there are
virtually no security checks done on the five million people who legally
enter Australia each year on tourist visas, and yet refugees are still
vilified as a possible threat. Labor admits that as an island nation, “Australia
has been comparatively protected”, Griffiths continues, “yet it is planning
to set up a massive new coastguard, complete with volunteers, to make sure
boats are turned around.”

A December 5 Labor for Refugees media release stated: “This policy,
at best, only goes a small way towards meeting the expectations of the
rank and file, and will ensure that the grassroots struggle for a compassionate
policy continues.”

Sydney Morning Herald journalist Margot Kingston commented on
December 3: “Having sold its soul to win, and then losing anyway, refugee
policy is central to whether the growing momentum for a permanent split
in the Labor Party can be reversed ... Will the remaining progressive members
of the ALP stay, or join former members in defecting to the Greens?”

RAC activist Kerryn Williams told Green Left Weekly: “While at
face value the new refugee policy seems to indicate that the refugee-rights
movement and Labor for Refugees have had a minimal impact, the deep-going
crisis within the ALP is a reflection of the very real impact that the
movement has had over the past few years. I don’t think that change will
happen in one step. It will take patient and persistent campaigning

“Let’s hope Labor for Refugees members refuse to be bought off with
this pathetic policy, and maintain, along with all refugees’ rights supporters,
the fight for a genuinely humane Australian policy.”

From Green Left Weekly, December 11, 2002.

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