Let them land, let them stay

July 9, 2010
Margarita Windisch.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s July 5 announcement that she would solve the refugee crisis by being tougher on refugees did what former PM John Howard failed to do in his 11 years of conservative rule. She has made former One Nation MP Pauline Hanson feel at home.

Hanson announced she wasn’t emigrating to Britain, as planned, saying she was in “total agreement” with Gillard’s plan to “sweep political correctness from the debate”, the Australian said on July 6.

Gillard’s main proposals cast refugees as a problem to be solved — and blame the refugees for that problem.

She noted that refugees made up a tiny proportion of the people immigrating to Australia, and that refugees coming by boat were a tiny proportion of people in Australia without visas.

However, Gillard’s policy announcements were all very targeted towards making it harder for refugees to come to, and be accepted in, Australia.

She focused on so-called people smuggling, ignoring the fact people forced to flee war and brutal repression will suffer as a result.

The fact that these people are prepared to risk their lives — and that of their children — in such treacherous journeys is an indicator of the horror they are escaping. “Cracking down” on "people smugglers" is a convenient excuse. The real policy is to stop refugees.

Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island has also been flagged as another possible place Australia could dump its refugees.

Like Howard’s infamous “Pacific solution”, Gillard’s policy is based on bullying poor Third World nations so that Australia can neglect its international law obligations.

East Timorese politicians know this and some denounced the plan. On July 7, Radio Australia reported that Timorese opposition Fretilin MP Jose Teixeira said: "We can say in principle that any form of a processing centre as have been discussed are not acceptable to Timor Leste.

"It's an unfair burden to put on us as an emerging society, post-conflict, as a society that has a number of social and economic pressures on it. It's unfair to put that additional pressure on here."

Gillard agreed to restart processing of refugees from Sri Lanka, after a ban was imposed from April 9.

But she noted that this was because a recent United Nations report said conditions in Sri Lanka were improving, indicating the government could decide to send Tamil refugees back.

Sri Lanka is recovering from a devastating civil war. Large numbers of Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority have been placed in segregated prison camps. Journalists who criticise the government face persecution. The Sri Lankan government is ethnically cleansing the Tamil population in the country’s north and east.

Applications will begin to be processed for refugees from Sri Lanka but not Afghanistan, the other country targeted by the freeze. Gillard said in her policy speech to the Lowy Institute on July 6: “I am not immediately ending the suspension of processing of Afghan asylum seekers, but my government will keep that decision under review in the coming weeks and months.”

But the situation in Afghanistan is not any better. The long occupation of Afghanistan has killed tens of thousands of people and done nothing to improve the lives of Afghans.

Gillard is choosing one of these groups over the other solely based on her ability to be seen to reduce the very small intake of refugees in this country, not on the basis of who needs refuge.

She followed this through by claiming that refugees should not be “privileged” over others in our society. This is despite the fact that she knows that a very small number of refugees are only, after their status has been accepted, eligible for a Red Cross Asylum Seeker Assistance Scheme payment, which is 89% of Centrelink Newstart payments.

After two years of residency, refugees are allowed to apply for Newstart, and have the same obligations as all other Australian residents. Refugees are hardly privileged.

Gillard went further in her demonisation of refugees: “I have a message for people in Sri Lanka who might be considering attempting the journey to Australia.

“Do not pay a people smuggler, do not risk your life, only to arrive in Australian waters and find that far, far more likely than not you will be quickly sent home by plane.”

This tough talk escalates a race to the bottom, to see which of the major parties can be tougher on refugees. It demonises them and ignores the reasons why people flee their homeland.

Gillard said her warning was directed to potential Sri Lankan refugees, but it’s unlikely they were watching. It was directed to conservative voters that the Labor Party wants to win from the Liberals. But it’s a race that Labor won’t necessarily win.

Coalition opposition leader Tony Abbott announced more details of its refugee policy on July 5. The Coalition, if elected, will reinstate Temporary Protection Visas. Under TPVs, refugees have huge restrictions on their right to work, must rely on charity for income and are returned to their country of origin after a maximum of three years.

Abbott would give the immigration minister the power to overrule Refugee Review Tribunal findings on who could be accepted as a refugee. He said refugees should be presumed to not be legitimate if they “deliberately” destroy their identity papers.

It is not clear that Gillard’s strategy will even work. Labor has shifted to the right on refugees, but the Coalition will probably win any race to the right on that issue.

The July 7 Sydney Morning Herald interviewed a voter from a marginal seat in western Sydney: “Good on her. I don't want the boats here. Won't change my vote though.”

Both big parties say refugees should have fewer rights. They both target refugees from particular countries, in a way that can only be described as racist. International law makes it clear refugees have a right to enter a country and apply for asylum, without penalties for their method of arrival or whether they have complete “identity papers”.

Refugees deserve our support. Our intake of refugees is very low. Australia accepts only 13,750 humanitarian visas a year. In the 1980s, Australia took 20,000 a year. Australia is a prosperous country, we can afford to take more.

The Socialist Alliance believes Australia should process refugee applications of all those who come to our shores seeking asylum. Refugees should be welcomed and granted the right to live and work in the community while they await the outcome of their applications.

We could lessen the numbers of people arriving by boat by accepting those in limbo in “transit countries” such as Indonesia, where thousands have been recognised as genuine refugees and still spend years languishing as they wait for resettlement.

We call for the government to stop bullying poorer nations into taking Australia’s responsibilities, and for a humanitarian policy that puts the lives of those fleeing oppression ahead of political point-scoring between the big parties.

[Margarita Windisch is the Socialist Alliance’s Victorian Senate candidate for the federal election.]

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