Last updated July 7: What a difference a month and a change of leadership makes. In late May this year Julia Gillard said that Liberal-National opposition leader Tony Abbott's call for a return to the "Pacific solution" on refugees was just a "slogan not a solution" but now she's PM (with the blessing of mining giants BHP, Rio Tinto and Xstrata), it has once again become a "solution".
In a July 6 speech to the Lowy Institute Gillard announced that her government was pursuing a regional agreement for offshore processing of "unauthorised arrivals".
"I have discussed with President Ramos Horta of East Timor the possibility of establishing a regional processing centre for the purpose of receiving and processing of the irregular entrants to the region," she said.
However, President Horta admitted on ABC Lateline on July 6 that he had not yet told his own PM, Xanana Gusmao, about the plan. Further, leading opposition Fretilin MP Jose Teixeira, a member of East Timor's parliamentary foreign affairs committee, has protested:
"Mr Ramos-Horta is not head of government and doesn't have any constitutional powers over immigration or asylum seekers and we have all been taken aback by his comments," Teixeira told the ABC on July 7.
"There's been no details, but in principle, any form of a processing centre of the type that's been discussed are not acceptable.
"It's an unfair burden to set upon us as an emerging society that has a number of social, economic and other pressures on us, it's unfair to put that additional pressure on us...
"I've spoken to a number of MPs right across the political spectrum and it's a negative proposal all round."
The New Zealand government responded coolly to the proposal insisting it would not increase its refugee quota from its low 750 a year.
While Gillard acknowledged that there were powerful push factors creating asylum seekers and that Australia only took a tiny proportion of the world's refugees, she also repeated the arguments of the hated former Liberal PM John Howard which excused and denied the gross racism of longstanding and bi-partisan scapegoating of refugees by Australian governments.
"It is wrong to label people who have concerns about unauthorised arrivals as rednecks', " Gillard echoed Howard and the notorious racist populist Pauline Hanson.
"Of course, there are racists in every country but expressing a desire for a clear and firm policy to deal with a very difficult problem does not make you a racist."
A number of emergency protests have been organised:
Melbourne Emergency Action for Refugee Rights
Drop the dog-whistle
No return to Howard's Pacific Solution
Wednesday July 7, 8.45am
Treasury Place - Cnr Spring Street, Treasury Place.
Friday July 9, 7-9am
Outside Julia Gillard's breakfast.
Hyatt Hotel, 99 Adelaide Terrace, Perth.
Sydney Emergency Action for Refugee Rights
Drop the dog-whistle
No return to Howard's Pacific Solution
Friday July 9, 12.30pm
Railway Square entrance to Central Station tunnel
(near Immigration Dept, Lee St, Sydney)
Friday July 9, 12.30pm
Outside Department of Immigration and Citizenship
229 Adelaide St, Brisbane
Speakers include: Andrew Bartlett, candidate for The Greens
Green Left Weekly sought comment from a range of progressive activists on Gillard's approach to asylum seekers.
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The Socialist Alliance candidate for Perth, Alex Bainbridge, described PM Gillard's speech as advocating more detention instead of genuine compassion and justice for refugees. He will be protesting outside Julia Gillard's breakfast speech in Perth this Friday morning along with others from the Refugee Rights Action Network.
"The essence of Julia Gillard's policy announced today is to establish an 'East Timor solution' which is a direct continuation of the approach of John Howard and Kevin Rudd," said Bainbridge.
"The real policy we need is one based on compassion and justice - that is resettlement in the Australian community," said Bainbridge.
"The simple fact is that detention is detention - regardless of whether that detention is at Christmas Island or Leonora, East Timor or Nauru."
"People fleeing persecution and hardship need freedom - and that is the one thing that Labor and Liberal governments in Australia are refusing to give them."
"For ordinary people in this country trying to work out which is the best policy to support, one basic principle should guide us: you can't expect justice for yourself unless you support justice for others as well. That means we should welcome refugees."
Mira Wroblewski, a refugee rights advocate, told Green Left:
"What can we say about a government that continues with foreign and climate change policies that will certainly create more refugees - and then abnegates its responsibility to help them?
"The ALP government was elected as a supposedly more humane option to Howard's Coalition. The differences have all but disappeared."
Rachel Evans, a refugee rights activists and Socialist Alliance lead Senate candidate for NSW said:
"Gillard is Howard all over again. Accusing refugees on boats of being 'unauthorised' she is using Howard's "queue jumper" demonisation of asylum seekers tactic.
"Her worries about 'unorderly entrants' replaces Howard's talk of 'illegals'.
"She wants to pay East Timor to lock up and violate the human rights of traumatized refugees. Howard did that with Nauru.
"Refugees are fleeing wars Australia is waging, and dictatorships the Australian government supports. Getting troops out of Afghanistan and boycotting the genocidal Sri Lankan government would be preliminary steps in helping refugees.
"Australia has a minute refugee and humanitarian intake - a piddling 13,750 per year. But we do have 20,000 visa overstayers from Europe and North America every year. Where is the fear campaign against these 'unorderly entrants'? Oh, but that's right. They've arrived by plane and are more often than not white and rich.
"Gillard is playing on the worst aspects of xenophobia, fear and racism to get the ALP reelected. She is playing with refugees lives and this demeans us all. We need to re-enliven the refugee campaign and beat back the ghost of Howard: our current PM. "
Melbourne Refugee Action Coalition activists, Sue Bolton said:
"Gillard's East Timor solution is as cruel as Abbott's Pacific solution. Refugees should be allowed to come to Australia, there should be no offshore processing. Christmas Island has to close. It is especially worrying that Gillard is planning to work with governments that have committed war crimes - Sri Lanka and Afghanistan - to take back the asylum seekers who are fleeing from those governments."
Melbourne refugee rights activists Jake Wishart said that PM Gillard had "announced her intention to return to Howard style policies on refugees".
"It is an outrageous return to the infamous Pacific Solution of John Howard and Phillip Ruddock.
"East Timor is ranked 162 on the UN Human development index and is one of the poorest countries in the world, they have their own problems and should not have Australia's responsibilities to care for refugees dumped on them.
"It is appalling and must stop."
Bruce Knobloch, spokesperson for Sydney Stop the War Coalition, said:
"It is just not credible for Julia Gillard to, on the one hand, sacrifice Australian soldiers in Afghanistan, while on the other hand deny Afghan asylum seekers their right to start a new life in Australia.”
Most Afghans who seek asylum here are from the Hazara minority, who are persecuted by the Taliban and not protected by the Karzai government and Western forces. Professor William Malley of the ANU reiterated his call a few days ago for Hazaras not be sent back to Afghanistan.
“Julia Gillard should know that just last week, 11 Hazaras were murdered in Oruzgan province, where the Australian soldiers are fighting”, Knobloch continued.
“The war is nine years old and it is Afghan civilians who bear the brunt of the Western occupation and resistance to what is seen as a foreign occupation. Hazaras are particularly vulnerable.”
Sixteen Australian soldiers have been killed and nearly 130 injured since late 2001. Unknown numbers of Afghan civilians have been killed in the war.
“Julia Gillard is a hypocrite to deny Afghans asylum while the war grinds on. The Essential Poll showed 61% of Australians want the troops withdrawn now. Afghans want peace. A peace process cannot happen while foreign forces – Americans, Australians, British and other forces – are occupying the country.”
Pip Hinman, a leading anti-war activist and the Socialist Alliance candidate for the NSW seat of Grayndler in the coming federal elections, said:
"It is the height of hypocrisy for the PM to maintain the ban on the processing of asylum seekers from Afghanistan when she knows full well that is not a 'safe' country to return to. Just last week, 11 Hazaras were murdered in Oruzgan province where the Australian soldiers are fighting.
"Just because Tony Abbott wants to reintroduce the disastrous temporary protection visas – enforcing a second class 'citizenship' – doesn’t mean we should accept Gillard's nasty 'second worst' policy on asylum seekers.
"Gillard is not showing leadership: she’s basically adopting Tony Abbott’s “Pacific Solution” policy which, only a couple of months ago as deputy PM, she described as a 'slogan and not a solution'.
"She should respect the wishes of those who fought so hard against Howard's shameful policy and close all detention centres and allow refugee claims to be processed in the community; remove all the island excisions; increase the number of refugees allowed into this country, which can afford to do more for those 42 million forcibly displaced people worldwide.
"If Gillard really was serious about wanting to open up the dialogue and debate, she wouldn’t be pandering to the racists. The praise she’s earned from Pauline Hanson says it all."
Riz Wakil came to Australia as an 18-year-old Hazara refugee from Afghanistan in 1999. He spent nine months in the notorious Curtin Detention Centre.
Wakil says both Labor and Coalition parties are "punishing" refugees just to win votes.
"Refugees have become a political football.
"Our politicians think that by going tough, by acting like cowboys on these desperate and innocent people, they will achieve something and win back more voters."
"People who come to Australia are not a threat to border security in any way. They are contributing to society.
"The situation in Afghanistan hasn't improved for the heavily-guarded soldiers and international troops but they want us to believe the situation in Afghanistan has changed and is improving for ordinary Afghans like myself."
Wakil won a prize of a surfing lesson from opposition leader Abbott in a competition run by the progressive advocacy group GetUp. He made the following TV advertisement appealing for a change in both major parties policy on asylum seekers. Now he is dismayed to see the Gillard government head in a similar direction to the opposition.
Saradha Nathan, a Tamil Australian refugee rights campaigner was relieved that the suspension of processing applications by Sri Lankan asylum seekers has been lifted.
"We note the UNHCR report does state that the situation in Sri Lanka 'does not warrant cessation of refugee status' and are glad that Ms Gillard announced the lifting of the suspension on processing application by Sri Lankan asylum seekers. UNHCR has always required applications to be assessed on individual merit and not blanket decision based on country situation alone.
"The UNHCR report states that some groups are still at risk. Our Department of Foreign Affairs travel advice warns 'Do not travel' to the North or East of Sri Lanka.
"We would like to get details of how much tax payer dollars can be saved in processing refugee applications in a timely manner in Australia rather than outsourcing to East Timor or having a delayed process at Christmas Island."
David Lowe, a founding member of the Townsville branch of Labor for Refugees and now a Socialist Alliance Senate candidate in Queensland said:
"In 2007, ALP candidates made much of the seven vultures that were feeding on the carcass of the Howard government as it flailed around shifting further and further to the right in its drive to populism with business and religious groups and with those who only listen to small sound bites from the mainstream media.
"Those seven vultures of 2007 were denial of climate change; touting of the war in Iraq; WorkChoices; policy failure on education spending; poor vision of infrastructure; destruction of research and development; and refugees with the Pacific Solution.
"We now move on a further three years and we still have seven vultures but they are now feeding on the corpses of the Rudd government and the Gillard government as it lurches further and further to right with the same populism groups and intentions.
"The only difference this time is the make up of the seven vultures has changed to the homes insulation scheme; the permanently postponed energy scheme; the war in Afghanistan; the continuation of the ABCC and WorkChoices Lite; the mining tax debacle; the school construction scheme; and refugees with the East Timor Solution.
"I am sure this is not what government is supposed to be about. Government by hidden bureaucrats, vested interests and exploitative capitalism.
"It's Time. It's Time alright. It's Time for a republic, a democratic republic."
Victoria Martin-Iverson from Refugee Rights Action Network in Perth sent this comment to Green Left:
"How do the policies announced by Gillard even begin to fulfil our obligations? As one of the few convention nations in the region it is our obligation to resettle the desperate peoples fleeing conflict. This is precisely the reason that a government that was capable of showing true leadership and foreward thinking would recognise that instability and human rights abuses in countries such as Sri Lanka and Afghanistan are of considerable import.
"We need a foreign policy that works to increase stability and encourage adherence to human rights standards, not one that serves to increase war and dislocation.
"We need a government prepared to work in concert with the region, with human rights agencies and with UNHCR to aid in resettlement.
"But most importantly we need a government that can work with the Australian people to ensure they appreciate the push factors and can engage with the humanity and desperation of those fleeing persecution.
"We need a government able to promote and advocate for a fair and just refugee policy. Not a government that can sink so low as to increase the suffering of already traumatised people because it is the perceived as the electorally beneficial thing to do. These votes will be gained from immense human suffering.
"Gillard has missed her chance to take a principled stand, to show leadership and decency, by taking a genuinely ethical and honourable stand and abolishing the despicable policy of mandatory detention hat has absolutely no place in a civilised society."
Ian Rintoul, spokesperson for the Refugee Action Coalition said:
“Hundreds of children are in detention. Thousands of asylum seekers remain in detention in Christmas Island, Darwin and Curtin. They are already becoming ‘factories for mental illness’ as the suicide and self harm incidents become weekly if not daily events.
“Even worse perhaps, was Gillard’s attempt to further subvert the already questionable independence of off-shore processing, by declaring that is highly likely that future Sri Lankan and Afghan refugee claims will be
Gillard’s announcement that she would seek to create a regional processing centre in East Timor is another attempt by an Australian Prime Minister to avoid Australia meeting it obligations under the Refugee Convention.
“Gillard’s ‘East Timor solution’ is nothing more than a version of the Pacific Solution. It is the final step that commits Gillard’s Labor government to the full suite of Howard’s anti-refugee policies – mandatory detention, off-shore processing and now the East Timor solution.
“Julia Gillard’s announcement has taken refugee policy backwards, not forward. We are now back to Howard. Rather than raising the level of debate, she resorted to using to the same dog whistle to xenophobia, demonizing refugees by linking border protection and people smuggling to asylum seekers.
“Gillard’s East Timor solution will fail for the same reasons that Howard’s Pacific Solution failed. Third re-settlement countries are not going to accept refugees that are so obviously Australia’s responsibility.
“It is also highly unlikely that East Timor’s government would be willing to adopt Australia’s abusive model of detention.
“While ending the visa freeze on processing Sri Lankan asylum claims is welcome, Gillard, hundreds of Tamils have been waiting for up to a year and longer for answers to their visa claims. And her speech was peppered with threats of deportation.
“Julia Gillard has dished up a proposal that is focussed on the federal election, aimed at competing with Tony Abbott to be ‘tough on asylum seekers’. We are still waiting for an Australian humanitarian solution for
refugees,” said Rintoul.
If you would like to have your comments considered for publication here, please email them to firstname.lastname@example.org. For a fact sheet on refugees and Australia see 2010 Asylum Seeker Myth Buster by the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.