Refugee crisis, activism and alternatives

June 3, 2016

In May 1939 the St Louis, carried 935 Jews seeking asylum from Nazi Germany. Many countries refused to let them in, including the US, which used coast guard ships to stop the St Louis from docking. Eventually they were forced to return to Europe, and most of the passengers died in the Holocaust they were fleeing.

After World War II, the experience of rejection of Jewish asylum seekers and the millions of people displaced across Europe led to the creation of the UN Refugee Convention in 1951. It said that any person fleeing persecution could come to a signatory country and seek protection. About 145 countries have signed the convention, including Australia.

Since then, numerous countries in Europe have taken in refugees from many countries. An early example was in 1956, when 200,000 people fled from Hungary to Austria, which managed to resettle them within months.

Australia is often lauded for accepting Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s and '80s, one of its first major acts as a signatory to the convention.

Refugee crisis

The UNHCR's World at War report said in 2014 there were 19.5 million refugees and close to 60 million people displaced by conflict. The vast majority of refugees are living in refugee camps in countries such as Lebanon, which has 1.2 million refugees in a population of 4.4 million. Some refugees have been living in camps for three generations.

The pointy end of the refugee crisis is Syria, where 4.8 million people have fled in recent years. Most have gone to Turkey and about 10% have reached Europe.

Climate change will force about 150 million people to leave their homes by 2050, according to an Environmental Justice Foundation report. While there is no official category in the Refugee Convention for climate refugees, when islands are sinking, people will need to go somewhere.

In response to growing numbers of refugees and displaced people, rich countries such as the US, Australia, Britain, Germany and France are spending billions on keeping asylum seekers out. In Europe this includes building walls, like those in construction in France, Greece and Bulgaria. Hungary is building a 170 kilometre wall along its southern border.

Those who get to Europe are forced to live in overcrowded refugee camps in horrid conditions. The camp at Idomeni on the Greek and Macedonian border, which was built for 2500 refugees now houses 12,000, who endure freezing and wet conditions in flimsy tents without access to adequate fresh water, food or sanitation.

The EU recently signed a deal with Turkey that progressive groups across Europe are calling the “pact of shame”. The agreement means refugees who have arrived in Greece can be deported to Turkey and gives Turkey control over who can enter Europe. The UNHCR has condemned the agreement.

Australian inspiration

The actions of European governments have been inspired by Australia's detention system. Designed to deter the supposed “flood of refugees” coming to Australia by boat (that reached a high of 26,000 in 2012–13,compared to the 252,000 refugees who arrived in Ethiopia alone in 2014), it has been widely condemned for human rights abuses.

Offshore detention centres and resettlement programs on Nauru and Manus Island have led to children being sexually harassed and abused — at least one assault of a child is reported every 13 days. Women are sexually assaulted, but police refuse to take effective action and no one has yet been successfully prosecuted.

Guards beat up refugees — in one case leading to an asylum seeker being murdered — but most of the guards involved have never faced court.

Forced to live in overcrowded, mouldy tents in hot, disease-ridden, unsanitary conditions, asylum seekers have suffered numerous illnesses and inadequate medical attention that has led to deaths. Meanwhile, the Australian government has legislated to prevent medical professionals and other service providers from speaking out about these abuses.

The government has, in effect, created conditions that are worse than those asylum seekers are fleeing. Many have endured these conditions for more than 1000 days.

Recently there has been a spate of suicides and suicide attempts, including self-immolation. In Nauru detention centre there is graffiti comparing the detention centre to Nazi Germany's concentration camps.

While governments across the world are intent on acting in the interests of the rich and powerful, there is a growing people's movement for refugee rights.

Protests in Australia are being led from inside the detention centres. Daily protests in the Nauru detention centre have been held for nearly 100 days. One protest banner reads: “Don't stop the boats by killing us offshore”.

Protests are also continuing on Manus Island, where the Australian government continues to disregard a PNG Supreme Court order to close the centre. Protesters there held a banner that reads: “Free the political prisoners of Australia”.

People's response

There is a growing refugee rights movement in Australia. Activists travel for days through the desert to protest outside detention centres and make connections with asylum seekers. Others organise boycotts of corporations that profit from the detention industry.

On February 3, the government won a High Court case, allowing it to deport 267 asylum seekers to Nauru. Teachers, nurses, musicians, Aboriginal people, church groups, mothers, unions, sporting teams, high school students, artists and many more protested in their workplaces, politicians' offices and on the streets to say “let them stay”.

The protest culminated in the community vigil at the Lady Cilento Children's Hospital in Brisbane, where medical staff refused to discharge baby Asha to immigration officials if she was to be sent to Nauru. So far none of the 267 asylum seekers have been returned to Nauru.

On June 2, Mothers for Refugees occupied Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's office in Sydney, while activists in Melbourne blockaded a Wilson Carpark — Wilson has the security contract for detention centres in Nauru and Manus Island.

In the face of far-right parties whipping up xenophobia towards asylum seekers and governments spending billions barricading their borders, citizens across Europe are welcoming refugees.

Earlier this year, 16 volunteer networks in the Greek Islands who have being diving into the water to rescue refugees and giving them food and shelter when they landed were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Small towns have filled trucks with donated supplies, fishers have rescued refugee boats, volunteer organisations are offering shelter, running kitchens and developing software to assist with locating and rescuing boats.

People across Europe are also standing up to their governments' refugee policies. In March thousands came out to protests in major cities across Europe and in refugee camps. A banner in the Idomeni camp read: “We are slowly dying here”.

There is a sharp divide between the economic elite — who are preparing for a growing refugee crisis made worse by war and climate change by pulling up the drawbridges on their armed fortresses — and people across the world who are willing to welcome refugees.


Is there an alternative to locking up refugees who have been forced to leave their homes because of conflict or environmental changes?

Approaching the refugee crisis in terms of quotas is problematic because it creates a system where some claims are prioritised and others are excluded. It runs the risk of prioritising claims based on economic expediency, ethnicity or country of origin.

An approach that takes into account why people flee and accepts that everyone needs safety is required.

To start, countries could stop creating the situations that make people flee. For example, many of the countries closing their doors to refugees are participating in the air strikes in Syria that make people flee.

We could end support for governments that persecute people, such as Australia's political and financial backing of the regime in Sri Lanka.

We could take serious action on climate change — in their drive for profits from fossil fuels, imperialist powers are in effect destroying the lives of people in poor countries that contribute least to climate change and lack the resources to cope with change.

We could provide safe pathways for people seeking asylum, instead of forcing them to get on leaky boats. This is what will stop the deaths at sea, not “deterrence” policies.

We could end all forms of detaining refugees. A number of alternatives, put forward by different political parties, such as closing offshore detention centres, putting people in community detention and imposing time limits on detention, are still continuing the detention system.

Offshore detention centres are horrible, but so are onshore detention centres. Before Nauru and Manus Island, refugees languished in remote detention centres in the desert. Suicide attempts in these detention centres are not uncommon.

Community and alternative forms of detention often involve people living in constant fear of deportation, without citizenship or the right to work.

The Greens have proposed 30-day limits on detention while refugee claims are processed. But why should asylum seekers be locked up when tourists, people who come for work, study or many other reasons do not have to?

Refugees should be housed in the community while their claims are processed and given full citizenship rights including access to health, education, welfare and workers' rights.

The chant: “Open the borders, close the camps; free the refugees” encapsulates the alternative.

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