The refugee debate: us and them

July 9, 2010
Anti-racism rally, December 2005. Photo: pigeonpoo/Flickr

Last week was another ugly political week in Australia. There was much to be disgusted about, but one line disgusted me particularly.

It was from an apologist for the Julia Gillard Labor government who dared to offer this whispered excuse for the PM's shameless embrace of racist scapegoating of desperate asylum seekers:

“Julia Gillard is pretending to be conservative so that [Coalition leader Tony] Abbott can't use this issue to win the elections. Once Labor wins, they will implement a different policy.

“It's clever politics.”

Clever politics? More like desperate rationalisation.

First, politicians who treat the public like idiots will never win respect. And talking from two sides of your mouth will always prove fatal; it is not clever.

Second, every shift to the right by Labor leads to the Coalition moving even further to the right. This is happening before our eyes with refugee policy.

Gillard is pandering to — instead of standing up against — the existing racist and xenophobic prejudices in the community. And they are not just in Sydney's Western suburbs, Queensland and Western Australia — those are just the most marginal seats. Racism is alive and well in many safe Liberal and National seats.

But the reason why the Labor Party will not stand up against racism is that it involves a frank and honest discussion about interests, in particular class interests, in this society.

It won't be enough to defeat racist ideas in predominantly working-class electorates by explaining that the number of asylum seekers Australia has to deal with is miniscule compared with many other countries. It is an important and powerful argument, but it is not enough.

The challenge is to encourage solidarity with people fleeing war, persecution, environmental destruction and poverty.

The basic instinct for solidarity is very strong in most people.
Most Australians are sympathetic towards the plight of refugees; eight out of 10 people would help a refugee to settle into their community, according to the results of an Australian Red Cross survey released on June 21 found.

This survey of 1000 people across Australia found:

• 86% of people would flee to a safe country if they lived in a conflict zone and were under threat;

• 94% of these people would use all their money and assets to get to a safe country;

• 31% know of someone who has come to Australia escaping persecution or conflict in another country;

• 83% agree that people fleeing persecution should be able to seek protection in another country;

• 83% are willing to assist a refugee in their community settle in Australia; and

• 67% agree that refugees have made a positive contribution to Australian society.

Right-wing critics of this poll were quick to point out that these results reflected the way the questions were framed. Of course. You get responses based on solidarity if you explain the reasons people flee their homes and ask respondents to put themselves in their shoes.

But this is exactly what the capitalist media and the capitalist politicians (Labor included) never do.

They refuse to tell the story of why there are at least 43.3 million refugees and displaced people worldwide. Why? Because it involves them and the powerful interests they serve and protect.

War is the single biggest cause of refugees, and these politicians are responsible for starting and continuing two of the biggest wars creating refugees — Afghanistan and Iraq.

Sri Lanka, another source of recent asylum seekers coming to Australia, is also where a bloody genocide against the Tamil national minority has been carried out with the support of the Australian government.

Our government — under Liberal and Labor — has helped create the huge flight that expresses itself in a tiny way in the form of asylum seekers in Australia.

And why are our governments waging these wars? To serve the economic interests of the giant corporations that are robbing the planet and most of its inhabitants blind.

So, yes. You do get a different answer when you frame your questions with the truth. And yes, this truth does reveal that there is an “us” and a “them”. But the divide isn't race, nationality, creed or culture: it’s class.

The truth is that a worker (of whatever national or religious background) out there in the much-referred-to suburbs of Western Sydney, Queensland or WA, has much more in common with the desperate refugees fleeing war, persecution and economic insecurity than they have with the CEOs and big shareholders of BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto, Xstrata, Westpac, ANZ, CBA or Macquarie Bank.

The CEOs of the biggest 20 corporations in Australia get paid 150 times the average wage. And that is in addition to what they earn from their other assets.

Australia richest person is Frank Lowy. His pay for 2009 was more than $15 million and Macquarie Bank CEO Nicholas Moore's pay was $9.5 million (a 33% rise). The richest 200 Australians became $21 billion richer in the last year, compared to a paltry $26-a-week wage increase for the lowest-paid workers in Australia (after losing $50 in real terms since 2006).

Meanwhile, many working-class families are struggling to pay their mortgage or rent and feed, clothe and educate their children. They can only blink when they hear of the wealth of the rich minority. Many will ask: how can these rich people even begin to spend so much money?

But that's the wrong question; “money” or even “assets” are very different things to them (the rich) and to us.

For us, money is to spend on necessities, savings for the future and perhaps the odd treat or holiday. But for them, it is a means to enslave us and make themselves even richer and more powerful. So powerful, they get to negotiate their tax rates with the government after scaring it with millions of dollars worth of slick, lying TV advertisements.

Workers in Australia do a total of two billion hours of unpaid overtime a year. This is a $72 billion gift to bosses and the equal to 1.1 million full-time jobs. Why we do this? Because we are kept insecure and fearful of losing our jobs.

They need us to be insecure and suspicious and distrusting. This is where racism comes in very handy — for them.

This is why solidarity is so hateful to the capitalists. This is why their politicians, Labor and Coalition, have been trying to destroy the principle of solidarity in our workplaces and communities.

It’s what the Hawke Labor government did through the Prices and Incomes Accord in the 1980s. It’s what the Keating Labor government did when it introduced “enterprise bargaining” and deregulated the financial sector.

Labor and Coalition politicians love to boast about their record on “economic reform” — but the guts of that reform is destroying solidarity between most of us.

And that is why we are witnessing this ugly race to the bottom over refugees right now.


I really resent being labelled a racist. I am concerned about border security, therefore, according to you, I must be? I welcome refugees wholeheartedly and embrace my friends, family and others who come from different races than I do. I am not racist. I do think Australians should make the decisions about how much and what kind of help we extend to refugees. I love giving to charity but don't like it when someone steals my wallet. Would you say that if the person who steals my wallet if very poor then I should just give it up? I remain unconvinced that the rights of people who pay criminals in order to circumvent the (immigration) system are more important than Australian's rights - our rights to a peaceful, harmonious society and security. I think pointing out the fact that it is a small problem compared to other countries is unhelpful. Where is the sense in waiting until something becomes a big problem before it is addressed? Yes, welcome refugees, up the intake, treat them humanely and offer them the oppportunities we are lucky enough to have. But stop the boats (and the planes for that matter!)
Not every person who thinks we should limit our refugee intake is a racist. I agree. And you certainly don't sound racist to me. That's not to say that there is not a large level of racism in Australian culture that is contributing to current attitudes on refugees. And the level of fear held in the community of boat people when looked in context of the actual problem seems highly disproportionate. On border security - I'm not sure what the security threat is. The reason why we receive such a minute portion of the worlds refugees (about 0.5%) is because Australia is very difficult to get to and is so isolated. We also know that 85 - 90% person of people arriving by boat in Australia are deemed as genuine refugees. There is been much criticism over the need to even have mandatory detention centres. Australia is one of the few countries in the world that has them. There is also a tone in your message which suggests that refugees are doing something illegal. Refugees coming by boat is not an illegal act. Under the UN Refugee Convention there is a clause to protect refugees stating a person fleeing persecution can enter in to a country by any means and without documentation. This means that the 9 of every 10 people who come by boat who are deemed genuine refugees have done nothing illegal. In regards to the comment 'yes welcome refugees, up the intake....... but stop the boats and the planes. The problem is that the genuine refugees don't have the luxury of various travel options. Quite often refugees are escaping their own government, it's not easy to simply ask an overtly oppressive government whom you are running from for a visa or passport to leave the country. The nature of the boat ride to Australia is a reflection of the desperation they face. Simply grabbing some money to jump on a plane, get a proper visa - all of which would avoid mandatory detention and a very dangerous journey - is not always viable. Jody

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