Refugee movement strategy debated

October 7, 2016
Asylum seekers on hunger strike on Manus Island in January 2015.

Refugee activists attended a meeting on October 3 to discuss strategy for the refugee rights movement.

The meeting was organised by the Refugee Action Collective (RAC) in response to an article written by Robert Manne, Tim Costello, Frank Brennan and John Menadue calling for a "compromise" solution to "our refugee crisis".

RAC invited Manne to speak at the forum. Chris Breen spoke on behalf of RAC.

Manne argued it is a "fantasy" to think that refugee advocates can force the government to change its whole policy towards refugees. But he said it might be possible to persuade the government to change one aspect of its policy — namely the continued detention of people on Manus Island and Nauru.

Manne said that the refugees on Manus Island and Nauru are "close to breaking point", and it is vital to alleviate their situation in the next few months.

The aim of Manne and his colleagues is to persuade the government that the people on Manus Island and Nauru can be brought to Australia without causing a new influx of people arriving by boat — if the policy of turning back the boats is retained.

Manne said he did not expect refugee advocates to support this position. He said there should be a "division of tasks", whereby refugee advocates build a powerful movement, while he and his colleagues talk to the government and propose a compromise.

Breen said that if the government wanted a compromise it could come up with one by itself. It does not want a compromise. Only mass pressure from the refugee movement can force it to make concessions.

Breen said public opinion is changing. But public opinion never stands still. Government ministers continually try to undermine support for refugees. There is an ongoing struggle to counter such attacks. "We should not cede ground", he said.

Breen said a Labor government was elected in 2007 with a policy of ending both boat turnbacks and offshore detention. But when boats started coming in larger numbers they began to see boat arrivals as a "problem". Breen said that we need to argue strongly against this view.

The policy of deterrence has not saved lives, as its supporters claim. Rather it has caused deaths, because deterrence is prioritised over rescuing people. Australian navy sailors have at times been told not to rescue people from sinking boats.

Breen argued that mass pressure has forced the government to make concessions, as in the attempt to send baby Asha back to Nauru from a Brisbane hospital, which was blocked when doctors refused to release her and a union blockade was imposed.

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