Refugees are welcome here

July 5, 2018
A January protest against US President Donald Trump's threat to the rights of immigrants and refugees. Photo: Center for Migration Studies of New York

“Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here” is a chant that has been synonymous with the refugee rights movement in Australia since I became active some years ago.

That was a time when putting children in detention was, to some extent, something to hide — not a policy to win support from your voting base.

I have filmed this chant outside detention centres in the middle of the desert, inside department of immigration offices, politicians’ offices, university campuses, town squares and when thousands of people marched to the Labor Party’s national conference at the end of 2011, when Julia Gillard was Prime Minister and Labor was in government.

That was a couple of years before Kevin Rudd implemented his offshore solution — leaving people in detention on Nauru and Manus Island without any hope of resettlement and safety indefinitely. Many have now been imprisoned for five years.

Now, watching Democracy Now! live streams, I can see tens of thousands of people across the US chanting it. The march in Washington, DC, stretched for blocks, with many immigrants bravely taking part.

People are talking about defeating the “politics of hate and fear” and the role of the US in creating the conditions people flee from. Sounds familiar.

Mass occupations and blockades of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) offices have gone on for weeks since photos of children being separated from their parents emerged. Some ICE offices have been temporarily shut down.  

Left-leaning Democratic politicians — either becoming emboldened by the movement or by simple political expediency — are supporting calls to abolish ICE and have been protesting outside ICE offices.

Civil disobedience actions happened across the US during the July 4 Independence Day “celebrations”. One woman climbed the Statue of Liberty.

The campaign to reform US immigration policy has being going on for decades. Former President Barack Obama deported record numbers of people and set up the infrastructure President Donald Trump is so pitilessly employing.

Now, after seeing children locked in cages, people across the US are refusing to accept immigration as a security and military issue. They are demanding it be seen as it should be — a humanitarian issue.

Australia has its own history of separating refugee families and putting children behind barbed wire fences. Australia is far more effective at it than the US.

The refugee movement in Australia has had to go to great lengths to expose it. From when a group of us travelled for days into the middle of the Western Australian desert to Leonora detention centre and saw children waving to us behind fences, to whistleblowers risking imprisonment to expose the abuse of children in offshore detention.

At every step of the way the Coalition and Labor parties have tried to deny the abuses committed to children. They have received ample backing from the Murdoch media.

An investigation I did last year started to reveal the extent Australia goes to separating families and proves Rudd’s 2013 “solution” has, and still is, failing its stated aim.

On July 19, 2013, Rudd made a deal with Papua New Guinea that would mean no one who arrived by boat seeking asylum would ever be given protection in Australia. Since that date people seeking asylum have continued to make the treacherous voyage.

When the boats arrived, people from each boat, including families, were arbitrarily separated. Some were sent to Nauru, some to Manus Island and others to Christmas Island and eventually Australia on bridging visas.

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection tried to bury this under “operational matters”. Activists eventually got the truth out.

Just one example is a Rohingya family of 13, ranging from an 80-year-old great grandmother to her great grandchildren, who all arrived together on a boat. The great grandmother and one of her grandchildren were among seven family members still languishing in Nauru. Six remained on Christmas Island and, since August last year, are living in Australia.

Under the current asylum-seeker policy some family members may never see each other again.

Australia is stopping the boats by turning them back to danger, supporting Indonesia in running a system of detention centres and stepping up deportations, especially of Tamils.

It is making the situation for people in offshore detention worse. Only a handful have being accepted into the US and under the current deal many never will — the US has said it will not accept Iranians and Somalis.

The politics of hate and fear are alive and well within both major parties.

Like in the US, the refugee movement in Australia continues to fight back, from the small Queensland town of Biloela to protests on Manus Island.

Keeping the issue contentious and slowly changing public opinion in the face of determined refugee bashing from both major parties and the mainstream media, is an achievement for the campaign.

As in the US and across Europe, it is imperative that the campaign here continues to emphasise that immigration is a humanitarian and not a security issue.

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