Refugees: Bring them here, let them stay

August 18, 2016
Refugee rights activists in Brisbane in February.

The refugee rights movement is gaining momentum, but the establishment is looking for ways to placate and demobilise it.

The growing breadth of the campaign is evident in the response to the Guardian's release of the Nauru Files, which contained more than 2000 reports detailing sexual assault, child abuse and acts of self-harm in Nauru detention centre.

Almost immediately, "Love Makes A Way" actions were organised, involving a diversity of organisations protesting outside more than 40 Coalition and Labor MP's offices across the country on August 15.

The next day, 103 teachers, health workers and case managers who have worked at Manus Island and Nauru detention centres called for these people-destroying centres to be closed immediately, risking two years in prison.

February 3 seems to have been a significant turning point for the refugee rights campaign when, in response to the High Court decision allowing the government to send 267 asylum seekers back to Nauru, the Let Them Stay movement began.

A few years ago, World Refugee Day rallies were largely a few hundred staunch activists marching through the streets. Now, thousands of people from a variety of backgrounds are joining rallies to demand the government let them stay.

Politicians are being confronted wherever they go, from PM Malcolm Turnbull getting interrupted mid-speech with that now famous placard “FFS close the bloody camps” to Bill Shorten getting heckled with chants of “lLet them stay” at Mardi Gras.

Polls show rising numbers are opposed to the current cruel refugee policy and that it was the most important issue for young people in the last federal election.

New refugee activist groups are being set up, high school students are violating dress codes to wear “Free the refugees” badges and the latest events are getting culture jammed — refugee activism is becoming a normal and regular occurrence of daily life.

With the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court ruling that Manus Island detention centre must close, public pressure and confidence within the refugee rights movement continues to grow.

We are seeing the rise of a movement that has the potential to make it too politically costly to continue with this inhumane policy.

That is why the establishment would like to see the movement weakened.

In response to the Nauru Files, Labor is calling for yet another inquiry into Nauru detention centre — while continuing to support the Nauru "solution" it began while in government.

Yet, in the last few months we have seen the release of a joint Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch report on Nauru, the Women on Nauru at Risk Report, the documentary Chasing Asylum and the Nauru Files.

Then there are government-commissioned reports such as the Moss Report released last year, which detailed cases of sexual abuse on Nauru.

Getting information out of detention centres has been instrumental to building the movement, which is why governments try to stop this occurring. But no amount of evidence of the inhumanity happening in detention has made either party blink.

Turnbull has been very silent on the refugee front since the election, where he kept regurgitating the line that while government policy is tough, it is “stopping the boats”.

Immigration minister Peter Dutton said the sexual assault cases in the Nauru Files were made up and that the media was irresponsible for reporting on it.

Dutton announced on August 17 that, in the face of the PNG Supreme Court's decision, an agreement had been reached with the PNG government to close down Manus Island detention centre.

But he never said where or when the men currently in the centre would be moved. All he said was that “no one from Manus Island Regional Processing Centre will ever be settled in Australia”.

The most concerning intervention — one which represents an attack on the core principles of the refugee rights' campaign — was made in an August 12 piece in the Sydney Morning Herald, “A solution to our refugee crisis”, by well-known figures Frank Brennan, Tim Costello, Robert Manne and John Menadue.

A more appropriate title would have been: “A solution to maintain fortress Australia in the wake of growing protests”.

They argue the solution to closing offshore detention centres is supporting boat turnbacks, since this will stop the boats.

But boat turnbacks simply means sending people to go and die somewhere else. It means sending them back to countries from which they are fleeing, as was the case on August 17 when Australian authorities intercepted a boat carrying people fleeing from Sri Lanka and handed them backover to the Sri Lankan government. Or it means leaving them to languish for years in countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia, without any rights and the constant risk of deportation.

Boat turnbacks remove any obligation Australia has to accept asylum seekers, many of whom are often fleeing situations Australia has played a role in creating, whether through supporting wars overseas, repressive regimes or contributing to climate change.

At the heart of the refugee question, is whether a wealthy First World country like Australia will — in the face of a growing worldwide refugee crisis — welcome refugees or erect a fortress.

The refugee rights movement is gaining momentum and the establishment is getting worried. That is why the movement must stay firm and continue demanding: “Bring them here, let them stay”.

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