Refugees: Howard's lies exposed

February 13, 2002

By Kate Wilson

Shayan Bedraie made the perilous journey from Iran to Australia by boat with his Kurdish family, fleeing from government repression. He was only four years old, but the Australian immigration system placed him in mandatory detention, and treated him and his family like criminals.

After being imprisoned in Woomera and Villawood detention centres for 17 months, and witnessing several refugees attempt suicide, Shayan developed post-traumatic stress disorder. He stopped eating and talking, and required hospitalisation for tube feeding and rehydration. He, his mother and his sister have since been released into the community but his father remains in Villawood while their case for refugee status is finalised.

The Howard government has gone on a systematic campaign of undermining our sympathy for asylum seekers like Shayan and his family. Refugees have been dehumanised, demonised and scapegoated, not only to get the government re-elected, but as a way of directing peoples attention away from the economic and social policies the government has implemented that have made life worse for the majority of Australians.

The government has fanned racism and xenophobia towards refugees by perpetrating a whole range of myths and lies. But their racist lies cannot hide the truth.

Myth 1: There is no alternative to mandatory detention. Australia is the only First World country that detains all asylum seekers without documentation while their claims are being heard.

More humane and less costly ways of treating asylum seekers include issuing them with visas while their claims are being processed and allowing them to live in the community, perhaps in cheap hostels. Refugees could be allowed to find work, access health care and welfare, and attend English classes. People who are wanted criminals could be tracked by using the Interpol database, and simple health and character checks do not take long.

Myth 2: Refugees are a burden on Australia's welfare system. Not only is mandatory detention inhumane, it is atrociously expensive.

It costs around $100 a day to keep one person in detention. Over the last few years, there have been between 3-4000 people in detention, which means it costs half a million dollars of taxpayers money a day — $175 million a year — to lock people up, when it would cost less than half that amount to release them into the community and give them access to social security, Medicare, housing and the right to work. Keeping people in detention costs the same as paying each person a decent full-time wage.

Myth 3: Asylum seekers are "illegal". Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: "Everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution."

The reason most people arrive without documentation is because they have to leave in haste and dictatorial regimes will not issue them with birth certificates or passports. The government labels asylum seekers as "illegals" and holds them in detention centres on the technical pretext that they have broken an Australian law; but this is a law that actually violates the United Nations Refugee Charter and the Declaration of Human Rights.

Not all so-called "illegals" receive the same treatment. People who overstay their Australian tourist visas number into the thousands. But the vast majority of these are tourists from wealthy Western countries like New Zealand, the United States and Britain and none are placed in indefinite detention. The Australian government's refugee policy is clearly a racist policy that persecutes those who arrive from the Third World.

Myth 4: "Boat people" are jumping the queue. In places like Afghanistan and Iraq there is no "queue" for people to jump as Australia has no embassies or consulates in these countries.

There is no standard process for refugees to wait in line and have their applications considered. Furthermore, refugees fleeing for their lives do not have the luxury of waiting months or years for their applications to be processed. It is absurd to argue that there can be an orderly queue for those fleeing repression.

Of the 21 million refugees worldwide, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees resettles only half a million refugees each year. All refugees have a right to be safe from persecution. We should not punish those who courageously and bravely escape to Australia's shores.

Myth 5: Australia is generous and already takes in its "fair share" of refugees. Most countries resettle far more refugees than Australia.

The burden of assisting refugees is predominantly borne by the world's poorest nations. For example, Tanzania hosts one refugee for every 76 Tanzanian people, whilst Australia only hosts one refugee for every 1583 people.

Australia is a wealthy, First World country with an advanced social infrastructure and one of the lowest population densities in the world. Australia, therefore, has an obligation to massively increase its humanitarian refugee intake. It would be easily affordable to accept and treat with dignity all those who arrive here applying for asylum.

Despite this the Australian government, through its so-called Pacific Solution, has bribed and bullied debt-ridden Pacific island states such as Papua New Guinea and Nauru into accepting some of the refugees who were escaping to Australia.

Myth 6: Asylum seekers must be rich to pay people smugglers In most cases, asylum seekers have had to sell all their possessions and pool their family's resources in order to make the risky and treacherous journey to Australia.

In any case, having enough money to pay for a place on a leaky Indonesian fishing trawler does not make asylum seekers claims to be fleeing persecution any less legitimate, nor does it mean they are particularly rich. Unfortunately, people smuggling will continue as long as people fleeing have no other choice and as long as wealthy countries make it near impossible for asylum seekers to gain asylum in any other fashion.

Myth 7: "Boat people" are not genuine refugees. More than 40% of people arriving in Australia without documents are eventually granted refugee status. This compares with a 10% success rate for those who have a visa and apply for refugee status in the community.

Between 85-95% of Iraqi and Afghan applicants seeking asylum without valid visas in Australia are recognised as genuine refugees. Asylum seekers arriving by boat are more likely to be genuine refugees.

Build a refugee solidarity movement Australian people should be outraged at this racist and inhumane refugee policy built upon lies and distortions. The brave protests from refugees in detention centres such as Woomera have allowed more and more people to see through the myths about refugees that the government has perpetuated.

However, much more needs to be done if we are to get the government to abolish its cruel refugee policy. In building the protest movement against Pauline Hanson and One Nation, young people have shown that they are willing to reject racist and inhumane policies, and we need to do that again.

So get involved in Resistance, the socialist youth organisation fighting for a world not only without detention centres, but a world without war and without racism — for a world that doesn't create refugees.

We need to build the biggest possible campaign to send a clear message to the Australian government that we, as the people on the other side of the razor wire, will not stop fighting until all the detention centres are closed, mandatory detention is abolished, and all refugees are free!

From Green Left Weekly, February 13, 2002.
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