Refugees: Labor stoops, activists step up

THe National Refugee Rights Conference, hosted by the Refugee Action Collective (Victoria).

On July 26 more than 150 activists from around the country met in Melbourne for the National Refugee Rights Conference, hosted by the Refugee Action Collective (Victoria).

Many of the participants had attended the protest outside the ALP national conference the day before, and inevitably discussion revolved around the decision of the majority of delegates to reject an explicit ban on refugee boat "turn backs" which paves the way for Labor to once again follow Coalition policy.

The conference began with a series of workshops based on topics including stopping deportations, so-called regional resettlement, the challenges facing queer refugees and building the campaign for refugee rights among students and unionists.

The workshop "Building Support Among Unionists" discussed the need for the movement to reach out directly to workers where union leaders have capitulated to the bipartisan policy of scape-goating and abusing refugees. This was dramatically illustrated by the decision of the CFMEU and MUA to break from Labor's Left faction and vote against a ban on turnbacks, in contradiction to both ACTU and union policy on the issue.

At a plenary on the legislative framework that has been constructed to support the regime of detention, secrecy and turn backs in international waters, Katie Robertson from law firm Maurice Blackburn traced the progressive rolling back of legal rights and protections and the dangerous precedent for the wider Australian population.

Both Robertson and long-time Refugee Action Coalition (NSW) activist Ian Rintoul emphasised that while every legal avenue to hinder the government's repressive anti-asylum seeker regime needs to be used, the motor force for a change in policy would have to be a broad-based community campaign.

The conference concluded with a roundup of experiences from campaigners around the country. While Coalition and Labor policy has become increasingly cruel, the refugee rights movement is growing, particularly in rural Victoria and on Western Australian university campuses.

Conference participants were treated to a Tamil feast prepared by three Tamil men who are now living in the community after spending time in detention. They all gave a heartfelt message of thanks to the refugee rights’ campaigners.

When falling in behind Abbott on turnbacks Bill Shorten stopped short of endorsing the direct return of asylum seekers to their country of origin, or "refoulement", as the Coalition has done. However later media reports suggest he is now also looking for ways to return Sri Lankan asylum seekers directly back in to the hands of their persecutors.

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