Solidarity with refugees can beat Abbott’s plans

March 7, 2014
The thousands of people who went to candlelight vigils show how powerful a refugee rights movement can be. Photo: Peter Boyle.

The federal Coalition government is set on a path of unprecedented cuts to public services; Medicare is under threat, as are workers' penalty rates. Added to this is the large-scale selling out of action on climate change along with important natural environments, such as forests and the Great Barrier Reef, to make way for destructive mining and logging industries.

It is no coincidence that these vicious moves against Australian working people and the environment comes on the back of the government spending billions and taking up hours of airtime vilifying arguably the most oppressed and in-need people in this society — that is, refugees and asylum seekers.

Over the past year, particularly since Tony Abbott won office last August, refugees have been stripped of virtually every right they had under Australian and international law. They are blamed for most of Australia's problems — from homelessness and unemployment, to hospital waiting lists and street violence.

This stripping of rights includes the possibility of ever winning the right to permanent protection in Australia.

To make "temporary protection" an Australian reality, immigration minister Scott Morrison has been forced to manipulate laws and abuse his ministerial powers. Once the Senate blocked his original bill to reintroduce temporary protection visas, Morrison first tried to cap permanent protection visas, but was forced to rescind it. Then he ordered the department to offer refugees Temporary Humanitarian Visas, a different type of short-term visa, which were not intended for refugees but would consequently prevent them from ever applying for a permanent visa.

He has capped permanent protection visas again. Using his arbitrary ministerial powers, Morrison has limited the maximum number of permanent visas the government would issue between March 5 and June 30 to 2773 — the exact number already granted. Until the new Senate comes in, no one will be able to receive a protection visa, even if they are found to be a refugee.

It is telling that Morrison has had to resort to deception to get rid of permanent protection. Unfortunately, Abbott and Morrison are making significant progress in ensuring Australia is no longer open to refugees.

Instead, people have been thrown into expensive but ramshackle prison camps in Australia's much poorer neighbouring nations, and Abbott is insisting that resettlement in Australia is "not guaranteed". In these places, they have been subjected to coordinated violent assaults like that seen on Manus Island last month, or abandoned to be guarded by racist and cruel contract staff, as SBS’s Dateline revealed about Nauru's detention centre workers on March 4.

Women who have suffered traumatic miscarriages as a result of anxiety on Christmas Island have been told to "lower their expectations". While questions about where they will be sent and how long they will be locked up go unanswered, pregnant women are reportedly requesting terminations in fear of their indefinite detention, which is secretive and hopeless by design.

The government's military-run Operation Sovereign Borders policy is arguably the most grave and murderous violation of human rights is recent history. Described by Abbott as a "kind of war", the navy and customs "protect" the sovereignty of national borders, except for Indonesia's borders, by cramming dozens of men into airless orange lifeboats and giving them just enough fuel to sail back to Indonesia, where most have been detained in the nation's horrific immigration jails.

The "vomitous and terrifying" disposable lifeboats equate to throwing $46,000 into the ocean simply to shut out fewer than 30 people, while bragging to the Australian public that "no boats have arrived since Christmas".

All of this is exacting a terrible toll on human beings who only asked for the opportunity to live safely in Australia. People in detention centres are suffering, trapped in a seemingly endless void with no process to assess their protection claims. Those living on bridging visas in the community were found by a recent study to be experiencing "extreme emotional and financial distress" as a result of their transient existence.

The need for vocal and action-based solidarity is more pressing than ever. Abolishing permanent protection and committing acts of bastardry at sea are just the tip of Abbott's merciless, scapegoating anti-refugee regime. Big numbers are also being deported and involuntarily flown back to the countries they fled in fear of their lives.

It is clear that a big section of Australians are increasingly disgusted by the treatment of refugees. Tens of thousands of people at the GetUp! organised "Light the Dark" vigils and the hundreds who protested days later show the potential power of a concerted refugee rights movement.

Snap actions that blockade detention centres to prevent deportations, such as a 48-hour picket at Maribyrnong detention centre in 2012 that saved a Tamil man from repatriation to Sri Lanka, are also essential displays of solidarity. Lawyers are also taking the immigration department to the courts to prevent these deportations, to challenge Morrison's "temporary protection" visa scams, and to question the legality of Operation Sovereign Borders. This exposes the cracks in Abbott's hateful bravado.

As long as Abbott believes his cruelty against refugees will obscure the fact that it is the Coalition attacking and destroying Australians' rights and lives, the chance to reverse either will not come.

An inclusive, democratic and more powerful refugee rights movement, which involves refugees and their supporters, will break down the false divides between them and create the opportunity to free both refugees and ourselves.

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