Stop the scapegoating of refugees

Refugee 'Light the Dark' vigil, Sydney Down Hall. Photo: Peter Boyle
February 28, 2014

“You don't want a wimp running border protection,” Prime Minister Tony Abbott said on February 21. “You want someone who is strong, who is decent, and Scott Morrison is both strong and decent.”

Abbott was defending immigration minister Scott Morrison for his actions and comments after a young asylum seeker was killed in the Manus Island detention centre on February 16.

Morrison and Abbott's “Pacific Solution” was clearly to blame for 23-year-old Reza Berati's murder. However, Morrison defended himself, saying that he would not be intimidated by the violence. He is, of course a brave man. Being thousands of kilometres from the violence, he remained strong.

And of course the violence was directed at defenceless asylum seekers, not Morrison, but that just shows how brave he is. He has the courage that only a few have, the courage to not be intimidated by violence against those you demonise. And the courage to remain steadfast in sending those you demonise to inevitably suffer more violence.

The Coalition government continues to demonise asylum seekers, saying that it is a sort of “war” requiring secrecy. Abbott said on January 10: "If we were at war we wouldn't be giving out information that is of use to the enemy just because we might have an idle curiosity about it ourselves."

The Labor Party has been largely silent about the war on refugees. It did, after all, introduce most of the inhumane policies that helped demonise asylum seekers when it was in power.

The demonisation sometimes reaches ridiculous proportions.

The February 23 NT News said NT Health Minister Robyn Lambley claimed refugees from the three detention centres in the NT were taking up too many hospital beds and “culturally appropriate food is made available to them, at the taxpayers' expense".

Lambley said: "The Northern Territory government is happy to assist the federal government in providing health services to detainees, but my focus must be local patients."

But the cowboy politics of the NT reveals something about the broader national reasons for attacking refugees.

In the NT, the Country Liberal (CLP) government is proposing cuts to health and education services, allegedly to reduce government debt. People in the NT will find these services diminishing over time. They could blame the CLP, but are instead encouraged to blame asylum seekers.

Similarly, Tony Abbott’s government is proposing savage cuts to health and education. The Gonski reforms to education look less secure than they were a year ago. The Coalition has also raised the idea of a $6 fee for GP visits and started talking about means-testing Medicare.

The more the Coalition can direct the anger away from their cuts, the easier it will be for them to get away with them. The morality theatre of detention centres and Naval confrontations with leaky boats is there to tell Australia that asylum seekers are the threat, not a conservative government ready to lay waste to social services.

It doesn’t matter to this view that asylum seekers make up a tiny proportion of Australia’s migration intake. Over the past five years, 10,000 asylum seekers came to Australia to seek refuge; the migration target for each of those years was about 200,000.

It doesn’t matter that this policy is hideously expensive at a time when the government preaches fiscal conservatism. Each asylum seeker condemned to offshore detention costs half a million dollars.

It doesn’t matter that we punish people by sending them to prison camps in the Pacific Ocean where they go slowly insane; that we punish people who have committed no crime under Australian or international law.

What matters is the creation of the view that Australia is under siege from people different to us, who have different values, who will take everything away from us. And what matters is that we pay no attention to the governments that actually do want to take everything away from us.

Racism is strong enough in Australia to ignore these truths as long as it is unchallenged. But the outpouring of grief and solidarity shown around the country in response to Reza Berati's death shows a movement to end this war on refugees is possible. We have conquered racist ideas before and we can do so again.