Supporting refugees and beating back bipartisan cruelty

December 3, 2016
Part of the August 27 refugee rally in Sydney. Photo: Zebedee Parkes.

Hundreds of days of protests by refugees on Nauru, landmark court decisions, the Nauru Files, politicians’ offices occupied, parliament interrupted, suicides in detention, damning international reports and many more people becoming active in the campaign for refugee justice is the story of the refugee campaign this year.

The significant growth of campaign groups and the development of new ones means we are in a better position to end the indefinite and cruel mandatory detention of asylum seekers and refugees.

The movement needs to grow, and fast, because there is a global refugee crisis.

Refugee crisis

A 2014 UNHCR report, released last year, said there were 19.5 million refugees in the world and 60 million people displaced by conflict. By 2050, climate change will have created 150 million more refugees.

The majority flee to neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, which has 1.2 million refugees in a population of 4.4 million, or Ethopia where 252,000 refugees arrived in 2014.

Those contributing the least to the crisis are being forced to suffer the most.

Western superpowers started the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Australia is supporting, including with arms, the Sri Lankan regime’s genocide from which Tamils are fleeing. First World countries are the greatest climate vandals, one of the triggers of the Syrian civil war.

The rich nations have a moral responsibility to look after the victims of the wars and dictatorships they have helped create. But the world’s elite are only interested in protecting their wealth and power: they hog global resources while pushing anti-immigration laws and deploying their navies to stop boatloads of desperate people from being able to claim asylum.

The documentary Chasing Asylum, seen by thousands this year, viscerally portrayed the detention experience that is literally killing people, including Omid who committed suicide this year by self-immolating.

Reza Berati was beaten to death by guards. The key witness to his murder has been kept in Manus Island Detention Centre, where he has endured numerous death threats in the lead up to the trial.

Hamid Khazaei died from a treatable infection; he never received adequate medical attention. Details are emerging that the immigration department bureaucrats refused to approve his medical evacuation, even when advised to do so, until it was too late.

Chasing Asylum used clandestine footage smuggled out from detention centres and interviews with detention centre workers prepared to speak out despite the threat of harsh penalties.

These conditions were given greater exposure by the Guardian’s Nauru Files, which detailed incidents of children being assaulted, women sexually abused and guards laughing off suicide attempts.

This has led to international condemnation of Australia’s treatment of refugees, although some governments, such as Germany, are looking at following Australia with the idea of a permanent refugee ban and boat turn-backs.

To our collective shame, Australia is recognised internationally for its cruelty towards refugees.

The bipartisan cruelty shows how far the right has normalised the detention system since Labor introduced it in 1992. Labor’s offshore detention and resentment plan, aimed at stopping refugees from ever being resettled and given permanent protection, has the full backing and is being implemented by the Coalition.

Movement grows

To effectively counter this we have to build a much more powerful movement. This is happening, with a range of new groups forming or significantly developing their campaigns this year, including Grandmothers against Detention, Mums for Refugees, Doctors4Refugees, Teachers for Refugees, Love Makes a Way, Amnesty International, Students for Refugees and People Just Like Us.

Doctors4Refugees launched a High Court challenge to the law criminalising those speaking out about the horrors of detention, and the movement won a Border Force Act exemption for doctors and health professionals.

A poll commissioned by SBS before the federal election found that asylum seekers were the most important issue for people under 25.

Before the election, the Turnbull government claimed — falsely — that for the first time in a decade there were no children in detention. It was aimed at placating and demobilising a growing movement.

Months earlier, on February 3, the government claimed it would deport people, including children, back to Nauru after the High Court dismissed a challenge to its authority to deport people back to Nauru who had come to Australia for medical reasons.

This led to the #LetThemStay movement which, for the first time, involved unions, mother’s groups, churches, bands, high school students, universities, sporting groups, artists and more supporting the health professionals refusing to discharge baby Asha from the Lady Cilento Hospital in Brisbane. The protests worked and Baby Asha was moved to community detention. She is still in Australia.

The Palm Sunday protests in March were bigger in the major cities and were also organised in regional centres, often leading to the formation of new refugee rights groups.

This year also saw the start of the daily Nauru protests, which have been taking place for more than 200 continuous days, often with new banners each day. They involve children who had been in detention for more than 1000 days.

This led to the #BringThemHere campaign, helped by the Guardian’s Nauru Files reports, which started to be released in August. Love Makes A Way initiated protests at more than 40 MPs’ offices, which were supported by people often new to activism.

When the Coalition announced a new draconian policy to ban refugees from Manus and Nauru from ever being able to come to Australia, even for a visit, another round of protests was organised. This pushed some conservative crossbench Senators to indicate they may not support it.

In early December, activists bravely disrupted national parliament, causing a bipartisan furore. They effectively brought their point home about the bipartisan cruelty to refugees (see story on page 4) and won widespread praise for their successful banner unfurling from the parliament’s rooftop.

Humane policy

The movement for refugee rights is finishing off the year in a stronger position. This has led to some discussion about what a humane policy would look like. After more than 20 years of refugee bashing we need to be wary of those arguing for compromises.

The movement cannot accept boat turn-backs. To do so would be the equivalent of saying to those seeking asylum that they should go and die somewhere else. To be forcibly returned to the countries and regimes they fled means being delivered into the hands of torturers. Alternatively, they would be forced to wait in third countries, such as Malaysia or Indonesia where, even if they are assessed as UNHCR refugees, they would be without citizenship rights.

We cannot accept compromises that absolve Australia of its responsibility to help refugees. As long as the conditions exist for people to try to flee from war, genocide and climate change, people will seek asylum.

Equally, we should reject the US refugee swap deal that hinges on boat turn-backs. We have to force an end to mandatory indefinite detention and demand the government address the reasons behind why people flee their birth countries.

In 2017, we need to build on the successes of this year and make it too politically costly for the major parties to continue their cruel anti-refugee positions.

[Zebedee Parkes is an activist in the Refugee Action Coalition in Sydney and a member of the Socialist Alliance.]

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