Time to revive the refugee rights movement

November 4, 2009

At first, the flow of people fleeing horrors like the Sri Lankan government's concentration camps for Tamils and Afghanistan's killing fields didn't test the capacity of the Christmas Island detention centre

The Rudd Labor government could pretend the asylum-seeker situation was under control and the sickening days of the Tampa and the Coalition's "dark victory" in the 2001 election just a bad memory.

But a small rise in the number of boats arriving has changed all that. The Oceanic Viking could turn into Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's Tampa.

The government refused to allow desperate Tamil asylum seekers to land on Australian soil, and bribed the Indonesian government to hold them in a country that hasn't signed the UN Refugee Convention.

This caused Liberal dissident MP and refugee rights supporter Judi Moylan's October 17 comment: "What Mr Rudd is doing in relation to Indonesia is a de facto Pacific solution."

Broadly progressive public opinion, revolted by former Coalition prime minister John Howard's "dog-whistling" of Australian racism and xenophobia in 2001, is now getting increasingly nervous about the Rudd government's stance.

That's why the PM and his MPs last week launched a full-scale attack on the Coalition in parliament. They did their utmost to exploit the main changes Labor had introduced to Howard government policy — removing temporary protection visas and (supposedly), ending the holding of children in detention, and respecting the UN Refugee Convention — to create the impression that there's an unbridgeable policy gulf between the major parties.

Yet facts count for more than parliamentary rhetoric. The small increase in arrivals by boat (only 4% of all asylum seekers to Australia), combined with relentless Coalition pressing of Australian society's racist and xenophobic nerve, meant Rudd chose to act like Howard and seek an "Indonesian solution" from President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

The alternative — to let the boats land, sharply lift Australia's refugee intake to reduce the "queue" of asylum seekers, and tackle the racist fearmongering and ignorance head-on — was always unthinkable for the Rudd government.

The result is Canberra's continuing inhumane bipartisanship on refugees. Both parties support the hundreds of millions of dollars wasted on Christmas Island, the intensive coastal patrols, the bribes to poorer nations to become dumping grounds for those "we" don't want, and the menacing advertising campaigns warning desperate people not to try reaching Australian shores.

The alternative approach, advanced by refugee rights organisations like the Edmund Rice Centre, begins with simply telling the truth: refugees, in particular refugees arriving by boat, do not cause a problem in this country.

Australia should immediately develop a program to settle tens of thousands of asylum seekers and take a lead role in helping reduce the misery of the world's millions of refugees.

In 2008, 4750 people made a claim for asylum in Australia (0.57% of worldwide refugee claims compared to nearly 37,000 in Canada, 31,000 in Italy and 207,000 in South Africa).
At the end of 2007, there were 16 million refugees and 51 million displaced people in the world, yet in 2008-09 Australia offered a miserable 13,500 places to asylum seekers.

That's 0.6 of a refugee for every 1000 inhabitants. Sweden accepted 12 refugees per 1000 between 2001 and 2005.

The only way to force a change in Australian refugee policy is to rebuild the refugee rights movement, which was strong enough to force Howard to dilute aspects of his brutal policy.

There is good potential for this revival. Leading unionists like Dave Noonan from the Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union, Australian Workers Union national secretary Paul Howes and Geelong Trades Hall Council secretary Tim Gooden) have spoken out against a return to the dark days of 2001. The have demanded that the refugees on the Oceanic Viking be allowed to land in Australia.

Probably as a result of their stance, on October 26 the Australian Council of Trade Unions issued a statement that said: "Australian unions are extremely disappointed with the use of rhetoric to demonise asylum seekers who are fleeing dangerous situations in their home countries and have asked Australia for help and safety."

However, the statement avoids any criticism of the Rudd government's policy, and poses no concrete alternative.

The Greens, too, could play an important role in rebuilding the refugee rights movement. On October 21, Greens human rights spokesperson Sarah Hanson-Young, reminded the government that asylum seekers are not "illegal", as claimed by Rudd, but have rights under the UN refugee convention.

Hanson-Young welcomed the Indonesian decision to take the 78 refugees on the Oceanic Viking, but added, "the movement of asylum seekers around the world will continue, there will be more boats, and Australia has to accept that it will have to be part of the answer to this problem".

The way ahead is clear. Those who care for their fellow human beings must redouble efforts to build a refugee rights movement that can make Australia's present inhumane policy completely untenable.

That movement must also demand the government withdraw financial and diplomatic support from the Sri Lankan government until it closes its concentration camps in the Tamil areas, and demand that the Australian government pulls troops out of Afghanistan.
The first step is to immediately close Christmas Island and let asylum seekers imprisoned there come to the mainland and stay.

[Margarita Windisch, Bea Bleile and Dick Nichols are the Socialist Alliance national conveners.]

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