BY FEDERICO FUENTES
PERTH Refugees' rights activists scored a major victory on October 22, as students voted to declare the University of Western Australia Guild a refugee safe haven. Nearly 900 students voted during the half-day of polling, in what was a highly contested referendum.
The referendum, which was called by a student general meeting of 200 on September 3, asked students to respond to seven questions. As well as declaring a safe haven, students voted in favour of the guild supporting the demands "End mandatory detention", "Welcome all refugees", "Increase the current refugee intake" and "Vastly increase the speed of processing refugee applications".
Students also supported the guild assisting the UWA Refugee Rights Action Network (UWA RRAN) to raise $2000.
The only motion that was not passed was for the guild to support the demand to close all detention centres, which was lost by 17 votes.
UWA is the fourth campus to be formally declared a refugee safe haven, joining Newcastle University, Wollongong University and Flinders University. The campaign to declare university campuses refugee safe havens, initiated by the socialist youth group Resistance, has also been run this semester on La Trobe University, Murdoch University, the University of Tasmania, the University of Queensland and Melbourne University.
At UWA, members of the Australian Liberal Student Federation campaigned strenuously for a no vote, using slogans such as "don't let the people smugglers win". In the "No" material distributed to students, ALSF leader Jeremy Sher argued that, "mandatory detention is fundamental in ensuring that Australia's refugee program balances our obligations towards refugees with the fundamental right to protect our borders and ensure national security".
He also said, "declaring the UWA Student Guild to be a 'refugee safe haven' represents an attempt to circumvent Australia's existing immigration program and border control legislation."
In the face of such a campaign, Kiraz Janicke, an activist in UWA RRAN pointed out, "this result was indicative of the growing outrage at the government's sickening treatment of asylum seekers... Students showed not only that they reject this policy but also that they are willing to break these laws if necessary."
ALSF also argued that the guild was meant to be apolitical, a position also campaigned for by David Solomon. Solomon argued: "Even people who don't support mandatory detention should recognise that maintaining the independence and credibility of the UWA Guild is the issue of far greater importance than simply making empty demands on an issue that has nothing to do with the guild in the first place."
Alex Whisson, another activist in UWA RRAN, commented, "the victory in the referendum should not only be seen as a victory for refugee-rights supporters, but also a clear statement that students believe that guilds should be political and take up progressive causes. The guild, [as] a collective voice for students, is a political organisation. The high turnout for the referendum, and the win by the yes case, shows clearly that this is what students want from their guild."
UWA RRAN activists and supporters will be celebrating their victory on October 31 at 1pm with drinks at the Guild Tavern.
From Green Left Weekly, October 30, 2002.
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