From White Australia to stopping the boats

Refugees protest in Manus Island detention centre. Photo: Abdul Aziz Adam
Refugees protest in Manus Island detention centre. Photo: Abdul Aziz Adam

This year marks the 20th anniversary of three defining events in the history of Australia’s refugee and asylum seeker policy.

The first was the “Tampa crisis” of August 2001, when the federal government did everything possible to prevent 433 Afghan (predominantly Hazara) refugees from landing safely on Australian territory.

The second was the “Children overboard” affair of October 7, when federal ministers falsely claimed children had been thrown into the sea in an attempt to achieve rescue and asylum.

The third was the October 19 SIEV X tragedy, in which 353 mostly Afghan and Iraqi women and children drowned after leaving Indonesia in a desperate bid to reach Australia.

These three episodes marked the beginning of a government onslaught in pursuit of a more hardline, anti-refugee, anti-asylum seeker policy.

Amid the Tampa crisis, then-Coalition Prime Minister John Howard introduced the Border Protection Bill on August 26, giving government the power to refuse entry to people seeking asylum by sea. The new law was made retrospective to 9am that day, two-and-a-half hours before the Tampa entered Australian waters.

This was just the first of a slew of policy changes that transformed Australia’s asylum regime.

Successive governments went on to excise Christmas Island and other territories for the purposes of migration; defence and border authorities were given new powers to intercept and turn back boats; and a “Pacific solution” was negotiated with Papua New Guinea and Nauru to allow Australia to build detention centres on their islands.

While Coalition and Labor governments have alternated, both have scapegoated, demonised and imprisoned refugees.

During this period a whole language was constructed to shore up this racist campaign.

At the 2001 election, Howard uttered the infamous phrase: “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.”

Tony Abbott’s Coalition government built on Howard’s legacy, turning the Department of Immigration and Citizenship into the Department of Immigration and Border Protection and setting up Australian Border Force.

More generally, asylum seekers became “illegals” and “potential terrorists” who were arriving in “floods”, while governments proclaimed that their policies had “stopped the boats” and “saved lives at sea”.

This is nothing more than diabolical spin.

While the government may not want refugees to die within our gaze, it is more than happy to turn them back to die somewhere else or languish for years in the camps.

An estimated 14,000 refugees and asylum seekers were left stranded in camps in Indonesia and Malaysia when Operation Sovereign Borders shut down the movement of boats to Australia.

This unstated but effective rejection of the 1951 Refugee Convention has been 20 years in the making. But it has deep roots in Australia’s violent and racist foundations as a white fortress in Asia.

In many ways, Australia’s current refugee policy represents a modern day incarnation of the White Australia Policy, which dates back to 1901, and was specifically designed to maintain a white, British national character.

Notionally, the remnants of this policy were buried by the Gough Whitlam Labor government through its Racial Discrimination Act 1975.

But it is evident that the events of 20 years ago marked its resurrection.

Australia’s cruel, immoral and illegal refugee policy is supposedly being carried out in our name. We must do everything within our power to bring it to an end.

Achieving this would be a small but necessary step towards a world based on peace, justice and dignity for all.

Green Left has been campaigning for this over the past 20 years, and will continue to do so until we win.

But to do that we need your help. Consider today.