Elections 2010: a festival of cruelty towards refugees?

Sunday, April 11, 2010 - 10:00

As the Liberal-National Coalition strives to make "border control" a vote-changing issue and the Rudd-ALP government continues to claim its approach is best at keeping the "people smugglers" and the "queue-jumpers" under control, do we face the dark prospect of another refugee-bashing federal election?

As things stand, it looks likely. Labor agrees with the opposition that asylum seeker boats reaching Australian waters pose a threat to national security. So why wouldn't opposition leader Tony Abbott and the Coalition maintain their current offensive about the "unprecedented flood of illegal arrivals" up until election time?

Labor's brutal April 9 decision to stop all processing of asylum applications from Afghans and Tamils is designed to make the issue go away. But will desperate people fleeing war and persecution notice Canberra's "no vacancies" sign?

Coalition shadow immigration minister Scott Morrison certainly feels he has Labor cornered. He said on March 30: "It was [deputy Prime Minister] Julia Gillard who said in opposition, 'another boat on the way, another policy failure'. On Julia Gillard's benchmark, Labor's 100 boat arrivals on the Rudd government's watch means 100 Labor policy failures."

The Australian corporate media, especially the Murdoch press, has been doing its bit to boost the hysteria, keeping running tallies of boats intercepted by the Australian navy and beds still available in the Christmas Island detention centre. The "overflow" that was transferred to the mainland has caused some of the worst fear-mongering since the previous Howard government's "children overboard affair".

Little or no mention, of course, is made of issues that might make people sympathise with asylum seekers, like the fact that conditions at the Christmas Island detention centre have deteriorated rapidly. Whole families are living in tents and Afghan and Tamil men are being kept in maximum security-style conditions.

When the March 28 Brisbane Sunday Mail carried a front page headline screaming "They're here!" (complete with a photo of "suspected immigration detainees returning from a shopping excursion") there were more than 400 responses on the paper's website. Most were bitter about the "privileged treatment" detainees were getting. Coalition strategists won't have missed that.

In this filthy atmosphere, Abbott is feeling more confident. On March 30, he said: "John Howard stopped the flow and, given his success, there is no reason why a future government that had sufficient resolve could not do the same thing. We would do whatever it takes to ensure that effective deterrents are in place."

"Effective deterrents" include temporary protection visas. This cruel and arbitrary measure originally suggested by One Nation leader Pauline Hanson was introduced by the Howard government.

Faced with the prospect of an election in which refugees are cruelly used as scapegoats by both Labor and Liberal, Socialist Alliance candidates will do their utmost to debunk the myths surrounding refugees and asylum seekers — their "queue-jumping", "privileges" and all the rest of the lies.

They will ask the question: how does a cruel, inhumane and discriminatory policy towards asylum seekers help improve the life of even one worker, pensioner, job-seeker or disabled person in this country?

Our candidates will also show that the opposition's outrageously racist assertions on the refugee issue allow the Rudd government to parade as compassionate when this is simply untrue.

Yes, PM Kevin Rudd was forced by a strong refugee rights movement in Australia to abolish some of Howard's worst policies, such as temporary protection visas and the mandatory detention of children. But Australia's refugee policy remains one of the toughest in the world. It has maintained mandatory detention and offshore processing of all refugees who risk the perilous passage to Australia by boat.

The excision of Australian territory (including Christmas Island) from Australia's migration zone denies refugees access to Australia's legal system. Refugees are locked up and treated worse than criminals, denied their rights and vilified by the media.

Moreover, despite the insistence of the major parties and the corporate media that Australia is "threatened" by the rise in asylum seekers, the number Australia receives is actually tiny.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees recently released statistics on global asylum trends for 2009 that show that 377,200 people sought refuge in industrialised countries, mainly in Europe and North America. In comparison, Australia received only 1400 more asylum claims than in 2008. It took merely 1.6% of registered refugees globally.

Australia needs to massively increase its intake to begin to genuinely address the rise of refugees around the world. It must also end its role in wars such as in Iraq and Afghanistan, and cut all ties with the government of Sri Lanka until it ceases brutally repressing the Tamil people.

All immigration detention facilities, including Villawood and Christmas Island, must be closed for good. We must guarantee the right of asylum seekers to immediately apply for asylum in Australia and let them be processed, and settled, in the community.

Ordinary human decency demands no less.

[For the Socialist Alliance policy on asylum seekers and refugees, visit www.socialist-alliance.org.]

From GLW issue 833