Time to stand up for refugee rights!

April 24, 2009

The recent tragic explosion and loss of life on board an asylum seeker boat off Ashmore Reef has put refugee issues back near the top of the Australian political agenda.

Predictably, the Coalition and its attack dog immigration shadow minister Sharman Stone have jumped at the opportunity to revive John Howard's successful "wedging" tactic from the days of the Tampa.

The Rudd government immediately retreated: indeed, when PM Kevin Rudd invites people-smugglers "to rot in hell" he already sounds like 2001-vintage Howard.

And if asylum seeker boat arrivals increase would it really surprise us to hear Rudd say something like "we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come"?

The Coalition, desperate for any issue with which to rattle the government, says Labor has "softened border protection", but at the same time takes care not to commit to specific policies to tighten it.

That's because Australia still imposes the world's strictest processes for asylum seekers, wasting hundreds of millions of dollars on its coastal policing regime.

Moreover, even the racist Coalition has to calculate whether it would win or lose votes by putting refugees who have lost family back on Nauru or by torturing them with temporary visa status.

But it's also because, whatever their rhetorical clashes in parliament, the differences between Coalition and Labor on refugee policy are small.

The main point of distinction disappeared in late 2008, when Christmas Island became a "Nauru in the Indian Ocean", set up to stop asylum seekers from being "processed" on the mainland.

One of the great psychoses of Australian politics is that the parties of government actually believe the country has a refugee problem, or that racism is so deeply rooted that any politician on the hunt for votes can pretend that refugees are a "serious concern".

Unfortunately, even some Greens yield before this obsession.

It's complete nonsense, of course, as even the briefest glimpse of the facts shows. For example:

•In 2008, close to 4800 people made a claim for asylum in Australia (compared to nearly 37,000 in Canada and 31,000 in Italy). Less than 180 arrived by boat. Most entered by air with valid tourist or student visas.

•At the end of 2007, there were 16 million refugees and 51 million displaced persons in the world, yet in 2008-09 Australia offered a miserable 13,500 places to refugees and asylum seekers. That's 0.6 of a refugee for every 1000 inhabitants, whereas a comparable country like Sweden allowed in 12 refugees per 1000 between 2001 and 2005.

•According to the United States Committee for Refugees, the ratio of refugees to the total population in Australia is 1:1145, compared to 1:3 for Jordan, 1:285 for Thailand and 1:566 for Canada.

Of course, such facts mean nothing to people who believe that 457 visa holders are taking "Aussie" jobs and a plague of mosques is spreading across the wide brown land.

As always, the only answer is to tackle ignorance and racist fearmongering head on.

If the Rudd government had any sense of justice or spine, it would immediately announce a big increase in refugee intake and confront the racists, and their parliamentary voice in the Coalition, with the facts.

This is particularly because many asylum seekers are fleeing from a war that Australia supports. In Afghanistan, the presence of Australian troops is helping create more refugees every day.

Refugees from that country have formed the largest single exodus in the world for the last 15 years, with around 3.1 million displaced by war and persecution.

Now, with the US extending its war in Afghanistan into Pakistan, and Iran driving refugees back into Afghanistan, there's an increased likelihood of desperate Afghan asylum seekers reaching Australian shores.

Rather than calling on the Indonesian government to crack down harder on them, the Australian government should make them welcome.

The Socialist Alliance will be doing all it can to reverse the Rudd government's racist treatment of refugees.

The Socialist Alliance will launch a petition demanding that all refugee detention centres on Christmas Island and on the mainland be shut down, that asylum seekers be allowed to immediately apply for asylum in Australia, and that all asylum seekers who seek refugee status be accepted into the Australian community.

We urge all supporters of refugee rights to download the petition from the Socialist Alliance website http://www.socialist-alliance.org, and do their bit for refugee rights.

In the Howard years, a mass refugee rights movement helped push back the government's racist agenda. Now under Rudd, we need to rebuild this movement to let the refugees land and to let them stay.

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

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