A few days before the National ALP Conference on July 22, Labor leader Bill Shorten announced that he would support a policy to turn back boatloads of asylum seekers at sea if it is elected to government.
The announcement shocked and angered refugee rights advocates around the country, including members of his own party.
Shorten’s announcement came hot on the heels of Labor’s support for the introduction of Tony Abbott's Australian Border Force Act. Under this law, people working in immigration detention centres risk two years’ jail for disclosing evidence of abuse and inhumane conditions.
The Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) said on July 23 that Shorten and opposition Immigration spokeperson, Richard Marles were "pandering to the politics of fear". RCOA Chief Executive Officer Paul Power said: “If the policy being promoted by Mr Shorten and Mr Marles were copied around the world, the global system of asylum would collapse overnight and refugees would be left to face death at the hands of their persecutors”.
Human rights lawyer and advocate Julian Burnside launched a scathing criticism of Labor's support for the Australian Border Force Act in a pre-recorded speech to the ALP Conference on July 22. Burnside didn’t mince his words when he said: “To an outsider, the only difference between the two major parties is this: the Coalition [mis]treat boat people and boasts about it; Labor would mistreat boat people, but is ashamed of it.
“Labor supported the Australian Border Force Act, which makes it a criminal offence to disclose anything about conditions in detention, including instances of child sex abuse.
“If Labor actually believes that people in detention should be treated with dignity and compassion, it should not have supported the Australian Border Force Act.
“If Labor refuses to stand up for the principles it espouses, to articulate them and then argue for them, it forfeits its right to any political support.”
The Refugee Action Coalition in Sydney initiated an open letter to be distributed to delegates attending the ALP conference. It reads in part: "The view being put forward in some quarters that refugee supporters should pragmatically accept offshore processing and the turn-back of asylum boats as a necessary evil in order to gain political concessions on the treatment of asylum seekers in Australia is misguided and mistaken.
"The interception and turn-back of boats have resulted in fires, drownings, sinking and disappearances and jailing of those intercepted. Turn-backs prevent asylum seekers from exercising their right to seek protection in Australia. They are also a direct violation of non-refoulement obligations that are the cornerstone of refugee rights.
"Any decision by delegates at the Labor Conference to adopt a refugee policy that incorporated turn-backs or support for offshore processing would compound the bi-partisan mainstream political support for the violation of asylum seekers’ human rights."
The statement calls on delegates to "uphold the rights of asylum seekers and refugees" and support resolutions to end offshore processing; to unequivocally oppose the turn-back of asylum boats; and to end policies of mandatory detention.
The statement has been endorsed by a number of groups, including Tasmanian Asylum Seeker Support (TASS), Hunter Asylum Seeker Advocacy, Students for Refugees (Perth), Refugee Action Collective (Victoria), Refugee Action Coalition (Qld), Combined Refugee Action Group (CRAG Geelong), Refugee Rights Action Network (Fremantle) and the Brigidine Asylum Seekers Project.
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