Australia’s Orwellian refugee policy

November 1, 2019
A placard at a refugee rights rally in Sydney on July 21.
A placard at a refugee rights rally in Sydney on July 21. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

There are about 30,000 refugees in Australia who have been denied permanent settlement since 2013. Stuck on bridging visas, they continue to wait for their cases to be determined.

Among them is a young Tamil couple, Priya and Nades, who, with their two Australian-born children, were living in the small Queensland town of Biloela, where they had obtained employment and become valued members of the local community.

On August 29, the government tried to deport them, but failed due to protests by activists and supporters from Biloela and a court injunction. The family are now the sole inmates in the Christmas Island detention camp, which was re-opened earlier this year.

Many have been denied the right to work. Despite this, the government decreed they were expected to work and cut the poverty-level payments afford to them under the Status Resolution Support Services program.

They now have to survive on support from refugee services and campaign groups. Many are struggling through homelessness, health problems and self-harm. People are unable to live with such uncertainty.

Since 2013, some refugees have been moved offshore and detained on Manus Island, in Papua New Guinea, and Nauru. These detention camps are expressions of power that are used to fence in refugees, bribe poorer nations, control who comes to Australia and hide the depravations from the public eye.

Over time, the number of refugees in these camps has declined. A dozen have died in detention while others have been deported, in many cases to face certain death.

Some have found their way to Norway, Switzerland or Canada. The government succeeded in getting one refugee to be allowed to stay in Cambodia and a few more in the United States. Others survived bureaucratic processes to come to Australia for medical treatment.

The PNG government has now closed the Manus Island detention camp and the remaining refugees have been relocated to Port Moresby. More than 50 refugees are now in a new prison, Bomana, while six have given up all hope and agreed to be deported.

The refugees, however, have not been helpless. They have set up groups such as Justice for Refugees, organised protests and told their stories. Iranian-Kurdish refugee Behrouz Boochani won a literary award for his book about Manus Island.

They have found growing support across Australia. Some camp workers have spoken out, while health workers have refused to follow government dictats on how to provide treatment.

Eventually, the refugee rights movement forced a crack in the major parties’ bipartisan anti-refugee stance.

The Medevac law, passed in February and which Labor was compelled to support, means doctors have the main say on bringing refugees detained offshore to Australia for medical treatment. More than 130 people had been transferred to Australia since then.

The Coalition government was re-elected in May almost without mentioning refugee policy during its campaign. But it now wants to repeal the Medevac bill, with a vote due in the Senate as early as November 11.

It all reads like something out of George Orwell’s seminal work, 1984. Fortunately, 1984 is fiction.

The refugee rights movement has been campaigning in support of the Medevac bill and has rallies planned in several cities for November 9 and an overnight vigil in Canberra before November 11. A broad range of medical organisations oppose repealing the bill.

This pressure seems to have put enough parliamentarians on their guard and forced them to consider whether they should put humanity before parliamentary horse-trading. Stopping the repeal of the Medevac bill is possible, if the movement continues its efforts.

Looking beyond the bill, changing Australia’s refugee policy will, in no small part, depend on the ability of the refugee rights movement to unite with others. This includes forging links with the climate action movement, where the issue of climate refugees is a critical question, and the workers’ movement, around common rights for all at work.

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