Reject the 'border protection' hysteria: Let the refugees in!

By Shua Garfield

The tragic April 16 explosion on a boat carrying Afghan asylum seekers from Indonesia has refocused public attention on the Australian government’s refugee and “border protection” policies. The explosion — which killed 5 of the 47 asylum seekers on the boat — occurred while an Australian navy vessel was taking the boat to Christmas Island. In the first four months of 2009, 10 boats carrying 438 asylum seekers have arrived in Australia’s territorial waters. This compares to 162 asylum seekers arriving by boat in 2008 and 148 in 2007.

The Liberal-National Coalition has attempted to blame this slight upturn on the Rudd Labor government, which it accuses of “softening” immigration laws. An April 28 media release by Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull called “for an urgent and independent inquiry into the relationship between the Rudd Government’s softened stance on border protection and the surge in people smuggling into Australia … 15 boats with 541 arrivals since the Rudd Government softened Australia’s stance on border protection in August last year. Mr Rudd’s border protection policies have clearly failed.”

Last year the government closed offshore asylum seeker detention centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island. Temporary Protection Visas were abolished and replaced with “resolution of status” visas which confer the same rights and entitlements as permanent protection visas. The government has also ended the use of detention centres for children and has committed to reviewing the cases of detained asylum seekers every six months to prevent indefinite detention.

However, the Rudd government has maintained mandatory detention of unauthorised arrivals of asylum seekers. It has not repealed the excision of offshore reefs and islands from Australia’s immigration zone. Labor has replaced the previous Howard Coalition government’s “Pacific Solution” with an “Indian Ocean Solution” — constructing a new 800-capacity detention centre on Christmas Island, 1600km west of the Australian mainland.

‘People smuggler’ hysteria

The response by capitalist politicians and the mass media to recent boat arrivals contrasts somewhat with the last major wave of official anti-refugee hysteria. In the lead-up to the 2001 federal election, refugees arriving unauthorised in Australian territorial waters were publicly denounced as queue-jumping, disease-ridden criminals willing to throw their own children overboard. This was despite the fact that not a single one of the asylum seekers who arrived by boat during that period was assessed to be a security risk by ASIO and that 90% were assessed to be genuine refugees, even by the restrictive definition used by the Australian government.

Despite majority support among the Australian population for the Howard government’s “border protection” policies in 2001, a broad pro-refugee rights movement arose which was able to change public perceptions of refugees and eventually extract some concessions from the incoming Labor government. Thanks to the efforts of this movement, it is now less tenable for capitalist politicians to directly vilify refugees. This time around, official hatred has been directed at “people smugglers” — who are often poor Indonesian fisherpeople — rather than the asylum seekers themselves.

Thus Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said on April 17: “People smugglers are the vilest form of human life. They trade on the tragedy of others and that’s why they should rot in jail and in my own view, rot in hell.” Similarly, Turnbull’s April 28 media release stated: “People smuggling is dangerous and inhumane … The Coalition is deeply concerned about the welfare of asylum seekers lured into attempting dangerous voyages by unscrupulous people smugglers.”

Despite their different targets, Rudd’s and Turnbull’s moral outrage against “people smugglers” and the anti-refugee hysteria of 2001 share similar purposes. One is to divert attention from the question of why there are increasing numbers of “illegal” asylum seekers. Contrary to Coalition claims, this has far more to do with the international political situation than with some minor reforms of Australia’s cruel laws.

Rising numbers of refugees

International refugee numbers have been rising since 2007. In 2008 there was a 12% increase in the numbers of people applying to Western countries for asylum. The number of people seeking asylum in Australia in 2008 rose 19% and 96% of the total seeking asylum that year arrived by airplane.

Indeed, most of the increase in the numbers of people seeking asylum in Australia can be accounted for by the increased numbers who arrived by airplane. Yet, as Mike Steketee, the Australian’s national affairs editor, wrote on April 16, “Any weakness in the surveillance of our coastline does not influence those who fly into the country. The misnamed Pacific solution, scrapped by the Rudd Government, never applied to them. Nor, except for a tiny number, did the now abolished temporary protection visas ... There is no mystery about the reason for the increase. The world is becoming less safe. Richard Towle, UNHCR regional representative for Australia, says: ‘The places traditionally looked to for refuge such as Pakistan are becoming increasingly unstable and people quite rapidly are having to look elsewhere.’”

The majority of those who arrived by boat between the end of September and April 15 were Afghans. Iraqis and Sri Lankans made up most of the remainder. The real reasons these people have been driven to seek asylum are a lot more obvious than any change in immigration laws under the Rudd government.

The Afghan and Iraqi refugees who sought asylum in Australia in the late 1990s and early 2000s were fleeing vicious regimes that originally came to power with the assistance of the imperialist powers. The ones who come today are fleeing the consequences of the same imperialist powers’ efforts to militarily “liberate” their countries from these regimes so as to impose more politically reliable and subservient regimes.

In Iraq, the US-led occupation has resulted in up to 1 million deaths since 2003, thanks in no small part to the occupiers’ indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas and instigation of sectarian religious conflict. In Afghanistan, the imperialist occupiers have been similarly indiscriminate in their air attacks on civilians and have left large parts of the country to be administered by drug barons and reactionary warlords, leading to a renewal of Taliban influence. In Sri Lanka, decades of discrimination and pogroms against the country’s minority Tamil-speaking population by the imperialist-backed Sinhalese-chauvinist political elite have culminated in a brutal military offensive by the Sri Lankan military on formerly Tamil-controlled areas in the north of the country, turning hundreds of thousands of Tamils into refugees.

‘Border protection’

The other purpose shared by both the anti-refugee hysteria of 2001 and today’s anti-“people smuggler” hysteria is to justify “border protection” measures. The inequality, poverty, and violence caused by the division of the world between the rich, developed, capitalist nations and poorer, under-developed Third World nations naturally leads some people from the latter to seek a better life in the former. The existence of this persistent inequality among the nations of the world also risks outraging and radicalising working people in the First World, encouraging solidarity against their common exploiters, the super-rich families of the First World that own the big corporations that dominate the industry, agriculture and trade of rich and poor nations alike.

By controlling the movement of people between countries, the government of the developed capitalist nations make it easier for their corporations to super-exploit the workers of the Third World by limiting their options for migration and criminalising them when they do manage to cross borders. Campaigns by capitalist politicians and corporate media in the imperialist countries to demonise immigrants from the Third World undermine the development of solidarity with these migrants among First World workers. This, in turn, weakens First World workers in their struggles against their capitalist exploiters. Refugees, the most vulnerable among migrants, are also often the easiest to demonise.

This takes on particular importance for the capitalist rulers in times of economic crisis, when they have the additional need to deflect blame for the crisis onto convenient scapegoats. Thus, Turnbull’s claim, made on ABC Radio’s April 20 PM program, that Rudd had only admitted that Australia was in recession to distract attention from the issue of asylum seekers, was an inversion of the truth: Fears of immigrants taking First World workers’ jobs are used by capitalist politicians and the corporate media to divert attention from the fact that rising unemployment in the First World is caused by the “boom and bust” cycle of the capitalist profit system. The economic crises, wars and environmental destruction caused by this system will likely lead to greater numbers of refugees in the future. Legal measures by imperalist countries like Australia — such as prosecution of “people smugglers” or creation of new, more restrictive visa categories — will do nothing to counter the reasons why people in poor countries seek asylum, but will only exacerbate the injustices faced by these refugees.