Labor stirs anti-refugee hysteria

By Kerry Vernon

Tamil asylum seekers from Sri Lanka, diverted from entering Australia and put on the Australian Customs ship Oceanic Viking, had been refusing food for two days and refusing to leave the ship at Kijang for the Indonesian immigration detention prison, Tanjung Pinang, on Bintan Island on October 26. It had been more than a week since the 78 asylum seekers, including a sick 12-year-old girl, were put aboard the Australian ship after being intercepted by the Indonesian navy on October 11 and diverted from reaching Australia in a deal between Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

The Rudd government’s offshore processing deal with Indonesia means that Canberra will provide Jakarta with at least $50 million, on top of $12 million already spent renovating and building detention centres and $7.9 million on border control management. Rudd’s refugee deals with Indonesia, and Malaysia, are under increasing scrutiny since news reports revealed that Afghan detainees in Australian-funded Tanjung Pinang detention centre have been beaten by guards. According to the ABC’s Geoff Thompson, “Some of the mostly Afghan Hazaras locked up in the detention centre have been there for between two and six months”. Afghan refugees have complained that conditions in the prison are brutal and that they are treated like animals.

The Tanjung Pinang detention centre was refurbished in 2008 with $6.8 million given to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) by the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship. The May federal budget included a further $14.3 million over two years, including $9.3 million this financial year, partly funding the centre and 50 Indonesian staff. The IOM contributes food, medical care and other facilities to at least 13 immigration detention centres run by the Indonesian government. According to an October 24 Australian report, 1642 “irregular” migrants have been arrested in Indonesia over the past 12 months.

Australia’s Alcatraz

As of October 23, Christmas Island held more than 900 asylum seekers, after another boatload of 39 refugees thought to be Afghans, and three Indonesian crew, were intercepted and brought to Flying Fish Cove by Australian navy ships. The conditions on Christmas Island have been criticised by the human rights commissioner Catherine Branson, who has demanded the Rudd government stop detaining people there immediately.

Branson released the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Immigration detention and offshore processing on Christmas Island report on October 23. The report slammed the government for its failure to overturn laws that excise thousands of islands from the country’s migration zone. “Under the [1951 UN] Refugee Convention, asylum seekers should not be penalised because of their method of arrival”, Branson said. “Regardless of how or where they arrive in Australia, all people are entitled to have their fundamental human rights protected, including the right to seek asylum.”

Food, translators, lawyers, staff and shipping containers for extra accommodation have to be flown to Christmas Island at huge expense. Children are being held, and there is little community for the refugees to be released into once their health, identity and security checks are completed. Refugees detained at Christmas Island are barred from the refugee status determination system that applies under Australian law and have no access to the Refugee Review Tribunal.

Some capitalist media commentators have wondered why the Rudd government maintains the hugely expensive Christmas Island refugee prison, soaking up millions upon millions of dollars, to keep 900-1400 survivors of war-torn countries away from the Australian mainland. Labor uses Christmas Island both as a deterrent to asylum seekers and to undermine the building of an organised refugee rights movement to oppose Labor’s support for the Howard era racist refugee policies.

Rudd’s double-speak about “humanity” and criticism of the Howard government’s “Pacific solution” contrasts sharply with the realities of life for refugees in Indonesian and Malaysian detention centres partly paid for by the Australian government. On September 4, Amnesty International reported that it had visited some of Malaysia’s 22 detention centres. It said the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has registered 45,000 refugees, and another 40-50,000 are waiting to be registered. The vast majority are ethnic minorities fleeing violence and persecution by Burma’s military regime. They are often working illegally in Malaysia. There are approximately 2000 refugees from Burma registered with UNHCR and an estimated 70,000 more unregistered refugees from Burma in India, according to the University of NSW Centre for Refugee Research.

Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, and refugee status is not recognised under Malaysian law. Refugees can be arrested, detained and fined. If they cannot pay fines, they are forced to stay in very overcrowded detention centres, said the Amnesty report. Detainees suffer malnutrition, disease, violence and suicide attempts.

The Malaysian government has recently cracked down on some aspects of immigration corruption following a damning US State Department report. Burmese refugees removed from Malaysia and dumped inside the Thai border were often sold by traffickers into sexual slavery or forced work on fishing trawlers. Malaysia had banned the UNHCR from detention centres for two years, but recently allowed it back to register refugees.

Neither Malaysia nor Indonesia allow refugees to work or send their children to school. Like Malaysia, Indonesia has not signed the refugee convention. This allows refugees to be easily subjected to extortion and violence.

The UNHCR’s Asylum Levels and Trends in Industrialized Countries First Half 2009 statistical report shows 185,500 applications for asylum recorded during the first six months of 2009, 10% more than during the same period in 2008. Of the developed capitalist countries, the US had 13% of these asylum claims, followed by France (10.5%), Canada (10.1%), UK (9.5%) and Germany (6.5%). Australia had 2600 asylum claims (1.4%) over the same period, a slight increase from 2008. Asylum seekers to Australia account for only one-tenth of 1% of worldwide asylum seekers.

Victimising ‘boat people’

While Labor, the Liberals and the corporate media have been focussed on an alleged “flood” of “unauthorised” arrival by boat of asylum seekers (1799 in the first half of this year), 10 times as many “unauthorised” asylum seekers arrive by plane. While those arriving by boat are detained on Christmas Island while their claims are being processed, those arriving by plane are usually allowed to live in the general community while their claims are being processed.

Most of those arriving by boat are from war-wracked Afghanistan and Iraq, and increasingly this year, Tamils from Sri Lanka. Tens of thousands of people were killed during the 25 year-long war between the imperialist-backed Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE). An estimated 6500 people were reportedly killed and 14,000 wounded during the last few months of the war earlier this year. Since the defeat of the LTTE, more than 300,000 Tamils have been herded into military camps. In September, the Sri Lankan government expelled UNICEF spokesperson James Elder for complaining about the conditions of children and adult civilians displaced during the war.

In an October 13 media statement, immigration minister Chris Evans said that the Australian government had “committed $654 million for a comprehensive, whole-of-government strategy to combat people smuggling and help address the problem of irregular maritime arrivals. We have deployed extra resources through the Australian Federal Police and Customs and Border Protection to Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Thailand.” These “resources” are being expended to maintaining the cornerstone of the racist Howard–era refugee policies — off-shore processing and excision of off-shore islands from Australia’s migration zone.

The Labor government’s earlier post-election reforms to immigration policy dealt with less central issues: removing temporary protection visas, waiving refugee detention debts, closing Pacific offshore detention centres and requiring the immigration department to supply proof that a refugee was not genuine. It also recently presented complementary protection legislation for asylum claims that fall outside the scope of the Refugee Convention, but has been criticised by the Refugee Council of Australia for tightening the definition of what constitutes harm under the new legislation. In keeping the basis of the previous Coalition government’s policies intact, Labor has continued to move away from international human rights obligations in relation to refugees since the Keating Labor government brought in mandatory detention in 1992.

By shifting more of its refugee obligations onto Indonesia, Labor hopes to wash its hands of the contradictions posed by its adherence to racist mandatory detention policy toward the most desperate asylum seekers and presenting seemingly humanitarian rhetoric about understanding the “push factors” (war, persecution) that create refugees. The Rudd Labor government intends subcontracting the distasteful job of turning around refugee boats to countries in the region that are not signatories to international refugee agreements. Labor is hoping that either the slowness of the process — the long wait to be registered by the UNHCR in Indonesia and Malaysia, for example, and the even longer wait to be accepted for asylum in a third country — will somehow deter desperate refugees from even thinking that Australia could be a possible destination.

Rudd may have a more sophisticated explanation of why people would risk their lives in leaking boats to come to Australia, but he and Coalition leader Malcolm Turnbull both use moral outrage against “people smugglers” to divert attention away from why there is an increase in “illegal” asylum seekers and to justify support for xenophobic “border protection policies”. The inequality, poverty, and violence caused by the division of the world between the rich, developed capitalist nations and poor, underdeveloped 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 nations 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.

The political to and fro between the major Australian capitalist parties about “border protection” from “boat people” is a predictable diatribe about which of them can best ensure that Australian working people’s natural sympathy for those worse off than themselves does not translate into active political solidarity with those seeking asylum from repressive imperialist-backed Third World regimes. Despite 3.5 million migrants settling in Australia since 1976, the political vote-catching hysteria over a mere 19,500 “illegal” arrivals since that time has ensured that a large section of Australia’s population is hostile to small boatloads of refugees.

The Greens’ response to the turning around and diverting of refugee boats to Indonesia has been limited to saying the Rudd government must call on Indonesia to sign the UN refugee convention if it is going to provide more funding to stop asylum seekers coming to Australia. On October 25, Greens leader Senator Bob Brown told Channel Nine, “I hope that Prime Minister Rudd will be calling on his Indonesian counterpart … to sign the international refugee conventions which guide basic ground rules for fast processing of asylum seekers”. Brown said the Australian government should be trying to improve detention conditions for asylum seekers in Indonesia.

The trade union officialdom has been largely uncritical of Rudd’s approach to the treatment of “unauthorised” asylum seekers arriving by boat, with the exception of Australian Workers Union national secretary and ACTU vice president Paul Howes, who has said that the Labor government should welcome them as the Fraser Coalition government did in the late 1970s with the Vietnamese “boatpeople”. The October 27 edition of the Socialist Alliance’s Green Left Weekly published a statement issued by SA member Tim Gooden, secretary of the Geelong Trades Hall Council, that backs Australian Workers Union national secretary Paul Howes “100%” in his call for “Australia to roll out the red carpet for refugees”. According to Gooden, the Geelong Trades Hall Council “calls on the entire trade union movement to follow the lead given by the AWU national secretary, and for it to mobilise public opinion against Canberra’s bi-partisan bullies of refugees”.

Unfortunately, and surprisingly, while endorsing Howes’ pro-refugee rights position, Gooden cites as a positive example the post-World War II Chifley Labor government’s immigration program, declaring that the “Chifley Labor government helped build this country by welcoming people fleeing war and persecution, but Rudd Labor increasingly resembles the previous Coalition government of John Howard, one of the most racist in Australian history”. In reality, Chifley Labor’s policy toward refugees was completely within the framework of the racist White Australia policy, and was thus more racist than that of the Howard government. David Day, author of a 2001 biography of Chifley, noted in an article in the December 5, 2001, Melbourne Age: “At the cost of considerable international embarrassment, the post-war government of Ben Chifley organised the deportation of the small number of Asian refugees who had been sheltered during the war and who then refused to go home. Neither Chifley, nor his immigration minister, Arthur Calwell, could understand why Asian countries were outraged when Australia deported people who had been resident for up to eight years, some of whom had Australian spouses and children.”