Behind Rudd's racist refugee policy

Demonstrations were held in Sydney, Melbourne, Newcastle, Perth, Auckland, Toronto and London and email/postcard campaigns in the US and Malaysia on January 18 to mark 100 days since 254, mostly Tamil asylum seekers, left on a boat heading for Australia were intercepted by the Indonesian navy. This happened after Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd personally asked Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to prevent the asylum seekers landing on the Australian mainland and invoking Australia’s refugee obligations.

The Jaya Lestari 5 left Malaysia on October 1, with asylum seekers who had been in Malaysia, Thailand and other countries for some time, and others who had arrived in Malaysia only a few days before. The Indonesian navy brought the boat to the Indonesian port of Merak, but the asylum seekers refused to disembark and were left in limbo amid atrocious conditions. One hundred and nine of them have been recognised as refugees by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Refugee advocates based in Australia and Malaysia visited Indonesia between December 18 and 28 and found that the asylum seekers’ health and living conditions on the stranded boat had deteriorated. Dysentery is spreading. Medical services are restricted. Water and electricity are limited. There is little shade, only one toilet and no education or recreational activities for children on board. There is no access to the UNHCR or humanitarian aid from NGOs.

“Alex”, the Tamil refugee spokesperson onboard the Jaya Lestari 5 told Direct Action on January 28 that the conditions on the boat are severe. People with medical problems are not being treated. Many are suffering malnutrition, rashes and other medical problems, aggravated by being confined in a small space in hot humid conditions. There are 31 children and one pregnant woman onboard. He also told DA that there is now an internet livestream from the boat so supporters can see and talk to the refugees.

“Alex” also said, “We are not getting assistance from the International Organisation of Migration.” The IOM has been given over $21 million by the Australian government through the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) to partly fund at least 13 immigration detention centres in Indonesia, including the refurbishment of the Tanjung Pinang Detention Centre where it was revealed last year by the ABC that some Afghan detainees were beaten by guards.

According to a January 14 ABC report, five Sri Lankan refugees (four from the Australian customs vessel Oceanic Viking) now detained on Christmas Island have been deemed a security threat by ASIO, which did not give any reasons. They have been refused Australian visas. In a January 14 Refugee Action Collective statement, Ian Rintoul said, “A young Tamil man, Gunasekaram Sujendran, voluntarily returned to Sri Lanka from the boat to see his sick mother, was arrested at Colombo airport and held secretly until December 7, 2009. He was told he would be kept in jail for three months without charge.” On December 23, George Jacob Samuel Christin, aged 29, died on the boat due to lack of medical attention. The International Organisation for Migration, funded in part by the Australian government, refused to pay his hospital expenses. Access to a priest was also denied.


Sinhalese asylum seekers deported from Christmas Island by Australia last year were similarly detained in Colombo. One member of this group was badly beaten and is still in prison. Another was detained and questioned for three days. Like many of the others deported, he refuses to return to his home village because he fears for his safety. He has been living on the streets of Colombo since he returned.

The Indonesian government, which is not a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees and does not provide refuge to asylum seekers, has allowed three Sri Lankan navy officers access to the Tamil refugees in immigration detention in Jakarta. Captain Kapil from the Sri Lankan embassy and two other officers were brought into the detention facility by Indonesian immigration officials. Eight Tamil asylum seekers were interrogated after completing Indonesian immigration forms two days earlier.

Another 12 asylum seekers who were promised access to the UNHCR and a hostel to live in while they were waiting left the Merak boat and have been detained in a small cell for over two months without UNHCR access. More terrifying for the refugees on the boat is the announcement that Indonesian officials will force them into immigration detention at gunpoint if necessary.

According to a January 20 ABC report, the last 16 of the 78 asylum seekers involved in a month long stand-off on the Oceanic Viking have left detention in Indonesia for resettlement. Three asylum seekers will go to Australia, while the others will eventually be taken to New Zealand.

Indonesian foreign ministry spokesperson Teuku Faizasyah said Australia should help resettle the Merak boat asylum seekers. “We would expect countries like Australia, which are part of the Refugee Convention, to [display] similar interest and effort in order to have these people ... placed, whether in Australia or other countries.”

In a January 20 statement, the Refugee Action Collective condemned the Australian Federal Police charges against 12 Christmas Island detainees, arising from a fight inside the detention centre in November. Those charged are now understood to be detained in an isolation compound. “The fight”, said RAC spokersperson Ian Rintoul, ‘was a direct result of tensions created by the government and the overcrowding of the detention centre. The government has locked people up for months and months in a high-security prison. Christmas Island was a tinder box waiting for a spark. If there is anyone guilty for starting the fight on Christmas Island, it is immigration minister Chris Evans.”

The charges came only a day after a report in the Medical Journal of Australia confirmed that detention has a dramatic detrimental effect on the mental health of detainees. The report, by Janette Green and Kathy Eagar, found “a clear association between time in detention and rates of mental illness”. Commenting on the report, Rintoul said: “Mental health services on Christmas Island are stretched way beyond their capacity. They cannot meet the needs of the growing population of detainees. The detainees need support and services, not criminal charges.”

ALP’s promises and reality

Prior to winning the November 2007 federal election, the ALP gave the impression that it would overturn the racist anti-refugee policy of the Howard Coalition government. There were even expectations among many supporters of refugee rights that a Labor government might even end mandatory detention. The July 30, 2008 Sydney Morning Herald reported that immigration minister Chris Evans had “turned immigration detention policy inside out ... and effectively ended mandatory and indefinite detention, a policy introduced by his own party, under Paul Keating, in 1992”. Evans was quoted as rejecting the notion that “dehumanising and punishing unauthorised arrivals with long-term detention is an effective and civilised response”. He said the Howard government’s punitive policies “did much damage to those individuals and brought great shame on Australia”.

Evans said the new Labor government was committed to immigration detention only as a last resort, and for the shortest practicable time. Evans also rejected indefinite or arbitrary detention. The immigration department would now have to justify a decision to detain, instead of automatically presuming detention. Labor’s changes, said Evans, would deliver a policy that more closely “reflects the values of Australian society”. These claims helped to veil the similarity between the Rudd government’s refugee policies and those of the Howard government. Labor’s support for Howard’s policies was swept under the carpet.

Labor’s retention of Christmas Island as a “offshore” detention prison was downplayed because the island’s remote detention facility — located 1565 kilometres off the north-west coast of the Australian mainland and 360km south of Java — was not opened until December 2008. In a media release on December 16, 2009, Evans responded to Amnesty International’s criticism of the use of the Christmas Island detention centre by admitting that the Rudd government was committed to continuing mandatory detention and offshore processing “of irregular maritime arrivals”. People seeking asylum who are intercepted at sea and taken to Christmas Island are treated differently from those seeking asylum who arrive by plane.

Despite the Rudd government’s claim that no child would be held in immigration detention, there are now at least 100 children in various forms of detention. According to a DIAC report, on January 1 there were 347 people in immigration detention on the mainland and 1411 on Christmas Island. Of those on the mainland, 53 were children. Of these, “six were detained in the community under residence determinations, ten were in alternative temporary detention in the community, three were in immigration residential housing and 34 were in immigration transit accommodation”. On Christmas Island, 77 of those being held were children: “three were detained in the community under residence determinations and 74 were in alternative temporary detention in the community”.

An additional 131 people were taken to Christmas Island between December 4 and January 1. Being held in immigration detention are asylum seekers from Afghanistan (597), Sri Lanka (580), Iran (123), Iraq (99) — the four largest groups. Others are from China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Burma, Nigeria and Pakistan. Some 735 people (41.8% of the total) have been held in detention up to three months; 550 people (31.2%) have been held from three months to a year. Thirty-seven people have been held for up to two years. Despite government claims that “All people in immigration detention are provided with access to a range of health services, including mental health care, commensurate to those available to the broader Australian community”, there are 1411 detainees isolated on Christmas Island, crowded into facilities with a capacity for 1088 people.

Both the Coalition and Labor have tried to convince the Australian people that asylum seekers who arrive by boat on Australian territory unauthorised are somehow different from the vast number of other asylum seekers who arrive each year by plane. Labor agrees with and helps to spread the racist lies about the “boat people” being a threat to “border security”, even when it claims to “understand” what could be driving these people to seek asylum in Australia. It is perpetuating the lie that there is a “queue” of asylum seekers so that it can claim it is only assisting in the orderly relocation of refugees who have reached Malaysia and Indonesia. The fact that many asylum seekers, including Burmese, Afghans, Iraqis and Sri Lankan Tamils, are still waiting to see the UNHCR and be resettled is evidence that there is no queue.

Why they do it

Why does Labor implement racist refugee policies? Although Labor and the Coalition have used different rhetoric recently, both have a long history of chopping and changing the policy according to the needs of Australian capitalism. The Fraser Coalition government accepted more than 2000 Vietnamese asylum seekers who arrived in 56 boats from 1975 to 1981. It had few concerns about their “bona fides”. They were fleeing a political regime that the Australian capitalist rulers, in alliance with Washington, had waged a war against and the asylum seekers were regarded by Canberra as defeated political allies. The Vietnamese asylum seekers were held in “loose detention” in an open part of Westbridge (now Villawood) Migrant Centre in Sydney, together with other immigrants who had been granted visas under the humanitarian and refugee programs and were processed for permanent residence almost immediately.

As the numbers of Vietnamese asylum seekers risking the boat journey to Australia started to rise, resettlement countries took larger numbers from refugee camps in Malaysia, Hong Kong and Thailand. This gave refugees confidence that they would soon be resettled without turning to their own resources. Eventually boats stopped arriving. In the six years between 1989 and 1994, only about 1700 people arrived in Australia by boat. Most were Cambodians and Chinese. In the same period there were around 14,000 legal arrivals who overstayed their visas. If found, they were given bridging visas while their status was determined.

But the fairly relaxed attitude towards refugees began to change once the Soviet Union disappeared and the governments of the developed capitalist countries began looking for new “enemies” with which to frighten working people. Gerry Hand, immigration minister in the Keating Labor government, said in 1992 that it was necessary to detain asylum seekers who arrived in Australia unauthorised in order to “send a message” internationally. “The government is determined that a clear signal be sent that migration to Australia may not be achieved by simply arriving in this country and expecting to be allowed into the community.”

The Keating government brought in mandatory detention in 1992. In 1994, it retrospectively amended the Migration Act to validate the detention of 480 Cambodian “boat people” between November 1989 and May 1992, and to prevent them from claiming compensation after their detention was found unlawful by the High Court. In 1995, the Keating government was looking for a legal loophole to refuse East Timorese fleeing Indonesia’s brutal occupation of their country. It encouraged the Refugee Review Tribunal to delay East Timorese asylum cases while at the same time saying it was not interfering in the process. The Labor government wanted East Timorese refugees to be forced to go to Portugal, hoping to avoid public attention on the Australian government’s complicity in helping to create the situation which the East Timorese were fleeing. Refusing to accept East Timorese fleeing the Indonesian occupation also meant that the Australian government’s political alliance with the Suharto dictatorship was not disrupted.

Today Labor calculates that maintaining and now expanding offshore processing and mandatory detention will help it electorally by appealing to the racist view that “boat people” are not “genuine refugees”. Demonising the “boat people” also helps to maintain Australian nationalist-racist xenophobia against Asian working people, thus undermining internationalist solidarity within the Australian working class with those fleeing wars and persecution by Asian regimes that the Australian imperialist ruling class politically supports. At the same time, there is also political mileage in not being seen as completely callous and inhumane toward the “boat people” like the Howard government, so the Rudd government is happy to have Indonesia take the responsibility for removing the Merak refugees from their boat by force.

While the ACTU and some individual union leaderships have rejected Labor’s treatment of the “boat people”, they have not sought to mobilise working people in public protest to oppose Labor’s anti-working-class refugee policies. This is not enough to stop Labor acting with impunity. While the ALP is a pro-capitalist party, unlike the Coalition parties, it draws its support from the trade-union bureaucracy. However, most of that bureaucracy have been willing accomplices in the capitalist rulers’ divide-and-rule strategy. Basing themselves on the relatively privileged and most conservative workers, the union bureaucracy promotes the myth that class collaboration serves workers’ interests, and that the capitalist system deserves their confidence and support. Australian nationalism — the idea that Australian workers have some common “national interest” with the Australian capitalist ruling class, rather than a common class interest with workers across the planet, regardless of nationality or racial origin, against all capitalists — is a necessary part of that myth.