Refugees: Stop Labor's racist attacks!

The decision last month by the Rudd Labor government to suspend the processing of new asylum claims by Tamils from Sri Lanka for a period of three months and the processing of new asylum claims by Afghans for a period of six months is a clear and racist violation of Australia’s obligations under the 1951 UN refugee convention, which prohibits governments from deciding refugee claims on grounds of national or racial origin. About 80% of refugees heading by boat to Australia are either from Afghanistan or Sri Lanka.

The affected asylum seekers will be held at the Howard-era detention centre on the remote Curtin air force base, 40 kilometres south-east of Derby in Western Australia. On April 18, federal immigration minister Chris Evans also announced that “Charter flights [from Christmas Island] will begin to move single men, all of whom are currently in the final stages of a positive pathway [to be deported], to the Northern Immigration Detention Centre in Darwin. A group of unaccompanied minors will also be transferred to the Port Augusta immigration facility. The relocation of unaccompanied minors is routine and reflects our commitment to ensuring that children and, where possible, their accompanying family members, will not be detained in Immigration detention centres,”

While Evans claimed Labor’s new racist attack on refugee rights as reflecting the “government’s prudent and responsible approach to managing irregular maritime arrivals”, his government has taken a leaf out of Pauline Hanson’s racist One Nation party’s immigration policy. One Nation advocated speedier deportations of “boatpeople” with no access to legal aid or appeal.

Labor’s latest attack on those fleeing war, persecution and repression — victims of its own foreign policy of active support to the US-led war in Afghanistan and Rudd Labor’s support for the repressive anti-Tamil Sinhala chauvinist regime in Sri Lanka — is a betrayal of those who supported Labor in the November 2007 federal election on its promise to overturn the Howard Coalition government’s anti-refugee policy. In July 2008, the Rudd government introduced a series of reforms to refugee policy, but retained the Howard government’s policy of off-shore processing (on Christmas Island rather than in PNG and on Nauru) and the excision from Australia’s migration zone of Ashmore, Christmas and the Cocos islands.

According to a March 2010 UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) report, in 2009, Australia’s share of the 377,200 refugee application to the world’s 44 “industrialised” countries was a paltry 6170 asylum applications (1.6% of the total number). The report, Asylum Levels and Trends in Industrialized Countries 2009, noted that “figures in Australia remain not only below those observed in 2000 (13,100 claims) and 2001 (12,400 claims), but also far below those recorded by many other industrialized countries” with much smaller populations. Sweden, with a total population of 9 million residents, accepted 24,200 refugee claims, while Norway, with 4.8 million inhabitants, accepted 17,200 refugees.

Labor racism

Rudd Labor’s latest racist attack on refugees arriving by boat is consistent with the ALP’s long record of racist hostility to Asian refugees and immigrants. Racism was built into the development of Australian capitalist society from its beginning as a British penal settlement in 1788. With the establishment of significant pastoral interests, the gold rushes and the development of Queensland sugar plantations, racial oppression of Aboriginal people became a systematic policy based on the expropriation of land from Aboriginal people. Anti-Chinese agitation by middle-class white miners and the growing labour movement had a long history in the Australian settler-colonies before federation in 1901.

A coherent policy excluding non-British immigrants known as the White Australia policy was enacted at federation in order to fortify support among the Australian working class for the Australian capitalist ruling class’s role as a junior partner of British imperialism, and defence of the emerging Australian imperialist role in the Asia-Pacific region. During the parliamentary debate on the White Australia policy, this was explicitly spelt out by one senator: “Speaking from the imperial point of view, nothing could tend to solidify and strengthen the Empire so much as that we should build up in these southern lands a British race.”

A “labour aristocracy”, a layer of privileged workers, who seek to maintain their better position and their sectional interests through political collaboration with the capitalist ruling class at the expense of the working class as a whole, is the social base for this racism. Such labour opportunism was already well entrenched within the working class when the Australian Labor Party was formed. The class-collaborationist leaders of the Australian labour movement fully supported the pro-imperialist White Australia policy.

William Spence, Labor MP and opportunist leader of the Australian Workers Union, spelt this out in his 1909 pamphlet The Awakening Nation and the Trade Union Nationalist, observing that the “first part of the [ALP’s] Federal objective declares for ‘The cultivation of an Australian sentiment based upon the maintenance of racial purity and the development in Australia of an enlightened and self-reliant community.’ The party stands for racial purity and racial efficiency — industrially, mentally, morally, and intellectually. It asks the people to set up a high ideal of national character, and hence it stands strongly against any admixture with the white race. True patriotism should be racial.”

Imperialism & White Australia

The first piece of legislation enacted by newly formed federal parliament in 1901 was the Commonwealth Immigration Restriction Act (IRA). In his speech on the bill, Spence said, “if we keep the race pure, and build up the national character, we shall become a highly progressive people of whom the British government will be prouder the longer we live and the stronger we grow. I do not think the Imperial authorities would hesitate to give their assent to a proposal to close the door to those people who would degrade our national character, lower the standard of our energy and capacity of our people, and thus weaken the Empire itself.”

Also enacted in 1901 was the Pacific Island Labourers Act. Under this law, a majority of Melanesian workers, often forcibly brought to the north Queensland sugar plantations under slave-like conditions, were expelled from Australia. The White Australia policy was vehemently supported by both major capitalist parties for nearly 70 years until it became an international embarrassment in the era of anti-imperialist wars and national liberation struggles, civil rights, anti-war and women’s liberation movements. Its dismantling was begun by the Liberals in the 1960s and officially ended in 1972 under the Whitlam Labor government.

Several notable incidents in the history of Labor governments’ treatment of Asian refugees show the Rudd Labor government is not acting out of character. According to James Jupp in his 2002 book, From White Australia to Woomera: The story of Australian Immigration, the ending of the White Australia policy had no immediate impact. The Whitlam government was hostile to the possibility of Vietnamese refugees heading to Australia after the end of the Vietnam War. The first boat to arrive off northern Australia were East Timorese refugees from the Indonesian invasion on December 7, 1975.

From 1976, the Fraser Coalition government accepted over 2000 Vietnamese asylum seekers who came in 56 boats from April 1975 to August 1981. These refugees were defeated political allies of the US and Australian imperialist war against the victorious Vietnamese national revolutionary movement, and were held in “loose detention” in an open part of Westbridge (now Villawood) Migrant Centre in Sydney, together with migrants who had been granted visas under the humanitarian and refugee programs, and processed for permanent residency almost immediately.

For the six years between 1989 and 1994 (the year of the introduction the 1992 Keating mandatory detention legislation), only about 1,700 people arrived in Australia by boat. Most were Cambodians and Chinese — less than 500 per year. Chinese boat arrivals in 1994 were 1000. Yet in the same time there were around 14,000 legal arrivals who overstayed their visas and, if found, were given bridging visas while their status was determined.

Gerry Hand, immigration minister in the Keating Labor government, said in 1992 that it was necessary to detain asylum seekers who arrived in Australia by boat 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.” Nothing much has changed from when Labor claimed in 1992 that without the mandatory detention regime, Australia would face a “flood” of unauthorised asylum seekers.

The Keating government introduced retrospective legislation in 1994 amending the Migration Act to validate the detention of 480 “boatpeople” (Cambodians) between November 1989 and May 1992 whose detention was found unlawful by the High Court and to prevent them from claiming compensation. In 1995, three years after the Keating government brought in mandatory detention legislation, it was looking for a legal loophole to refuse East Timorese fleeing Indonesia’s brutal occupation by encouraging the Refugee Review Tribunal to delay East Timorese asylum cases at the same time saying it was not interfering in the process. The Labor government wanted East Timorese asylum seekers to be made to resettle in Portugal, so as to put out of sight the human evidence of Labor’s support for post-1975 Indonesian military occupation of East Timor.

Anti-refugee lies

Both the Coalition and Labor have had to convince the majority of Australian people that those who head by boat to Australia are somehow different to great majority of refugees who arrive by plane each year (in 2008, 30 times the number of refugees supposedly “flooding” across Australia’s maritime borders). By and large they have succeeded, being able to tap into the widespread anti-Asian xenophobia that exists within the Australian working class.

Labor politicians agree with the racist lies about “boatpeople” even when they say they “understand” what could be driving people to seek refuge in Australia. ALP leaders perpetuate the lie that there is a “queue” of asylum seekers and that the Australian government is “assisting” in the “orderly” relocation of “genuine” asylum seekers presently in Malaysia and Indonesia. But the fact that many asylum seekers, including Burmese, Afghans, Iraqis and Sri Lankan Tamils, who have fled to Indonesia and Malaysia and are still waiting to see the UNHCR and be resettled is evidence that there is no queue.

From before Labor’s election in 2007, Kevin Rudd had a clear intention, expressed in a November 2007 ABC interview, of using the mothballed Christmas Island detention centre as the core of Labor’s mandatory detention regime. The centre was opened in December 2008. This relocated the discredited Howard “Pacific Solution” to Labor’s “Indian Ocean solution”. And in subcontracting its refugee obligations to the Indonesian government, which is not a signatory to the UN refugee convention, the Rudd government has, in just over two years of office, not only continued the mandatory regime of the Keating Labor government but also largely revived the racist Howard-era policies.

Fifteen years on from 1992, Labor gives the same justification of its anti-refugee policies as rhetoric as it did then. In a 1992 parliamentary debate on refugee policy, a Labor senator stated, “Turning boats around at sea may be the only way to stop the floodgates opening and to protect Australia in the long term.”

Union officials’ response

What has been the response from the trade union leadership to the Rudd government latest attack on refugees? Outgoing ACTU president Sharan Burrow issued a media statement on April 10 headlined “Unions call for humane approach to asylum seekers: refugees should not be a political football”, thus implying that the Rudd government was simply acting to neutralise support among racist voters for the Liberals’ call for “turning back the boats”. Burrow said that the Rudd government “should release the assessments of the political and security situations in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, and it should ensure no-one is sent back to a situation of personal danger or oppression. Indefinite, prolonged mandatory detention has in the past worsened the anguish and suffering of asylum seekers who have already endured traumatic experiences.

“The issue of boat arrivals attracts inordinate political and media attention, considering our current refugee intake of about 13,000 a year is small by international standards and forms less than 10% of our total permanent migration intake. There needs to be international action to deal with the push factors that cause people to seek asylum. Australia can play an international leadership role by working towards peace, equitable development and decent work for all. Australian unions have restated their support of a humanitarian immigration and refugee policy and called for strong leadership from all sides of politics to show compassion to asylum seekers fleeing strife-torn parts of the world.”

However, the ALP-aligned trade union officialdom which Burrow represents is not about to seek to mobilise the ranks of the unions in mass protest action either against the Labor government’s anti-refugee policy or the Labor government’s continued support for the US-led war in Afghanistan. The ACTU is not about to expose the Labor government’s support for the Sri Lankan Sinhala chauvinist regime or the international concern over the continued governmental repression in Sri Lanka.

“Australian unions are longstanding supporters of multiculturalism and the role of immigration in Australia’s development”, said Burrow. This statement and others like it made by pro-Labor union officials have couched their opposition to the Rudd Labor government’s treatment of refugees purely within a capitalist formal “non-racism” without at all drawing Australian unionists attention to the need for working-class internationalist solidarity against the capitalist system. That would run counter to these union officials support for the traditional Laborite goal of promoting an “Australian national sentiment” in which Australian workers are encouraged to identify their interests with the “national interest” of Australian imperialist capitalism.