Labor's refugee policies open way for Coalition attacks

The federal Labor government is increasingly rejecting Afghan refugees — at a rate of more than 40%, compared with only 5% a year ago, according to a report in the June 17 Australian. More than 220 Afghans had been denied “in the last month or two”, said immigration minister Chris Evans. Afghans were the biggest group of asylum-seekers arriving at Christmas Island in the past year and half.

The government suspended asylum claims from Afghans for six months and Sri Lankans for three months on April 9, based only on a vague reference to “evolving conditions in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan”. Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young is supporting a call by the International Crisis Group on War Crimes in Sri Lanka for the UN to convene an independent international inquiry into alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka during the last year of the conflict there.

The increasing denial of protection visas for Afghan asylum seekers is completely at odds with the intensified US-NATO war in Afghanistan. In a June 16 letter and four-page “fact” sheet from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, the only mention of the situation inside Afghanistan is: “... recent reporting suggests that some groups of asylum seekers, while living in difficult conditions, may not be experiencing persecution as defined by the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees”. This ignores the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s travel warning that “the security situation throughout Afghanistan remains extremely dangerous”. The UN estimated that 2009 was the worst year for civilian fatalities since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001.

‘Bizarre’ policy

In the June 9 Canberra Times, the Australian National University’s William Maley, Australia’s leading expert on Afghanistan and a regular visitor to the country, wrote that it was “frankly bizarre” for the Labor government to claim that the fall of the Taliban and constitutional and legal reform have improved the circumstances of minorities such as the Hazara, the ethnic group to which belong nearly all of the Afghans who seek asylum in Australia.

The government said it would continue to process applications from Sri Lankan and Afghan asylum seekers who had already arrived in Australia and applied for protection or those who had been intercepted and were en route to Christmas Island. But while it argued that the “processing suspension will allow more time for the government to review country information”, Labor has gone ahead and denied visas to more asylum seekers without providing any detailed public information on the war situation inside Afghanistan and its effects on the civilian population, or what has “improved” that makes it possible to return asylum seekers.

For many asylum seekers, this means being stuck in detention with an uncertain future while they wait for the resumption of processing even when they have been assessed by the UN as refugees. The suspension of asylum claims is also a racist violation of Australia’s obligations under the 1951 UN refugee convention, which prohibits governments from deciding refugee claims on the grounds of national or racial origin.

Opening to the right

Labor’s retention of mandatory detention, offshore processing and excision of Australian islands from the migration zone, its “people smuggling” legislation, visa suspensions and increased deportations of asylum seekers have made it easier for the Coalition parties to go further to the right in their refugee policies.

The May 27 federal Coalition policy on people seeking asylum by boat has a similar hysterical focus on “people smugglers” to that of the Labor government. The Keating Labor government brought in mandatory detention in 1992, to which the Howard Coalition government added its “Pacific Solution” of offshore processing and excision of islands from Australia’s migration zone just months before the 2001 federal election.

While Labor has attempted to obscure its policy of using the Australian navy and customs service to turn asylum seekers around at sea and also attempted to subcontract this task to the Indonesian government, the Coalition has openly and repeatedly said that if elected to government this year it “will return boats and/or their passengers to their point of departure or an alternative third country destination”. The Coalition says it will take “all practical steps” to “discourage the illegal arrival of persons by any means for the purpose of seeking access to our refugee and humanitarian visa programme, as an alternative to making such claims off shore or by some other legal arrival method”. Ignoring the fact that it is not illegal to seek asylum, Coalition policy consistently refers to asylum seekers arriving by boat as being “illegal”.

The Coalition says it will intercept vessels even in international waters and arrange their return to regional neighbours. It will process all “unauthorised” asylum seekers at Christmas Island; reinstate temporary protection visas; require “mutual obligation” for receipt of benefits (in other words, something similar to work for the dole); and restore the rule that asylum applicants cannot work while their application is processed if they lodged it more than 45 days after arriving in Australia.

These policies are justified by the supposed need for “border protection”. The Australian capitalist ruling class however does not feel that it should be limited by borders: It has no qualms about violating the borders of Iraq or Afghanistan though its participation in the US-led invasions of these countries. But imprisoning and deporting the victims of these policies is described as “protecting” Australia’s borders.

‘Punishing victims’

Temporary protection visas, replaced in the 2008 Labor refugee reforms by permanent protection visas, were introduced by the Howard government in October 1999, after being proposed by Pauline Hanson in 1998. They were issued to people already recognised as refugees fleeing persecution. Refugees had to reapply several years later, but could not travel overseas, or work or access social security benefits, or sponsor family members to settle in Australia. The policy led to years of uncertainty for male refugees, who were prevented from reuniting with their families, and an increased number of women and children becoming “boat people”.

When the Coalition refugee policy was announced earlier this year, it met scathing criticism from a wide range of refugee, church, human rights, children’s and other organisations. The Refugee Council of Australia said in a media statement on May 27: “The Federal Opposition is proposing a refugee policy which it knows will result in harm to vulnerable children, women and men fleeing persecution, torture and violence. The reintroduction of the worst of the previous Government’s refugee policies would occur in full knowledge of the impacts of long-term detention, of families in crisis being indefinitely separated and of people living in constant fear of being returned to persecution ...

“[T]he Coalition’s approach is based on punishing victims and offers no constructive response to the pressing needs of people seeking protection ... The proposal to keep all boat arrivals on Christmas Island means that refugee children who have fled to Australia for protection will once again be put in high security facilities or back in Pacific Island camps.”

A week later, retiring Liberal MP Petro Georgiou observed that “asylum-seekers are being subjected to increasingly virulent attacks”. He denounced the Coalition policy of seeking to turn back asylum-seeker boats as “cruel” and unworthy of support.

Both the Coalition and Labor have consistently sought to tap into racist fears in their demonisation of the “boat people”. Liberal Party leader Tony Abbott went so far as to put out a racist TV advertisement showing a map with red arrows coming from Asia to Australia — a clumsy echo of historical Labor (and Hanson) warnings of white Australia being swamped by a “yellow peril”.

Labor gained the support of the Coalition for its hastily put together “anti-people smuggling” bill, passed in May. The bill could criminalise humanitarian aid organisations, refugee groups, charity and church workers and others who assist refugees waiting, often for long periods, to be resettled from camps and detention centres, or from Australian-funded detention in Indonesia. The bill allows ASIO to spy on already traumatised refugee communities with new phone tapping and surveillance powers.

The legislation has removed “profit” from the crime of people smuggling and included an undefined “persons who provide material support or resources to people smugglers may be found guilty of supporting the offence of people smuggling irrespective of whether they received financial or other material benefit”. There is a 20-year jail term for people smuggling that involves exploitation or the danger of serious harm or death. The new “supporting” offence has a 10-year jail term. “Material support” includes cash assistance, false documents or transport, but won’t apply to people who pay a smuggler for their own or a relative’s passage.

The new law is “ill-conceived and dangerous” and “will disproportionately harm the most vulnerable people in this country”, said UNSW Law School senior lecturer Bassina Farbenblum in a May 31 SBS news report. “The bill completely ignores the fact that the overwhelming majority of people smuggled into Australia are refugees — people to whom Australia has protection obligations under international law, and who have a right to seek asylum and not be penalised if they enter Australia without a visa”, said Farbenblum. “A refugee can be prosecuted if the government claims she was ‘reckless’ as to whether some portion of any financial support that she sent to her family overseas would be used to pay smugglers.”

Almost all submissions to a joint parliamentary inquiry on the bill before it was passed opposed it. Pamela Curr, of the Melbourne-based Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, said in a submission to the inquiry: “We thought people were coming through Indonesia as part of their journey to Australia from Afghanistan, but what we found was that they were coming to Indonesia because it is the first UNHCR office at which they can formally lodge a refugee application. It is only when they get there that they find out it can take up to 18 months for them to get a refugee status determination and that there is then a lengthy period for resettlement …

“With the current number of 2500 registered in Indonesia … and with the average number of people Australia has accepted for resettlement from Indonesia having been 50 a year for the past nine years, that means a 40- to 50-year queue exists in Indonesia ...That is the problem and that is why people are availing themselves of the informal transportation methods.”

Labor’s racist refugee policy sends a clear message that the ALP will continue to support the US alliance, which means pretending that the Afghan war is a counter-insurgency and anti-terrorist war that the US is winning and not a war for control of Afghanistan’s resources. It will continue, in the interest of Australia’s imperialist ruling class, seeking to weaken Australian working people’s solidarity with countries in Asia campaigning against imperialist exploitation of their labour and resources. That, in turn, helps to maintain divisions among working people in Australia for the benefit of the capitalists and the class-collaborationist union bureaucracy.