Labor expands racist refugee polices

In June 2008 the federal Labor government said its changes to refugee policy had removed the “worst excesses” of the previous Howard Coalition government’s racist refugee policies. Two years later, it’s clear that the Labor government has not only retained the core elements of these policies, but has actually expanded them.

September 23, Brisbane: protest for refugee rights. Photo by Owain Jones.

Labor has continued the policy of mandatory detention of asylum seekers who arrive by boat (a policy first brought in by the Keating Labor government in 1992), excision of Australian island territories from Australian immigration law (brought in by the Howard government in 2001, with Labor’s support), and “off-shore processing” of asylum seekers arriving by boat. While Labor ended the Howard government’s policy of detaining such asylum seekers on Nauru and Papua-New Guinea’s Manus Island, it made the detention centre built by the Howard government on Australia’s remote Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island in 2006 the main centre for detaining such asylum seekers.

Christmas Island shire president Gordon Thomson told on August 24 that “Christmas Island shouldn’t be excised from the migration zone to create this legal fiction we’re not part of Australia for asylum claims”. That same day, the High Court began hearing a challenge to the legality of excluding Christmas Island from the Australian law for the purposes of processing asylum claims.

The vast majority of asylum seekers in Australia arrive by plane and have their claims processed while living in the Australian community, and are able to appeal to Australian courts. The “offshore processing” regime applied to asylum seekers who arrive by boat creates a discriminatory system that places Australia in direct contravention of its international obligations under the UN Refugee Convention.

Even the transfer of asylum seekers from Christmas Island to reopened remote Howard-era detention centres on the Australian mainland, which Labor began earlier this year, does not change their status under the government’s policy. They continue to be denied the legal rights accorded to asylum seekers who arrive on the Australian mainland by plane.

In April, the Labor government expanded this discriminatory regime, imposing a three-month suspension on the processing of asylum claims by those arriving by boat from Sri Lanka (lifted on July 6), and a six-month suspension on the processing of asylum claims by boat from Afghanistan (lifted on September 30). The July 5 Australian reported that 772 Afghans and 184 Sri Lankans had been affected by the freeze. It also reported that “of the more than 3600 Afghans who have arrived since 2008 only 1622 had, as of July 1, been granted visas, meaning almost 2000 remained in detention”. According to immigration department figures, as of August 13 there were 4619 people being held in immigration detention, including 2248 Afghans, and at least 650 children.

UN report

In a report issued on August 27, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination reiterated its view that Australia should “ensure that immigration policies do not have the effect of discriminating against persons on the basis of race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin”. In particular it called on Australia to “review its mandatory detention regime of asylum seekers with a view to finding an alternative to detention, ensuring that the detention of asylum seekers is always a measure of last resort and is limited by statute to the shortest time reasonably necessary” and “expedite the removal of the suspension on processing visa applications from asylum seekers from Afghanistan and that it take the necessary measures to ensure standardised asylum assessment and review procedures and equal entitlement to public services by all asylum seekers, regardless of country of origin or mode of entry”. While not directly saying so, the implication of the committee’s report was that since the introduction of the mandatory detention regime Australia has had a racist refugee policy, and this has been expanded by the Labor government.

Last year, 90% of Afghan asylum-seeker claims were accepted, but this year 70% have been rejected, despite the intensification this year of the US-led war in Afghanistan, with twice as many Australian troops having died there this year than in the previous nine years of the war. Last month, three Australian special forces soldiers were charged by Australia’s Director of Military Prosecutions with “manslaughter” over the deaths of four Afghan children during a February raid on an Afghan village.

The Labor government has stated that the dramatic turnaround in the proportion of rejected Afghan asylum claims is due to “changed circumstances” in Afghanistan that supposedly make the country “safer” for asylum seekers to be return to. At a September 28 Canberra refugee rights protest calling for an end to mandatory detention, newly elected Greens MP Adam Bandt observed that there “is supposedly so much wrong in Afghanistan that we need to send our troops there, but so little wrong that we can suspend [the processing of claims by] refugees who are coming here fleeing that” war.

Asylum seeker protests

The desperate plight facing asylum seekers in detention has been highlighted as a result of a series of protests staged last month by asylum seekers in Darwin and Sydney that attracted national media attention. A group of 89 Afghan asylum seekers staged a break out and a seven-hour sit-down protest on September 1 outside the Darwin immigration detention centre. Their refugee status had been denied despite their fears that they will be killed by the Taliban if they are forced to return to Afghanistan. The detainees have claimed that police and immigration security officers withheld water for the duration of their peaceful protest.

After their protest, they were flown to the remote Curtin detention centre in Western Australia. The centre currently holds almost 800 asylum seekers, but it is believed Labor plans to increase this number to 1200. WA Liberal Premier Colin Barnett has said WA police needed to prepare for riots during the coming summer months at the centre because of its “almost prison environment”. He was quoted on September 17 by the News Ltd-owned WA Today website as saying, “If you’re going to have 1200 single men in that environment, many of them desperate, separated from their homeland, from families, from wives, children, they’re going to be in a desperate situation, very uncertain. It’s a powder keg type circumstance.”

On September 21, 11 asylum seekers staged a protest on the roof of Sydney’s Villawood immigration detention centre after 36-year-old Fijian detainee Josefa Rauluni killed himself earlier that day by jumping from the roof of a two-storey building at the centre, in front of about 40 other detainees, including his teenage nephew. Rauluni was due to be deported back to Fiji later that day. The September 21 Sydney Morning Herald reported Rauluni had been working as a fruit picker, but was arrested in August for overstaying his visa and had been taken to Villawood detention centre. The September 22 Australian reported that immigration department officials had ignored a November 2009 letter from deposed Fijian prime minister Laisenia Qarase written to the Refugee Review Tribunal stating that Rauluni had been active in the Fijian pro-democracy movement while in Australia and as a result faced imprisonment if he were returned to Fiji while it remains under military rule.

Disregard for Rauluni’s dignity in death by leaving his body in full view of detainees for five hours was said to have sparked the 30-hour rooftop protest on the evening of September 21. Detainees also protested in the detention centre’s grounds using sheets as banners which read “We need help and freedom”. In a letter addressed to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees they asked for the UNHCR to examine their plight, explaining that some of them had UNHCR refugee status. After officials from the UNHCR arrived and persuaded the men to come down from the roof, they were then moved to a motel while the UNHCR reviews their cases.