Labor continues to push off-shore asylum processing regime

The March 23 Sydney Morning Herald reported that two Sri Lankan men who were originally rejected asylum seekers and were taken to the Australian mainland to alleviate overcrowding at the Christmas Island immigration detention centre in March 2010 have now been granted refugee visas after a High Court challenge determined that they were denied procedural fairness according to law.

This result indicates that all asylum seekers who have been detained on Australian territory, including those subject to the offshore processing regime, have the right to be heard in court. But the whole offshore processing regime was created in 2001 by the federal Coalition government, with Labor’s support, with the aim of denying asylum seekers access to Australian courts. Despite the High Court’s ruling, the federal Labor government has not moved away from an offshore processing regime. It still plans to push the idea of a refugee regional processing centre, to be located in East Timor, at the March 30 Bali ministerial regional conference on people-smuggling.

“I think we need an international solution to an international problem. An offshore processing centre without a regional framework is a more limited utility. If you just had Nauru where people know they will end up in Australia, that is not a disincentive”, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen told the March 23 edition of the ABC Lateline program. However, East Timorese foreign minister Zacarias da Costa told The Australian newspaper on March 24  he expects the idea will now be shot down by regional leaders at the conference. He said that Canberra had failed to convince him and other regional governments that such a processing centre would provide any benefits to the region.

“Implicit in this view is that Australia should not be bothered by people seeking protection under the Refugee Convention and that genuine refugees should go to other countries and wait patiently in the hope that Australia may choose to resettle them”, said Paul Power, CEO, Refugee Council of Australia in a speech to the 2009 ALP National Conference Fringe event, “Which Way Forward? Refugee, Security and the Asia-Pacific”.

In a bid to curry favour with the Indonesian government in advance of the conference, Canberra has dramatically accelerated its airlift of more than 400 refugees out of Jakarta for permanent settlement in Australia. The refugees have been waiting in Indonesia for up to 10 years with little hope of immediate resettlement, despite being approved for resettlement by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Last June, Australia agreed to take 500 refugees, but by December, only 100 had been resettled. The March 19 Melbourne Age reported: “Australia’s rush to resettle the refugees is likely to improve the government’s standing with the 50 regional nations meeting in Bali later this year to discuss people smuggling and the resettlement of refugees by third countries.”

The Labor government continues to peddle the claim that asylum seekers arriving on Australian territory by unauthorised boats are “queue jumpers”. This claim was first made in 1978 by the then Labor shadow minister for immigration, Dr Moss Cass, said Power in his 2009 speech. Labor’s political rhetoric about “queue jumpers” and “people smugglers” is a way to divert attention from its actions in maintaining mandatory detention, offshore processing and the excision of islands from Australia’s migration zone. These actions punish asylum seekers arriving by boat and are designed to encourage the view that Third World people fleeing persecution and wars should not be recognised as “genuine” refugees.

Labor’s role is historically reminiscent of a kind of White Australia policy based on long-standing support for the racist nationalism of the Australian capitalist class and its imperialist role in the region. Unfortunately, racism still has significant support among Australian working people and is not politically challenged by the bulk of the Australian labour movement officialdom. This acquiescence helps undermine international working-class solidarity and only benefits the Australian capitalists’ interests.