Refugees and racism


A week before Four Corners aired its horrific footage of the fate of Australian cattle in Indonesia, Dateline on SBS featured terrifying and disturbing images of canings, detention and brutal treatment of asylum seekers at a Malaysian detention centre. If the response to both programs is any indication, there was one clear winner in the battle for sympathy: the cattle by a landslide. It seems that many Australians empathised more with the cattle exported for slaughter than with the men, women and children who are to be sent to Kuala Lumpur as part of the Malaysian “solution”.

Get-Up’s campaign around the treatment of cattle seemed like a deliberate diversion. Get-Up has refused to condemn the Malaysian “solution” despite pressure from the refugee rights movement. We live in a country that has institutionalised racism since the dispossession of its original inhabitants. The outrage over the mistreatment of cattle was so easily popularised because it is permissible outrage. These are “our” cows. In “our” country we slaughter our hamburger in a civilised manner. Indonesia is a foreign country with an Islamic majority, so it is an easy target from which to differentiate Australia: we kill our cows the right way.

In the battle for sympathy, refugees rate worse than cattle because sympathy with “others” is an affront to the national identity of Australia.

Tale of two prisoners

In a recent article in the West Australian, journalist Steve Pennells pointed out this hypocrisy. He also made some other compelling arguments, referring to the response to the trial of Schapelle Corby, the young beautician from the Gold Coast who was convicted of drug smuggling in Indonesia. He recalled receiving many phone calls from people imploring him to draw attention to Corby’s plight.

“She’s innocent”, the calls would usually start. “You just have to look into her green eyes to know that. Those animals are going to lock her up.” When Corby was sentenced in Bali on May 27, 2005, the whole event became theatre, with microphones attached to all the protagonists in the courtroom, and Australian tourists peering in the window, waving Australian flags. It was broadcast live across New Zealand and Australia.

Six months later, another Australian, Van Tuong Nguyen, was hung in Singapore. He was a Vietnamese Australian. There were no drunken louts waving Australian flags for him when he was executed and no national campaigns to save his life.

The responses to Pennells’ article were interesting. Some were in support, but many were explicitly racist such as this one: “It’s a shame that you bleeding hearters cannot make the simple distinction of feeling sorry for the circumstances that illegal immigrants find themselves in, yet fully realise that it is gross acts of dishonesty and subterfuge that got them into the current situation. Australians as a majority do not want unscreened dishonest illegal immigrants walking around the country ...”

When Prime Minister Julia Gillard first proposed to deport 800 asylum seekers from Australia in “exchange” for 4000 “legitimate” refugees from Malaysia, letters pages and calls to talk back were filled with outrage: “We get five of them for every one we send across ... great deal Julia.”


The government has gone to great pains to demonise the refugees, falsely referring to them many times as illegal. Yet the debate is not really about people being here illegally. It’s very much about defining national identity based on race. If it’s not about race, then where is the outcry over the much larger number of “illegals” who fly here? On June 30, 2009 (the latest figures available) 48,700 people were here illegally after overstaying holiday or student visas. Most were from the US, England and other wealthy countries.

The racial content of the “illegal” argument is expressed quite bluntly in the bumper stickers: “Fuck off, we’re full”. The message is: we are an egalitarian society, but only if you’re white. So pervasive is this message that it’s not unusual to see these sort of stickers next to union ones on toolboxes. Racism runs very deep, making it very difficult to disarm the myths surrounding refugees. The idea of them being “queue jumpers” has been spread pervasively. The term contains all the information a bigot wants; it makes an assumption that justifies their racism. Because this scapegoating draws on the xenophobia of the most backward sections of society, reason alone is not sufficient to disarm it. If it were, we would’ve defeated the policy by now. The whole system of mandatory detention is quite fragile, despite the hundreds of millions of dollars propping it up. It rests only on public opinion. But it is a huge battle to change that opinion.

It really doesn’t require much prodding to realise that what Australians are told about “illegals” is rubbish. For one thing, there is no queue for them to join. In Afghanistan, if your house had just been bombed by a US plane, or the Taliban had rounded up your family and killed them, where would you go? Could you go to the Australian embassy and apply for safe passage to Australia, supposing that thought even crossed your mind? There’s no queue there, and you wouldn’t be able to find the embassy anyway: it’s in a hidden location and accepts no visa applications of any kind.

In Afghanistan and Iraq, the “queue” is a myth. The only option these refugees have is to join the 3 million people living in camps across the borders in Pakistan and Iran, some for more than a generation, or to seek asylum further afield, in countries such as Australia. For most of the 44 million refugees displaced by war, famine or persecution, there is no orderly queue.

National chauvinism

So why the hue and cry? The Australian capitalist class sees all society through the prism of national interest. The quest for safety or freedom by asylum seekers lies outside those boundaries. The excision of Christmas Island from Australia’s migratory zone did not have just a legal dimension. It adds to the social psychology that these people are not “our” people; their problems are not within the borders of our country; it renounces all responsibility for their plight. It is an extension of national chauvinism.

National chauvinism is justified by ascribing racial characteristics to national differences. It is enough for the racist that people are not from here. For the racist, separate races have existed as long as humans have inhabited the planet. They believe the world will always be divided into nationalities.

The US-based People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond defines race as a “specious classification of human beings created by Europeans which assigns human worth and social status using the concept of ‘white’ as the model for all humanity and the height of human achievement for the purpose of establishing and maintaining privilege and power”. The same institute gives an equally apt definition of “white”: “... a legal concept established by colonial slave owners to separate poor Europeans from Africans, giving legal privileges to Europeans while constructing a system of chattel slavery for Africans”.

Racism provides a web of institutionalised and cultural privilege for members of oppressor nations, but it creates insoluble contradictions for capitalism because a nation is not a racial group, not being formed on the social fetishism of people’s physical features. There is tacit recognition of this contradiction in the rhetoric of some politicians. While they demonise refugees, at the same time and without any hint of irony, they laud Australia as a wonderful multicultural society.


But multiculturalism is not the same thing as ethnic or cultural diversity. The sort of “multicultural” society the bourgeoisie often envisage is one that is narrow, parochial and lacking diversity beyond accepting different food or music. The main goal of multiculturalism is to incorporate people into capitalist economic activity while ignoring institutionalised racial inequality.

It is an attempt to create a culture that is cohesive and uniform, which is what they need for society to function at its most basic level, the enterprise. Cultural differences are reduced to social peculiarities or customs that are made to seem exotic. The communal interactions within a certain culture are broken down and seen as relics of the past. In this way multiculturalism works as a tool of integration and assimilation. Its acceptance is necessary because formal equality is used to iron out difficulties at the point of production.

While capitalists understand that there needs to be a level of national cohesion for a society to function, that does not mean unquestioned acceptance of a more cosmopolitan view. For the capitalist class, overt nationalism is ideal. While social democracy tries to balance cosmopolitanism and nationalism, it prefers the latter if it can get away with it. The reactionary ideology of nationalism creates an atmosphere of distrust between people, enabling the capitalists to separate and super-exploit sections of the labour force. It justifies the subjugation of poorer nations, giving rise to a false sense of entitlement in richer nations, a belief that the exploitation of the underdeveloped world in the name of the free market is just and necessary.

Solidarity and mass action

Capitalism always demonises its victims, particularly the victims of imperialist conquest. Refugees are a natural target for the apologists of war and exploitation. It would seem obvious that refugees need our solidarity, but this simple truth is not always accepted. Some place a dividing line between activities they deem as being “welfare” and “mass” action, asserting that all we can do is mass action. Such a view completely misunderstands mass action and the politics of bringing it about.

Building connections with refugees, even at an individual level, is political. If visiting a refugee is not a political act, why are so many barriers placed in the way? If visits were purely an act of welfare, the state would have no problem with them.

The whole point of the visits is to break down the barriers between the Australian working class and refugees, to find out their stories and deepen our understanding of the world. We need to humanise refugees, appeal to people’s sense of altruism and recognise that people can change their point of view, even quite radically.

Another important reason to visit refugees is to build up a network on the inside. When people visited the Curtin detention centre at Easter, not everyone realised it would develop into such a confrontational protest. The protest was not led by us; it was led by the refugees, who raised the stakes by organising a mass hunger strike demanding more than one-on-one visits: asking that we investigate the entire detention centre and make the conditions known to the Australian public. Their militancy far surpassed ours, and yet if we hadn’t built up those connections through our visits and letter writing, we wouldn’t have been able to coordinate our actions as effectively. This work is an important part of building a mass campaign.

It’s important to continue to build this movement because the issue of refugees is central to the political dialogue in this country and a major front in the struggle against racism. Nothing could be more opposed to the aims of socialism than racism. For revolutionaries, nothing is worse than the alienation, isolation and despair that racism produces among the working class. Our outlook is always for proletarian internationalism. Our main enemy is always at home.

No one is illegal mural
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