Julia Gillard has always been willing to go that extra mile when it comes to putting the boot into refugees. In spite of being nominally in the Left, she sided with the Labor Right at the 2004 national conference to vote against Labor for Refugees motions. December’s national Labor conference is going to be no different.
Gillard and Bowen will put resolutions to the conference to remove the section in the present Labor Party platform that stipulates, “Protection claims made in Australia will be assessed by Australians on Australian territory.”
The motion will open the door to revisiting the Malaysia Agreement. It will also allow Gillard to avoid answering internal charges made against her by a Victorian Labor for Refugees member that the Malaysia solution violated Labor’s rules.
Although Labor for Refugees are bound to lose, they will put resolutions to the conference to (i) end both mandatory detention, (ii) end the excision of islands such as Christmas Island that allows the offshore processing of boat people, and (iii) review the refugee processing system itself.
To build the campaign against Gillard and Bowen, we will need to harness the opposition inside the Labor Party conference in the growing campaign outside the conference. While many union leaders will be represented inside the Labor Party conference, it’s among the rank-and-file of the unions that the campaign needs to build to counter the poison spread by Gillard, Abbott and sections of the media, like Today Tonight.
It will be crucial to mobilise the union movement if the threat of deportations is going to be stopped.
In a shocking development, Gillard moved to begin deportations of asylum seekers to both Afghanistan and Sri Lanka in November.
Sending Afghans back was something not even John Howard did. But Gillard has used the Memorandum of Understanding signed by the Afghan and Australian governments in January to begin forced deportations. The removal of Afghan asylum seeker Ismail Mirza Jan from Villawood in November was only stopped by last minute legal action.
Stopping the deportation was a major win for the campaign but it is only a reprieve.
Only days after Ismail’s attempted deportation, the Immigration department took the first steps to remove a Tamil asylum seeker to Sri Lanka.
The lie was put to any idea that Afghanistan is safe when two days before Ismail was scheduled to be removed, rockets slammed into Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital. Afghanistan is becoming less safe and less secure (see page 7).
But increasingly, Afghans’ refugee claims are being denied because offshore processing is discriminatory and open to political manipulation. Against the weight of information, assessors and reviewers are insisting that regardless of where the particular person may be from, there is another section of Afghanistan where they will supposedly be safe, particularly Kabul.
Tamils, too, are still persecuted in Sri Lanka (see page 7). But Julia Gillard happily welcomed Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the butcher of Tamils, to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Perth in October.
Forced deportations are a brutal process. Physical restraints are used to shackle asylum seekers to plane seats, along with chemical restraints that leave them unable to resist. The Edmund Rice Centre in its 2004 publication Deported to Danger records that up to nine people were killed after the Howard government sent them from Nauru to Afghanistan.
Neither the courts nor the Labor government are about to end mandatory detention, end offshore processing or free the refugees.
Gillard and Abbott will continue to face off over who can best stop the boats.
But increasing numbers of people are disgusted with political parties preying on the fate of vulnerable people. And that’s where the hope for the future lies. The worst of Howard’s policies were stopped by a people’s movement committed to fighting for humanitarian policies. The refugee movement once again faces the challenge to grow. Gillard is pushing further to the right, but even as she does so, the ground is moving beneath her feet.
By Ian Rintoul