Tony Abbott, who once plotted against Pauline Hanson, has turned the Liberals into the One Nation of Australian politics. Abbott says a Coalition government would re-introduce temporary protection visas, tow boats back to Indonesia and deny refugees travel rights or family reunions. They would re-open detention centres in countries like Nauru. They are already distributing an election leaflet in Brisbane warning of “illegals” and of secret detention centres “coming soon to a street near you.”
Overcrowding on Christmas Island and the visa freeze on Sri Lankans and Afghan asylum seekers has pushed Labor to open mainland detention centres. There are now over 1000 asylum seekers whose visa applications are frozen languishing in detention. Curtin, Howard’s hellhole of hellholes, is housing 200, soon to be 300, single Afghan men. Even Woomera, another desert prison, is being considered.
Eighty-six people from 21 Afghan, Sri Lankan and Iranian families have also been transferred to Leonora in what the Immigration minister, Chris Evans, calls “temporary accommodation”. But since the Afghans and Sri Lankans are subject to the visa freeze, which won’t be reviewed until July 9 and October 9, respectively, then they will wait months for processing. Their detention will not be temporary.
In July 2008, Chris Evans announced, “detention in immigration centres would only be used as a last resort and for the shortest practicable time.” But detention is now a first resort for offshore arrivals on Christmas Island. Children remain in detention on Christmas Island, at Leonora, in Brisbane and other places.
Asylum seekers who first land at Christmas Island remain “off-shore entry persons” (OEPs in government jargon) even when they are transferred to the mainland centres. They do not have the same rights as on-shore arrivals on the mainland.
For the first time since Labor took office, there are national World Refugee Day rallies. In Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra and Sydney thousands of people, disgusted with the return of Howard era policies, have been drawn back onto the streets.
The re-opening of Curtin and the visa freeze has exposed the arbitrary nature of Labor’s detention policy. Maintaining mandatory detention and offshore processing has led straight back to the uncertainty, the suicide attempts, the self-harm, the mental abuse of long-term detention. By insisting that “tough” measures are necessary, Labor has opened the door to the Coalition’s fear mongering.
We’ve seen it before. When Howard stopped the Tampa landing in 2001, Labor supported the Howard government’s introduction of the Pacific Solution and laws allowing boats to be towed back to sea. Bi-partisan support for refugee bashing policies created a poisonous political climate that boosted Islamophobia and saw public opinion turn against refugees.
But we also saw the way a vigorous, grassroots campaign can fight back. Even before Howard was driven from office in 2007, the refugee movement had won significant changes in detention administration and refugee policy.
Activist groups like the Refugee Action Coalition, with myth-busting fact sheets, links with asylum seekers in detention, and protests inside and outside the centres led to the rise of groups like ChilOut, Rural Australians for Refugees and Labor for Refugees.
Leaflets describing the plight of Iranian and Iraqi unionists who fled persecution, only to find themselves imprisoned for years in Australian detention, took the argument into workplaces and shifted opinion among unionists. The campaign drew thousands of people into active opposition to Howard and mandatory detention.
A recent Red Cross survey found that 83 per cent of Australians would help a refugee settle into their community, and 67 per cent said refugees have made a positive contribution to Australian society. It is a reminder that the problem is not with the people of Australia, but with the politicians’ willingness to garner cheap votes by stoking opposition to refugees. Most of all, the problem is Labor’s lack of political will to implement a humanitarian policy.
Come the election, no refugee supporter is going to vote for Abbott. But we need to rebuild the movement this side of the election that coheres the pro-refugee sentiment into a force that the Labor government cannot ignore.
The best way to fight Abbott’s fear mongering is to stop Labor playing political football with refugees’ lives and demand that Gillard ends the visa freeze, ends offshore processing and closes Christmas Island
By Ian Rintoul