Student bulletin: The movement we need to free the refugees

Young people are flooding into the refugee movement in response to the Manus crisis, bringing passion and energy to end the abject cruelty of Australia’s government. But many questions are also being thrown up: What is needed to end this urgent crisis? What is the best thing we can do as students? Should we be rallying behind new demands and leave #BringThemHere behind? What is the role of direct action in relation to mass movements? What do we do about a Labor party’s complicity in this evil?

The unfolding crisis

There’s an old saying about bosses who employ migrants but instead of finding docile servants, find militant workers willing to fight: “they wanted hands, but they got workers”.
In the case of Australia’s refugee regime, our government wanted scapegoats but they got warriors. Refugees on Manus and Nauru have fiercely resisted the government since it began attempting to force them out of the Manus detention centre into imminent danger. With food, water and power cut, health and medical services being denied, the Navy blocking food, and with threats of force, refugees have not given up. They have dug wells and collected water in bins. They have continued protesting and inspired widespread support.

Protest spreads

The heroic actions of the men on Manus have generated a political crisis for the government. A wave of protest is sweeping the country and ramping up the pressure on Turnbull and Dutton to end the siege, and bring them to Australia – and on Bill Shorten to speak out and join the call.

In recent weeks thousands have rallied in major cities, streets have been blocked by sit-ins, immigration buildings have been occupied, the Melbourne Cup disrupted and the Opera house scaled with banners. Solidarity photos have also flooded out from workplaces, universities and schools.

In Sydney students and others followed the example of Newcastle students and organised a vibrant occupation of the Immigration Department on November 3, with a simultaneous occupation happening in Canberra. The action got wall to wall media and helped amplify the growing call to #bringthemhere. It also drew together existing and new activists and laid the basis for future mass building and organising. Following the occupation there was an ad-hoc meeting called that organised 40 people to hit 15 peak hour rushes at 6 stations with 5000 leaflets for a protest on Friday November 10. This paved the way for another successful action.

The November 10 protest was at a Tony Abbott fund-raiser where Peter Dutton was speaking. The numbers and the energy at the rally saw it develop into a rolling blockade of the event and an impromptu street march and sit-in that blocked traffic in Redfern. One participant captured the mood saying “…last night was phenomenal! Easily one of the best rallies I’ve been to.”
And the pressure and momentum being created by the movement is tangible. In one Sky News poll 80% of respondents said the government should evacuate Manus men to Australia, NZ or the US. Bill Shorten abandoned his previous rejection of New Zealand’s offer to take 150 refugees. Celebrities like Russel Crowe have even joined the call to #bringthemhere.

What the movement should demand?

But the Manus crisis has also thrown up questions about what kind of solution refugee supporters should demand.

Bill Shorten now says Turnbull should “take action”. But the ALP insists that refugees cannot be resettled in Australia and instead points to non-existent 3rd country resettlement and New Zealand’s offer to take 150 of the 1800 stranded on Manus and Nauru. This is no solution at all.

The U.S. deal has proved that 3rd country resettlement is a lie that condemns refugees to suffer. Since the announcement of the US deal a year ago, only 54 have been taken. Even if the maximum 1250 were eventually taken- which the Trump is under no obligation to do under the terms of the agreement- that would still leave hundreds stranded in hell.

Some have suggested that the movement should focus on demanding the New Zealand government make a direct offer to PNG instead of Australia. But to focus on New Zealand in the present crisis would take the heat off Turnbull who totally controls the refugees and asylum seekers. Illusions in the NZ deal also ignore the fact Australia’s neo-colonial domination over PNG would prevent any independent offer to PNG being taken up. Dutton has said that the NZ offer is a “back door” to Australia.

Though PNG independence was gained in 1975, the reality is far from independence. Australian foreign direct investment, predominantly in mining and petrol, and aid packages give Australia a tight grip over PNG. PNG officials and politicians reap the benefits, breeding endemic corruption. Australian influence and another $500 million on top of the foreign aid money is the only reason the Manus camp was established in the first place. The Australian Border Force has a huge influence in the camps, recently ordering the emptying of the refugee’s water supplies.
The only option is to #bringthemhere to Australia immediately. This has to be the central rallying cry of our movement.

What kind of campaign can win?

The refugee campaign under John Howard shows that offshore processing can be shut down. The movement forced the government to ease conditions in onshore detention centres and free refugee children in 2005. Kevin Rudd was elected with a pro-refugee mandate in 2007 and closed Nauru in 2008.

In 2002 the Woomera break-out saw refugee supporters and detainees tear down detention centre fences. Such spectacular direct actions were a lightning rod for wider public anger about the treatment of refugees. But in order to channel this anger effectively we had to build a mass movement, on the streets, in unions and in communities. This was crucial to shifting public opinion. According to Newspolls between 2001 and 2004 the percentage of people that thought some or all refugee boats should be able to land went from 47 per cent to 61 per cent.

Crucially a section of socialists in the movement had a definite strategy of targeting the ALP to break bi-partisan support for refugee bashing. Refugee Action Coalition groups around the country were won to this position. From 1996 the ALP supported all Howard’s anti-refugee policies. But by 2002 they broke with the Coalition for the first time over its plans to excise Australian islands from the migration zone. In 2007 Rudd was elected with a pro-refugee mandate.

The shift was a product of a conscious strategy. Affiliated trade unions have 50% of the votes at the ALP national conference. Winning rank and file unionists and their unions to a pro-refugee position ramped up the pressure on ALP leaders and meant directly countering the myths and racism that the government was using to scapegoat refugees. Labor for Refugees was also formed and campaigned in branches for pro-refugee policies. By encouraging these developments the movement drove a wedge between craven ALP leaders and their rank and file members, supporters and voters.
This history is instructive for today’s movement. We need to combine direct action and mass mobilisation as part a strategy to break bi-partisan support for offshore processing and mandatory detention, and build a base in society that can act against the government.

To do this we need to expand and strengthen the Refugee Action Coalitions and campus groups out of every action and rally happening now. This will enable us to grow our ranks to immediately respond to the Manus crisis and continue the fight until every refugee is freed. Students’ ongoing organising and recent post-action meetings have been exemplary in this regard.

We also need to adopt a conscious working class orientation that builds workplace actions, builds Unions for Refugees and gets contingents of unionists and dissenting ALP rank and file members to rallies and on rally platforms. This will ramp up pressure on Shorten who is looking like he will be the next PM. NTEU and CFMEU flags at the November 10 rally showed this potential is there, as did the fact a group of young ALP members attended with a banner calling on Shorten to “See us, hear us, speak up”. Shannen Potter NSW Young Labor Vice President joined the RAC platform at the rally and ACTU Secretary Sally McManus called on the Government to “immediately evacuate” Manus on the same day.

Even more importantly, an orientation to the working class and unions builds the capacity for workers to use their unique power to fight the policy. This happened in 2016 when Lady Cilento hospital staff refused to release baby Asha from their care because she faced deportation to Nauru. Their stand saved Asha and 267 others who faced a similar fate. Bob Carnegie, secretary of the QLD Maritime Union of Australia said “If you move baby Asha, you move 15000 Maritime Union Members.”

What role can students play?

Students have a distinctive role to play in this struggle. We can occupy, and take direct action. We can build massive student contingents for rallies and we can help set an effective strategic course for the campaign. We can build outwards and upwards, inform students with meetings and forums and ensure that more and more are pulled into activity.

Early this year, at USyd, the Campus Refugee Action Collective linked up with the NTEU, the staff union, to build a photo action involving dozens of students and 30-40 staff. This action was a launch-pad for biggest ever student contingent to the Palm Sunday rally, involving 100 students. This, and similar building at UTS, helped pave the road for the recent wave of very successful activity – like the immigration department occupation – organised by students. If we keep fighting we can win and force the government to bring them here and let them stay!

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