The May 18 Federal election is a real opportunity to improve the treatment of refugees - the estimated 1000 remaining in offshore detention, those arriving by plane before then applying for refugee status and, finally, those processed overseas.
Simple compassion as well as international law should mean:
- closing all offshore detention camps
- replacing temporary protection visas with permanent ones
- exploring regional and international cooperation, e.g. boost funding for the UNHCR
- speeding up claims processing
- appropriate funding and access to social services during processing
- increasing refugee intake
- community support programs.
With the exception of the first critical point, Labor and the Australian Greens are in basic agreement while the Greens are more generous in detail. For example, Labor wants to increase the current refugee intake of 18,750 to 27,000 annually by 2025; The Greens, 50,000 annually. (no date provided).
Offshore detention in Manus (PNG) and Nauru of boat arrivals receives the headlines despite the fact that most asylum seekers arrive irregularly by plane - 9,000 annually in recent years. During this time there has been a slow but steady trickle of refugees from the Nauru and Manus to Australia with some going to third countries such as the United States and Cambodia. In addition, the Medevac Act passed in early 2019 creates a process for sick refugees and asylum seekers to receive the medical care they need in Australia when unavailable on Manus Island or Nauru.
Labor will continue with offshore detention even if it is a temporary processing stage as genuine refugees are found third countries willing to receive them and others returned home.
Labor says its offshore detention policy is to put the people smugglers out of business. Supposedly, onshore detention/processing will send a market signal to people smugglers and hundreds of boats could bring thousands of refugees under dangerous circumstances as in 2011 – 2013 - before Rudd said boat-arrivals would never be settled in Australia. By retaining offshore detention, Labor claims it will keep strong borders and by implementing other policies keep our humanity.
Nevertheless, offshore detention is deeply offensive, morally and legally, violating the most basic human rights. It makes Australia a pariah in the international community, and costs a fortune.
The racism stimulated by the debate over offshore detention and refugees in general (‘terrorists’, ‘illegals’, ‘queue-jumpers’, ‘Muslims’, ‘taking our jobs’) feeds all too easily into the broader racist and reactionary political language supporting widening inequalities here and overseas.
How then do we address the issue in a way which recognises the legitimate concerns of safe, managed entry into the country, while treating asylum seekers with fairness? In political terms, how do we ensure a future Labor government implements its policy on asylum seekers and goes beyond it to fully respect international law and human rights for asylum seekers?
To bring pressure to bear on Labor politicians, particularly the Cabinet, we need to challenge the rationale of offshore processing – putting people smugglers out of operation – as well as pushing for details of the plan to make Manus and Nauru temporary measures only. In other words, how do they expect to empty the camps in a timely fashion? Finally, we need to ensure they contribute to greater regional cooperation and increased funding of the UN High Commission for Refugees.
Labor has to report regularly on key matters such as the number of people smugglers intercepted, and details of asylum seekers involved. We also need public reports on the numbers remaining in detention, their condition and operational costs.
This should weaken the appeal of offshore detention and help lead to its eventual collapse. A genuine regional cooperative initiative by the Australian government should be ‘effective’ in eliminating the danger of sea voyages, because it means that asylum seekers stuck in Malaysia and Indonesia can expect a timely transfer to Australia or another wealthy country once refugee status is confirmed.
Earning regional cooperation through increased foreign aid will be decisive.
Sustained public pressure for transparency and accountability is the greatest weapon we have to improve the plight of asylum seekers while assuring workers that the issues of refugees and more generally immigration are being managed to everyone’s benefit.
There is one weapon remaining - language. We must insist on a respectful, informed discourse and immediately challenge anyone who departs from it.
Two things we can all do now and after the election
- Communicate with candidates individually or through your party branch (ALP, Green) or union calling for full, regular reporting on the implementation of refugee policy. Copy to Shayne Neumann MP, Shadow Minister for Immigration and Border Protection. Neumann.MP@aph.gov.au
- Join or at least subscribe to a refugee support group. There are plenty and easy to find.
Ending wars and upheavals
The huge refugee flows into Europe and North America are driven by wars, economic collapse and ecological stress, which in turn are driven by the insatiable demands for higher profits by capitalists, especially the giant corporations with global supply chains.
Both Coalition and Labor governments have supported global deregulation of capital and US wars for the last 23 years. The Coalition has savagely cut the foreign aid budget as well.
Instead, any future Australian government has to be a vigorous campaigner for peaceful resolution of conflicts and for economic policies to restore the ecology and economies of Africa, Asia and Latin America.
i) Refugee’ and ‘asylum seeker’ are often confused. ‘Asylum-seekers’ are people seeking refugee status - people unable to return to their home country for well-grounded fear of persecution. Refugees have achieved that status.
ii) Numbers are difficult to establish for so-called security reasons. We rely on the Refugee Council for the figure of 1000 asylum seekers and refugees remaining in offshore detention.
This statement and the related policy papers are presented as part of the SEARCH Foundation’s work for a democratic, ecological, socialist Australia, based on increased public and social ownership, cooperative mechanisms and workers self-management, that enable people to have an effective voice in all decision-making. Please share them with your networks in the community and at work.
Authorised by L Whitington, SEARCH Foundation, Suite 8, Level 5, 377 Sussex St, Sydney NSW 2000. May 2019.