We need a humane policy for refugees now

Free the refugees. Protest at Kangaroo Point, Brisbane June 28. Photo: Alex Bainbridge

Bipartisan mistreatment of refugees since 2001 has been a key feature of politics in Australia. Since then, the movement for refugee rights has forced governments to concede some rights, but a decisive victory has remained elusive.

In 2001, then-Prime Minister John Howard was headed for what looked like certain defeat in the November election. Three years earlier, he had scraped in with less than half of the two-party preferred vote after reversing his 1996 promise to “never ever” bring in a Goods and Services Tax (GST).

The GST — which taxes poor people more heavily than the super rich — came into effect in 2000, and was not popular. It was one of several policies that made life much harder for working people. Anti-working class policies were a key reason for Howard’s unpopularity.

In August 2001, Norwegian ship MV Tampa picked up some refugees stranded at sea and proceeded to bring them to Australia — the nearest country that had signed the 1951 Refugee Convention.

The ship’s captain was following international law and the rules of the sea. But Howard decided to manufacture a political stunt. In violation of international and Australian law and in contradiction with past practice, Howard declared that the refugees could not come to Australia.

This was followed almost immediately with outright and brazen lies about refugees, such as the claim — known at the time to be false — that refugees were prepared to throw their children “overboard”.

From then, Australia’s refugee policy has not been about the well-being of refugees. It was about creating victims to scapegoat so as to more easily implement a neoliberal plan of attacks against ordinary people. The government agenda included the GST, WorkChoices, tax cuts for the rich and cutbacks to government services. It continues to this day.

Every politician that has ever referred to “border protection” in connection to refugees has been lying. This is because the country’s borders have not been threatened.

Mandatory detention — whether onshore or offshore — is a great deal more expensive than the alternative, humane, approach of assessing asylum claims while refugees live in the community.

The notion that Australia’s harsh policies “save lives at sea” is false. First, refugees are dying in detention — the cruelty is killing people. Secondly, turning back boats is also killing people.

Today it is abundantly clear that government policy is not about refugees. Anyone who spends some time getting to know the refugees at Kangaroo Point in central Brisbane can see that there is no logical reason to keep them locked up.

Let me say that again: there is no logical reason for this policy.

These people have been locked up for seven years. They have been closely watched by Australian authorities for the whole time. They have all passed multiple security checks.

Most, if not all, have been found to be refugees. They are not “asylum seekers”. Australian authorities have assessed their cases and found that they meet the criteria to be designated a “refugee”.

They have been brought to Australia for medical care, which has largely been denied. Many have family members living here. There are fathers who cannot hug their children. One 22-year-old has been in detention since he was 15. Among those detained is an 80-year-old man.

These people have committed no crime. There is no excuse for locking up innocent people for one day, let alone seven years. Even worse, is to lock them up with no end date in sight.

More and more community members are joining the campaign to free the refugees at Kangaroo Point because they have come to the same conclusion: Australia’s refugee policy is manifestly and heartbreakingly cruel to people who have fled for their lives.

The fact that such cruelty is being used to deflect from other attacks is beginning to be better understood.

The creative, enthusiastic and determined campaign to free the refugees from Kangaroo Point is winning new support each day. It has halted the forced transfer of the refugees to another prison. What we do now can have a decisive impact on Australia’s policy. We need to have the confidence to keep pushing for an end to the cruel policy that only benefits the billionaires and their government supporters.

[Alex Bainbridge is the national convenor of the Socialist Alliance.]