In October 2009, the Australian Customs ship, Oceanic Viking, rescued 78 people from their sinking boat in Indonesia’s Sunda Strait. Sixty-eight men, five women and five children, fleeing Sri Lanka’s genocidal war against the Tamil people, sought asylum in Australia.
The Tamils are an ancient nation whose language is one of oldest in the world. Their homeland, Tamil Eelam, stretches across northern and eastern Sri Lanka and contains the important naval and shipping port of Trincomalee. The genocide by Sri Lanka’s government has been backed by powers with an interest in this strategic region near Afghanistan: they include the United States, India, Pakistan, Israel and Australia.
The rescue began a month-long standoff with the Australian and Indonesian governments. The refugees wanted to come to Australia, or another Western country, rather than rot for years in Indonesian detention camps, courtesy of the notoriously slow United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) assessment process. Their determination forced a major backdown by Australian authorities, which agreed to process their claims and resettle them within weeks. Ultimately, they did leave the ship – straight into a detention prison, like so many others. Six weeks later they were found to be genuine refugees, and less than a week after that, the first arrived in Australia. They are the lucky ones. Thousands of people fleeing persecution remain in detention right across the region – including on Australia’s Christmas Island.
The impasse dominated Australian news, giving the lie to the “humanitarian” policies of Kevin Rudd’s government and exposing the viciousness of the “border protection” procedures.
One week before the Oceanic Viking rescue, the Indonesian navy intercepted 254 Tamils in a boat designed for 50 people. They are still held in an overcrowded immigration cell in the port of Merak. Among them are 31 children. Provided poor food and denied access to medical services, their health is deteriorating. These refugees left Sri Lanka in July and survived a month in Malaysia’s jungle before going to sea.
Speaking for the incarcerated Tamils at Merak, Sanjeev Kuhendrarajah explained: “We left Sri Lanka to seek asylum in a safer country after spending 30 years in the middle of a catastrophic civil war and a genocide like never seen before. Our lives were threatened by the government and its merciless military force…We have been in Indonesia for more than two months and we are starting to see many familiar characteristics between the Sri Lankan government and the Indonesian government.”
Rattling the racist can
. Refugees arriving by boat are most desperate, such as Tamils escaping Sri Lanka’s concentration camps and Iraqis and Afghanis fleeing their war-ravaged countries. But they are especially victimised: while asylum seekers arriving by plane are generally released into the community, boat arrivals are rushed off to the overcrowded detention centre on Christmas Island while their claims are processed.
The reason for this is the racist xenophobia of Australian officials towards the non-white peoples of the region. The often-barbaric treatment of those who come by sea has its roots in the White Australia policy, where all people of colour were barred from entering.
The decades-old bogie of “yellow hordes” wanting to swamp the country has never really been killed off. But here are the facts: In 2008, Iraq was the top country of origin for asylum applicants. Afghanistan rose to fourth place, after Somalia and Russia. Sri Lanka also rose sharply, as did Zimbabwe, Somalia and Nigeria. The main destinations of asylum seekers were the United States and Canada (85,900) and the European Union (289,000). Australia is near the bottom of the list of preferred safe havens. Refugees, for the most part, don’t want to come here.
But opportunist politicians never let the facts get in the way of a scare campaign. Malcolm Turnbull, then Liberal Party leader, screamed that Rudd “laid out the welcome mat and he’s held the door right open.” The government’s statements were less shrill, but not one minister or political advisor would defend the right of people fleeing persecution to claim asylum.
Global feminist issue
. In June last year, UNHCR reported that by the end of 2008, 42 million people were “forcibly uprooted” – 16 million international refugees and 26 million displaced in their own countries. In the first half of 2009, two million fled their homes in Pakistan’s Swat valley because of the military campaign against the Taliban. More than 300,000 Tamils, forced from their homeland by the Sri Lankan army, were interned. In Somalia, the war displaced 130,000 more people.
Women and children are 80% of refugees and displaced people worldwide. They are the same percentage of casualties by small arms – far outnumbering military casualties. For women and girls, war, famine and poverty bring the responsibility of finding food, water, shelter and keeping life going. They make up half of the refugee camp populations. Refugee women and girls are targets of rape, domestic violence, murder, forced pregnancy, sexual slavery and infliction of HIV/AIDS.
Howard’s concentration camps.
In 2001, John Howard’s ministers selectively manipulated navy photos and statements to convince the Australian public that the 223 asylum seekers aboard the Indonesian vessel, Olong, threw children overboard to force the government to allow them into the country. It was a complete lie, as both the navy and a subsequent Senate inquiry revealed.
Howard based his re-election campaign on this fiction and, once returned to office, developed the so-called Pacific Solution. Thousands of islands were “excised” from Australia’s migration zone, a legal trick aimed at making it impossible for anyone to claim asylum unless they set foot on the mainland. Those arriving on an excised territory were detained and transported to immigration prisons on Nauru and Manus Island, off Papua New Guinea. Mandatory detention was not new, having been introduced by the Keating Labor government in 1992. What the Howard government did was to make detention indefinite. People, including children, were locked up behind razor wire for years, with no access to Australian courts. Immigration Ministers Ruddock and Andrews eagerly enforced this cruel and barbaric regime.
Mandatory indefinite detention proved one step too far. In 1999 Howard had instituted Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) for undocumented arrivals applying for refugee status. This visa was also the main type issued to refugees released from detention. People on TPVs were forbidden from travelling overseas or working in Australia. They could not access social security benefits or sponsor family members for settlement in Australia. They also had to reapply for the visa several years later in case conditions changed in their homeland.
Howard miscalculated when he decided to lock up innocent people whose only transgression was to seek safety and a better life. Coupled with TPVs, people in detention grew ever more desperate and traumatised. When images of people harming themselves and begging for release started to appear on TV screens and in print, this cruel regime sparked a strong refugee rights movement.
In cities and rural towns across the country, refugee rights groups formed. Rallies demanded the welcomingof refugees and asylum seekers and an end to TPVs and mandatory detention. A campaign of rallies and pamphleting, aimed at debunking populist stereotypes of refugees, was able to turn public thinking around. When the Rudd government was elected in 2007, popular pressure for justice was so great that Labor had to respond.
In July 2008, the new government announced an end to automatic detention for asylum seekers arriving without visas, while declaring its commitment to mandatory detention as an “essential component of strong border control.”
The next month, Rudd replaced TPVs with Permanent Protection Visas and closed the detention centres at Nauru and Manus Island. The government slightly increased the refugee intake for 2009-2010 by 250 to a total of 13,750.
But it would be folly to expect a government that supports the war in Afghanistan and stands with major industrial polluters against poor nations and protesters in the streets to open Australia’s doors to people seeking refuge. At the time of these “reforms,” Rudd allocated a whopping $1.3 billion over six years, “aimed at tackling people-smuggling and securing Australia’s borders.” As part of this, the mothballed detention centre on Christmas Island was hastily commissioned as the destination for today’s detainees. By the end of 2009, the centre had reached capacity, with later arrivals accommodated in tents.
Asylum seekers on Christmas Island do not have the right to appeal any adverse decision and can wait indefinitely for their applications to be processed. The distance from the mainland keeps activists, lawyers and media away and, except on two occasions, the government has prohibited journalists from going inside. In a recent report, the Australian Human Rights Commission says that the centre “looks and feels like a prison” and recommends that it stop being used for detention – a recommendation rejected by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.
Enter the population control freaks
. Federal Labor MP Kelvin Thomson has a similar aim to that of the anti-immigrant xenophobes, but uses a different spin. He has resurrected the line that rising population is the sole cause of everything from global warming, war and terrorism to rotten transport systems and unaffordable housing. His 14-point solution includes reducing immigration, tightening permanent residency requirements for overseas students and abolishing the government’s Baby Bonus and the Family Tax Supplement beyond the second child.
The pressure on Australia’s environment is the fault of immigrants and women, according to Thomson. He manages to contribute nothing useful to the global issue of refugees while leaving the door open for anti-immigrant fascists on the one hand, like the Australia First Party, and the Right to Life anti-choice reactionaries on the other. The root cause of Australia’s environmental crisis is capitalism and its uncontrolled drive for profit over all else, including the planet’s environment and its peoples.
Reigniting the movement
. Some unions supported the Oceanic Viking refugees. The Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) and Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) donated $10,000 to the asylum seekers. The Australian Congress of Trade Unions (ACTU) put an ad in The Australian, calling on the government to bring them to Christmas Island for processing. Paul Howes, national secretary for the Australian Workers Union, argued that as a rich nation, Australia has a responsibility to provide asylum to those seeking it. A Nielsen Poll commissioned by Amnesty International showed that 69% of respondents believed that all asylum seekers should have the same rights, regardless of how they arrive – by boat or plane.
Revival of the movement for the rights of refugees, and all immigrants’ rights, is urgent. The government, in cahoots with the right wing, will continue to work overtime to whip up xenophobia as a way to divide working people in Australia from those outside.
Unionists, feminists and others in the gun sights of capitalism must act now to protect the rights of people so fearful and desperate that they leave their homes and families in the quest for safety and security. Here’s what we need to demand:
Open the borders – Full citizen rights and free support and medical services for all immigrants, regardless of their status!
Save our planet – Stop the corporate polluters!
Stop the wars in Asia and Africa – Imperialist troops out now!
Free Tamil Eelam!
Full reproductive rights for all women!