Dateline Australia: Military-style operation launched against refugees

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In 2010, Ranjini, a Tamil mother fleeing genocide in Sri Lanka, won refugee status in Australia and settled in Melbourne. Two years later, she and her two young boys were abruptly placed in detention by immigration authorities.

The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) had deemed her a security risk. The spy agency gives no reasons and no appeals. Incarcerated by an Australian Labor Party government, Ranjini and her sons, including a third born in January, remain in indefinite detention.

In October this year, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection transferred detained pregnant refugees to the impoverished Pacific island of Nauru to live in communal tents with no running water. The heat reaches 50º C (122º F), and there is no specialist care. According to UNICEF, the infant mortality rate is 40 times that of Australia. The government’s stated aim is to prevent refugees from claiming asylum here. This in a country that takes far fewer refugees than many other states.

Fortress Australia. An election on September 14 brought the reactionary Coalition of the Liberal and National Parties to power. The hottest electoral battle raged over who would enact the basest refugee policy.

The previous government had already gone so far as to change territorial borders to avoid obligatory international conventions on refugee asylum. In true imperialist style, it also strong-armed Australia’s poor, semi-colonial neighbours, Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Nauru, to provide land for detention camps to house people seeking refuge.

In July 2013, incumbent Prime Minister Rudd announced that no one arriving by boat would be allowed into Australia, spending 30 million tax dollars to advertise this policy. Refugees are now sent straight to Nauru or PNG’s Manus Island, where they could remain for the rest of their lives. The lack of facilities and health risks are highly dangerous, not to mention the isolation and utter despair. LGBTI refugees sent to PNG, where homosexuality is treated as a crime, face more persecution and likely imprisonment.

The newly elected Coalition was not to be beaten on inhumane refugee policy. Asylum seekers arriving by boat are now termed “illegal maritime arrivals,” and “detainees” are “transferred” to “processing centres.” The public is no longer officially informed of boat arrivals. Private planes are flying refugees, including pregnant women and unaccompanied children, to Nauru and Manus.

Fortunately, activists leak information through refugee and human rights organisations, and via Twitter. This clandestine activity maintains the human faces of asylum seekers, who may be escaping the horrors of imperialist wars or poverty and environmental devastation. They may be women escaping sexual violence; LGBTI people fleeing gender-based persecution; people fleeing political persecution, seeking to be reunited with their loved ones, or wanting safety for their children.

The dehumanisation of asylum-seekers is, above all, deeply racist, as almost all are people of colour. It’s also sexist: 80 percent of refugees are women and children.

Open the borders! More than half of refugees to Australia are fleeing war or persecution in Afghanistan, Iraq, Sri Lanka and Iran. People escaping bloodshed and death are not welcome, but capital is. The biggest threat to the global market is a working class organised across borders. It is therefore vital for governments, in the interest of the corporates, to tightly control who gets in.

This is about keeping Australian workers isolated from those in the rest of the region. To do it, capitalist politicians always play the race card. Once it was fear-mongering about the “Yellow Peril” — supposed hordes of people from the north who would pollute “racial purity.” Now it’s “Stop the Boats.” Different words, same intent.

Refugee movement steps up. Rudd’s closure of Australia’s sea borders on July 19 sparked a resurgence of refugee rights activism. In Melbourne, a snap protest brought out thousands on a bitterly cold and wet winter afternoon. The action was repeated on a weekly basis in cities and towns across the country.

In Melbourne, Radical Women mobilised contingents at every rally. With Freedom Socialist Party and other supporters, it carried placards and distributed a statement highlighting the refugee struggle as a feminist one. RW argued for a broad, outward-looking, anti-capitalist united front. It posed the slogan of “Open Borders.” At the Sept. 21 rally, faced with a possible invasion of Syria, RW called for solidarity with Syria’s revolutionary sisters and brothers.

Movement organisers, caught up in populism, underestimated people’s understanding of what’s at stake and refused to call for open borders. Their single-issue focus on racism ignored the sexism, homophobia and class exploitation also contained in the government’s war on refugees.

Leadership, democracy needed. At this writing, a national convergence of refugee rights activists is planned for Nov. 18, when the new Federal Parliament convenes in the capital, Canberra. This is a chance for the movement to link together the war abroad and the one at home — to bring ordinary people hurting badly from the domestic cuts and the crackdown on civil rights into a broad, democratic, united and powerful movement.

It is time for workers to take control of their unions and stand together with those most oppressed. Then this passionately humanitarian movement would transform into a fighting force with bold demands and big horizons.

Gaye Demanuele and Debbie Brennan are members of Radical Women in Melbourne. Send feedback to

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