DATELINE AUSTRALIA — Racist border war: politicians compete to keep out refugees fleeing war and persecution

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Jayasaker Jayrathna was a young Tamil refugee, driven to seek asylum due to the brutal suppression of Tamils by the government of Sri Lanka. The 27-year-old, whose mother was murdered by that same government, was in indefinite immigration detention. Although the government recognised Jayrathna as a refugee, it was stalling on his security clearance.

In the early hours of Oct. 26, 2011, “Shooty,” as his friends called him, took his own life after two long years in jail. Like so many other people seeking safety and a new life in Australia, he found only psychological trauma and despair in what have been called “factories of mental illness” — the immigration prisons across the country.

Immigrants built modern Australia. “From all the lands on earth we come” is a line from a popular song celebrating the country’s multicultural reality. More than a quarter of the population was born overseas, and each year around 200,000 settlers swell that number.

So far this year fewer than 2,000, fleeing starvation or persecution, have arrived by sea in leaky boats. But this especially desperate 1 percent attracts near daily headlines — not at all surprising, given Australian history.

The party in power today is the Australian Labor Party (ALP). Nominally based on the union movement, the ALP really operates as a mouthpiece for big corporations, and it has taken the oppression of refugees to new depths. It has drafted laws that would subvert the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees by giving the government the power to send asylum seekers to neighboring countries who are not signers on the U.N. convention. These countries could simply send refugees, including unaccompanied children, back to face the dangers they fled.

During World War II, those fleeing the murderous regime of Adolph Hitler were routinely sent back to almost certain death in concentration camps. Now the Australian government intends to put 21st-century exiles in the same peril.

Its plan is on hold for two reasons. First, the High Court has ruled it illegal. Second, the reactionary opposition coalition won’t vote to override the High Court unless the government agrees to its even harsher proposals — to tow refugees out to sea or send them to remote Pacific islands.

This thoroughly inhumane stance by Australia’s capitalist parties has rejuvenated the refugee rights movement and galvanised public opinion. Despite two decades of demonising “boat people,” 60 percent of people surveyed in a recent poll said that refugees should be welcomed.

White Australia policy. For decades, potential immigrants were screened on the basis of their skin colour and ethnic origin. This policy was rooted in the dispossession of Australia’s First Nations and the British Empire’s fear of a challenge to its claim to the continent, which went against a pre-existing carve-up of the planet by European colonial powers. The slogan “Australia for the White Man” was key in gaining the support of the unions for forming the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901.

Though formally abandoned as a policy in 1978, the racial profiling of refugees was reintroduced in 1992 under the guise of mandatory detention for “illegal boat arrivals.” Originally its victims were refugees from China, Vietnam and Cambodia. Now they are Tamils, Afghanis, Iraqis and Iranians. Remaining unchanged are both the underlying racism of the Australian ruling class and the cowardice of the ALP leadership in failing to oppose that racism.

Stop this barbarism, open the borders. The Australian military is Uncle Sam’s “deputy sheriff” in its vicious wars against the peoples of the world. So this country’s troops are in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and they’ve been there from the get-go.

Of course people are going to flee a war zone. It’s a perfectly rational decision to make. And if you have family or friends in a country, that’s where you will probably head. One of the ways to stop the flow of refugees would be to stop killing and maiming their communities.

But why such hostility toward refugees anyway? Corporations can move billions of dollars across the planet with a few keystrokes. Why not allow people the same liberty? There’s only one reason — to prevent working people from seeking better pay and conditions.

If a Bangladeshi woman, sick of starving on 50 cents a day, were able to board a boat to Australia and get paid more than two hundred times more at the basic wage, what would be the effect? Bangladeshi capitalists would face a labor shortage, and perhaps be forced to raise wages and improve conditions. The free movement of labor would tend to drive wages up in the poorest countries. Strong, democratic union movements could conceivably counter the tendency of companies in the leading capitalist economies to try to lower pay in response.

Thus, borders are the mocked-up geographic equivalent of prison walls, ensuring that people remain the wage slaves of their local bosses.

A powerful slogan of the refugee rights movement is “Refugees are welcome, racists are not!” Trouble is, the racists are in power. They occupy seats in corporate boardrooms. They occupy benches on both sides of every state parliament in the country. The despicable treatment of asylum seekers is just one part of the capitalist policy to keep workers divided.

In order to end the oppression of refugees, we need to challenge the economic system that causes so much misery for everyone. The system of locking people up for the “crime” of fleeing abuse or poverty needs to end, now. Allowing the government to send people back to danger is unthinkable. We need a strong, radical movement to end the vicious, racist treatment of very vulnerable people. And here’s a rallying cry: “Refugees are welcome, capitalism is not!”

Send feedback to Peter Murray, an immigrant and member of the Rail, Tram and Bus Union of Australia, at

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