End the persecution of refugees!

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Immigration Minister, Phillip Ruddock dubbed the “Minister for Misery” by The Age newspaper, has overseen appalling mistreatment of immigrants during his term of office. But it is important to remember that most of his inhumane and racist anti-immigrant laws and procedures were put in place by his ALP predecessor, Nick Bolkus, acting well within that party’s sorry tradition of pandering to racism and white male privilege.

One of Bolkus’ “innovations” was the mandatory detention of asylum seekers, which has been condemned by the United Nations Human Rights Commission.  Australia routinely detains refugees for months and years in isolated detention centres where they have little contact with the outside world. It is the only country to mandate imprisonment for people who have committed no offence, and to lock up infants and children. This  barbaric system is supposedly designed to discourage those without “official status” from coming to Australia. Blatantly racist in its operation, it targets the 2000 migrants — mainly from China, Iraq, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Turkey and Somalia — who arrive here each year outside official channels, but ignores the 20,000  British, U.S. and European visitors who overstay their visas.

Fighting back. In camps in remote central and northwest Australia, detainees are demanding fair treatment.  In Woomera, 500 people broke out of their camp and occupied the centre of the South Australian town for 48 hours, only agreeing to return to the detention centre when the Federal government promised that it would begin releasing refugees.  It had taken more than seven months for their legitimate refugee status to be determined. In Western Australia, 150 detainees from Curtin (near Derby) and 100 from Port Hedland executed similar escapes. While media attention focused on a so-called “lack of security,” Ruddock quietly confirmed the truth of the detainees’ demands by issuing most of them with visas.

Fortress Australia. Since early colonial times, Australian governments have treated non-white immigrants with suspicion and hatred. That is, if they were allowed in at all. Just about the only non-Indigenous people of colour permitted to stay in Australia between Invasion and the 1960s were mainly Pacific Islanders. They worked as slave labourers in Queensland sugar plantations from the 1870s to 1899, when they were given nominal wages, but remained indentured.

They were all exiled by 1910, after the Federal government enforced the White Australia Policy, as a result of Australian Workers Union protests that these super-exploited workers were “taking jobs from decent white men.”

The exclusion of non-Anglo immigrants was one of the key planks of the Constitution. In order to achieve their goal of stealing Indigenous land, the Colonial establishments agreed to “protect” Anglo workers from the great mass of Asian peasants displaced by colonial exploitation. This sordid arrangement — internal and external apartheid — underpinned not only government, but also the Australian Labor Party and the union movement for most of the last century.

Imperialism creates disaster.  The global capitalist system encourages the free movement of capital from Third World countries to the wealthy, while denying the right of workers to move to wealthier countries in search of a better life. The increasing pressure on poor countries is evidenced by the rapidly increasing number of refugees. Globalisation has created a huge mass of displaced people, at least 23 million by UN estimates.

Driven from their homes or stripped of their livelihoods by imperialist war-mongering, ruined economies, official persecution or “natural” disasters, these people have one choice: starve or move on. For anybody who has not been through such an ordeal, it is difficult to understand the gut-wrenching decisions they must make.

Many of the young Iraqi men who reach Australia have had to pay extortionists for the “privilege” of a dangerous voyage in unseaworthy boats with no guarantee of success. Meanwhile their families eke out an existence in shantytowns in Jordan or Lebanon, not knowing if they are alive or dead. All of the women from Afghanistan have made similar journeys in their flight from slavery under the Taliban regime, often after escaping from imprisonment in their own homes. Fifty-eight young Chinese died in a shipping container in their quest for a better life in Britain. These people deserve nothing less than the utmost empathy and support.

But compassion is in short supply in John Howard’s Australia.

Cruel and unjust. For many years 1,650 East Timorese people have been fighting for the right to stay in Australia because of the Indonesian occupation of their homeland.  The former ALP government denied their claim on the grounds that they were Portuguese nationals! The Federal Court ruled that this was not so and the new Minister, Ruddock, began an appeal against the decision. Then, when Indonesia was ousted from East Timor in September 1999, the Immigration Minister decided the government’s appeal would be dropped. It was a vindictive exercise, as Ruddock cynically crowed that he was giving them just what they wanted, knowing full well that under the strict guidelines of his department, any application for refugee status is almost certain to be refused.

Four thousand Kosovar refugees were granted temporary protection visas, but only after a massive public outcry. When Ruddock cancelled these visas, they were returned to a devastated country.  They were not provided with money, food or accommodation on their arrival. They had no information about services or agencies which could provide the help they would obviously need. This cruel treatment  prompted ABC announcer Terry Laidler to claim in disbelief: “It looks like we put them on the plane and washed our hands of them.” Ruddock’s reply was a verbal shrug of the shoulders: “It’s not my problem.”

Their profit, our misery. Australia currently accepts around 80,000 new immigrants each year.  The criteria, in order of priority, are: people with skills, qualifications and abilities in demand in Australia; those with business expertise and capital to invest; those with close family ties to already-settled immigrants and Australian citizens and lastly, refugees and those with humanitarian needs. Big business supports immigration because of the resultant boost to the economy and the cheap provision of an adequate workforce — but only on its terms. Skilled migrant programs ensure that short-term labour imbalances can be filled more economically than by developing programs which train or retrain the unemployed. Non-English speaking migrants are concentrated in the lowest paid, least skilled jobs.  They are routinely exploited, at least until they are unionised and demand award wages. A similar pattern exists throughout the developed countries.

As a part of a concerted campaign by Western governments, the Australian government is currently attempting to amend the international Refugee Convention to narrow the definition of  “refugee,” making it even harder for asylum seekers to be granted protective visas. This proposal has been supported by the British Home Secretary Jack Straw, who is seeking the support of other European Union governments. This so-called “modernising” of the convention is designed to free corporations from the “burden of dealing with the misery and deprivation caused by their plunder of the “developing” countries.

Throw down the walls! For much too long, the Australian union movement has vacillated over the question of immigration. The myth of migrants taking jobs dies hard, as the recent upsurge of Hansonism showed. But the fence that big business is attempting to build to keep working people and the poor of other countries out of this continent also keeps us in.

Open the borders! Abolish all racist immigration laws. Close the refugee prisons! Citizenship rights for all residents! Demand that working hours be reduced, with no loss of pay, until everyone who wants to work is employed.

Properly managed, there is enough wealth in this country to provide jobs and a decent living for all who live here and more besides. People seeking refuge are not the problem — it’s only the greed of the bosses which prevents there being enough jobs to go around. We have to make business realise that we are no longer prepared to watch our fellow workers being denied the opportunity of a decent life.

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