Mandatory detention and civil liberties:

How the Howard Government used refugee policy to attack workers’ rights

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The strength of the movement on the streets is keeping the heat on politicians. World Refugee Day, Melbourne 2004. Photo by Alison Thorne.

Even the Murdoch newspapers called it a “bloody disgrace.” Cornelia Rau, an Australian resident, had spent 10 months in immigration detention.  Despite the fact that she was listed as a missing person in Queensland, no attempts had been made to establish who she was. Her use of a pseudonym and a nearly imperceptible German accent (concealed inside an unmistakable Australian drawl) were enough for Department of Immigration, Multiculturalism and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA) bureaucrats, the Queensland prison authorities and the private managers of the Baxter refugee prison camp.

Public outrage was so widespread that the government was forced to set up an inquiry, although a very limited one. However, even their chosen inquisitor, former Federal Police Chief Mick Palmer was scathing, accusing DIMIA officials of “mindless zealotry.”

Rau was unable, and perhaps unwilling, to reveal her identity.  Before the enactment of mandatory detention laws, it was not necessary for Australian residents and citizens to carry identification papers. Refusing to answer questions from public servants didn’t result in automatic incarceration. But the onus of proof is reversed in immigration law. It’s now up to everyone in the country to prove one is “lawful.” And to have some form of ID about one’s person. Otherwise it’s indefinite strip searches and razor wire and dehumanisation.

Exiled. In April came the revelation that an Australian citizen, Vivian Alvarez Solon, had been expelled from the country in 2001. The government tried every semantic trick available to hide three damning facts. Ms Solon was badly injured, suffering from a partially severed spinal cord, when she was illegally deported. Ms Solon (and others) told DIMIA officials that she was an Australian citizen, but they ignored this. DIMIA and Foreign Affairs bureaucrats had known for two years that she was wrongfully sent to the Philippines. Despite knowing precisely where she was, racist bureaucrats did nothing to bring her home. Meanwhile, her family was kept in the dark and one of her children fostered out.

Normally, the fact that Solon is a woman of colour might have muted the outrage, through the same racist acquiescence that has been accorded the treatment of refugees. But it was just too much, on the back of the Rau scandal, and given Vivian’s obviously poor, untreated, medical condition. The government then had little option but to hand over 200 more files, bearing the stamp “released: not illegal,” to Palmer.

The mindless zealots have been very busy, throwing citizens, residents, tourists and migrant workers into detention camps with no regard for their rights. The fact that this is all legal should worry every person in the country.  But there is worse to consider. How many other Australian citizens have been exiled? Where are they now and are they safe? Or is the failure of the government to call an open judicial inquiry a cover for the fact that a citizen or resident has been sent into a situation of danger and has been harmed or killed?

An injury to one is an injury to all. Remember the Tampa and “children overboard.” Recall the Bakhtiari kids, members of the persecuted Afghani Hazari minority now back in the gunsights of the Taliban. Consider Peter Qasim, a young refugee from war-torn Kashmir, who has spent a quarter of his life in an Australian concentration camp. Look at Cornelia and Vivian, both vulnerable women disconnected from the broad community. Whether or not Rau is mentally ill is a matter for debate. The government claims she is, but that may well be another self-serving lie. Still, how many mentally ill residents or citizens or refugees are rotting, untreated, in Baxter or Maribyrnong or on Christmas Island and Nauru?

This government is ruthless and cares nothing for the people it hurts, nor the extent of their injuries. The fact that it has been able to get away with it for years and years is a measure of how racism is a threat to all poor and working people. Australian workers now face the prospect of our right to personal liberty being curtailed, because too many people bought the government’s racist lies about refugees, cast a vote for bigotry, and emboldened the government to enact legislation aimed squarely at all of us. That, no doubt, was the intention from the start,

Already anti-terror laws have been invoked against union officials attempting to enforce Australian health and safety standards on a flag of convenience slave ship.  The government colluded to have Australian citizen, Mamdouh Habib, sent to Egypt to be tortured. David Hicks is illegally detained at Guantanomo Bay with the blessing of Howard’s ministers. And every day, people’s homes are raided by ASIO in fishing expeditions concerning implausible “terrorist plots.”

Mass action, not backroom deals. It is a measure of the strength of the movement to free the refugees that Liberal MP, Petro Georgio, and others were moved to take on Howard over the most jagged edges of the mandatory detention policy. But, as all politicians do, Georgio et al compromised. Mandatory detention stays. Temporary Protection Visas, a form of parole from the camps, will still condemn refugees to the misery of an uncertain future. Children will be released from detention, to then face house arrest and 24-hour surveillance.

What should happen is that all the refugees should be freed immediately and accorded full citizenship rights. Mandatory detention must stop and people fleeing persecution treated with compassion and dignity.

We can’t rely on politicians to fight our battles. The Greens are too wedded to the notion that Parliament is the forum for social change. The ALP leadership is anti-refugee, pro-war and anti-civil liberties. Just look at the massive increase in police powers enacted by every ALP state government. And never forget that Georgio represents a party that intends to smash unions, cut wages and slash working conditions.

Harry Evans, the independent clerk of the Senate, caused a stir when he commented that the make-up of the next Parliament makes Howard an elected monarch. He’s right. Australia has never been a democracy; whoever controls the parliament is a dictator  — just as long as their party room permits it.

Refugee rights are union rights. Union rights are refugee rights. As the old Builders Labourers’ song went: “whether we were born here, or born in Italy, or Greece or Spain or Ireland, in England or Fiji, we all of us are workers and united we must stand…”

Falling for capitalist lies about our fellow poor puts all our rights at risk. If Howard wants to act like a dictator, then the solution is to treat him like one. Dictators cease to rule when the majority of the people decide they should go. It’s time to build a mass movement aimed at taking on this vicious government and defeating any and all of its attacks until, to finish the above verse, “the wealthy bludgers have been driven from our land.”

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