Refugee Women: Desperate but Defiant!

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Five hundred and eighty-two refugee children, some of them alone, some of them orphaned, are incarcerated in concentration camps. Their only offence is to seek a new life, free from war, or State persecution, or poverty. Some have been tortured by their guards, others sexually abused. All are desperately traumatised by their disgraceful treatment. And all are here, or in compounds on tiny islands — Australian penal colonies throughout the West Pacific. Five hundred and eighty-two victims of the white supremacist policies which underpin Australian capitalism — policies subscribed to, not only by the Coalition government of John Howard, but by the ALP opposition. State-sponsored child abuse, indefinite mandatory imprisonment, psychological torture, denial of human rights. All part of the outrage that passes for a refugee program in Fortress Australia.

Refugees from the misery of war. When Fidel Castro recently spoke about the United States’ so-called war on terrorism, he said:

“The first victims of whatever military actions are undertaken will be the billions of people living in the poor and underdeveloped world with their unbelievable economic and social problems, their crushing debts and the ruinous prices of their basic commodities; their growing natural and ecological catastrophes, their hunger and misery, the massive undernourishment of their children, teenagers and adults; their terrible AIDS epidemic, their malaria, their tuberculosis and their infectious diseases that threaten whole nations with extermination.”

The Afghan battlefield shows chillingly how war such as this, driven by profit, perpetuates the violence against women and children.

The U.S. bombing campaign — with the full backing of both the Howard government and the ALP opposition — has created a humanitarian crisis of immense proportions in Afghanistan. An independent report released in December, Who will count the dead? — U.S. media fail to report civilian casualties in Afghanistan, concludes that at least 3,767 civilians were killed by the bombing. This figure does not include people who later died as a result of bomb-related injuries, those who died as a result of starvation or displacement or any military deaths.

For the living, the battle simply to survive in war-ravaged Afghanistan continues. Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world. The World Food Program estimates that 7.5 million people need food aid, and the U.S.-led war has made this situation immeasurably worse. Millions of refugees are pouring into Pakistan and Iran, living in appalling conditions without access to running water or sanitation. Within Afghanistan itself, there are also millions of internally displaced people in need of food, shelter and medical supplies. As the aid agency Oxfam reports, people are so weakened by hunger that children are dying from the common cold.

The situation is scarcely better for Afghan refugees in Pakistan, where many have been forcibly relocated from the New Jalozai camp in Peshawar to Kotkai in the North West Frontier Province, just eight kilometres from the border with Afghanistan. Many families were forcibly separated in the haste. Human rights organisations are critical of both the lack of choice and insufficient information.

BJ is a widow with five children. She and her children fled the bombing and fighting in Kabul. She told Human Rights Watch in late November that bombs fell near her house and many people were killed and injured. Her brother-in-law died in Kabul when a bomb hit his house, and one of his daughters was injured. “I am going to the new camp because my children are very hungry and they have nothing to eat. I can’t work, I have no choice, I must go.” But for world capitalism, the struggle for survival waged by BJ and her children, the 99,000 children who die every day, and the 1.3 billion people around the globe who survive on one U.S. dollar or less a day is the necessary human price for corporate growth.

Victims of sexism are refugees. Sexist discrimination is a form of persecution which must be recognised when assessing refugee applications. Already this precedent has been set in Canada. In 1993, Caroline Teghizadeh won refugee status on the grounds of sexist persecution in her country of origin. The 20-year-old, who had been imprisoned in Iran for refusing to wear the veil, was denied political refugee status but won the breakthrough ruling through a vigorous community campaign.

Over and over, the U.S. pumps out propaganda painting itself as a defender of freedom, democracy and women’s rights. But the sickening double standard is increasingly exposed.

Under the Taliban, women were denied the right to participate in public life. They were not allowed to be educated, work, seek medical treatment from a male doctor or drive a car. If they ventured out, they were required to be covered from head to toe wearing a burqha. The violation of women’s rights is also practised in Saudi Arabia — a key western ally — where beheading and whipping are accepted forms of punishment.

The U.S. and Australian governments are not interested in women’s rights in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan. They currently feign concern about the status of women in Afghanistan to try and win feminist support for the war drive. The U.S. backed the Taliban when it suited its anti-Soviet goals. It gave the Taliban millions of dollars in training, weaponry and cash. Osama bin Laden was put in charge of distributing U.S. aid to a faction of the mujahedin which became the Taliban in its war against the leftwing government of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan. The defeat of the PDPA resulted in the reversal of the progressive measures,  such as land reforms and promoting education for women. The result was a disaster for all women, but especially widows who were denied a means of survival.

The report, Humanity Denied: Systematic Violations of Women’s Rights in Afghanistan, makes public many women’s experiences in Taliban Afghanistan. Zafia Akil is a widow who worked as a seamstress in Kabul.  She says: “The Taliban asked my customers, ‘Why are you going to her house. Are you going to gather and make plans against us?’ I had a board outside which read, ‘Tailoring for women and children.’ Three times they came and warned me, and I told them, ‘I am a widow, what should I do?’ The third time they took my board down and said that if I do not stop this work they will kill me. They accused me of making plans against the Taliban. They said, ‘Everyone should sew their own clothes; our wives sew their own clothes. God will assist you, if you do everything as God wishes.’ It was the Religious Police, and I was forced to close four months ago and leave for Pakistan.”

Seeking life and safety. Just as victims of sexist persecution may not fit the narrow refugee mould accepted by Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock and his ilk, people fleeing extreme poverty and hunger are disparagingly branded as economic migrants and therefore “unworthy” of refuge. Refugees are created by war, poverty, natural disasters and persecution on the grounds of politics, religion,  race, sex, ethnicity or sexuality. Today there are more people than ever facing violence, persecution, poverty, homelessness, hunger and death. The gulf between rich and poor nations has widened as the capitalist élite of the first world plunders the third world. Jobs have been lost, living standards have plummeted, and regional conflicts and wars have increased. As the need for refuge increases, the walls have grown higher around the borders of rich countries, and the criteria made tougher in order to restrict humanitarian immigration to Europe, North America and Australia to “the deserving few.”

Political refugees are considered deserving and genuine; economic refugees are considered undeserving and abusing the system. But can such a distinction be made? The harsh economic sanctions against Iraq condemns parents to watch their children die from malnutrition or preventable diseases. If they flee, would such families be political or economic refugees?

Australian State declares war on the desperate. Australia stands out for its brutality toward asylum seekers. It is the only country to put arrivals — including unaccompanied minors — in detention, with no right to bail or temporary release. Australia’s annual refugee intake has been 12,000, with most coming from Europe. In 2000, Australia didn’t even fill this number. This is despite the growing number of people seeking refuge and the rise in those escaping the regimes of Afghanistan’s Taliban and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.  

Contrast Australia’s “effort” to that of countries with less resources. In 2000, Iran and Pakistan each took in over one million Afghan refugees. Without even blushing, Ruddock stands in front of TV cameras and claims that Australia’s contribution to resettling refugees is generous! The facts reveal otherwise. Australia hosts one refugee for every 1,583 people, compared with, for example, Tanzania which takes in one for every 76.

At the end of 2001, as the European Union considered extending the definition of refugee to cover cultural persecution, such as female circumcision, Howard’s government imposed even harsher restrictions on eligibility. It continuously searches for ways to narrow the definition of who can legitimately qualify. It excelled itself with a Christmas announcement that the processing of Afghan refugee claims would be stopped “in the light of changed circumstances in Afghanistan” — despite requests from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that countries continue.

Imperialism creates refugees. The government/opposition message to the majority of humanity — “Keep Out!” — is consistent with the mission of the world’s wealthiest nations to open national borders for the free movement of capital, but close them to people.

Over the past 50 years, international wars have been fought and agreements hatched to make the entire planet a free market, but only for the most powerful corporate giants. Ongoing warfare, neoliberalist “free trade” and privatisation have ruined the jobs and lives of billions of people and devastated both local and global environmental systems.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB) use so-called Structural Adjustment Programs to bring national economies under the umbrella of the global marketplace.  In return for much-needed cash loans, governments are forced to privatise State infrastructure, deregulate the labour market and remove legislative obstacles to business — such as environmental standards — all while meeting crushing debt repayments. Each year, African countries spend four times more on debt repayment than for healthcare. Over the last ten years, at least one million people have been forced off their land to make way for dam or mining projects, resulting in desperate poverty and the deaths of five million children. Part of the reason for this terrible mortality rate is a chronic food shortage caused by the conversion of farming land to export agriculture, a process made necessary by the need to earn cash in order to repay the “generosity” of the wealthy countries which contribute to the IMF and WB!

Women shoulder the burden. The UN estimates that the value of women’s unpaid labour is half the global Gross Product. Even where women’s work is in paid employment, it involves long hours, low pay — and there is no job security. Employers prefer young women who work 12-16 hours a day for practically nothing. In the hundreds of “free trade” zones around the globe, a captive workforce toils with no labour regulations or unions to protect them. Eighty percent are women between the ages of 16 and 25, working 25% longer than workers in other sectors and paid 20-25% of men’s rate in the same geographic areas.

In war zones like Iraq, women have shouldered the worst of the devastation and the economic embargo. By necessity, Saddam Hussein had accelerated the privatisation of Iraq’s once excellent systems of public healthcare and free education, as well as government-controlled banks and warehouses of grain, cars and auto parts. The state-owned oil company — which has enabled Iraq to buy food under the UN’s obscene Oil for Food program — is also likely to be sold. By 1998, up to 5,000 children were dying each month from contaminated water, inadequate diet and the breakdown of sanitation and medical care. The majority of women are severely undernourished. Since 1991, inflation has cut the value of school teachers’ salaries from $400 per month to $2.

Women, who make up most of the education workforce, have been forced to sell their bodies to feed their families, and hundreds have been executed by Hussein’s thugs for this “crime.”

From Africa to Latin America, Asia to Russia, women are forced off their lands and into prostitution; they are trafficked for sex, domestic servitude or cheap labour in the world’s sweatshops. Under the rule of ultraright zealots like the Taliban or Saddam Hussein, women are persecuted, often killed, for showing any sign of independence — from escaping domestic violence to voicing an opinion.

In El Salvador, women labour six to seven days a week for $33. This is one quarter of what is needed to live at poverty level. Under a “free market” economy the unemployment rate for Eastern European women is 70%. The IMF imposed austerity measures, such as privatisation, and cutbacks in government programs, such as childcare, education and healthcare, that once allowed women to enjoy professional careers. Nearly half a million women from East and Central Europe are sent abroad as prostitutes. If these women flee, are they genuine refugees? Of course they are! Advanced capitalist countries must open their borders and treat all refugees with compassion and respect.

It is capitalism — through war, economic plundering and its backing of dictatorships — which has created the global sea of desperate and displaced people. It should clean up the mess it has made of so many lives in the third world. But capitalism has no morality, only a thirst for ever-expanding profits. Globalisation and neoliberalism have created few winners and many losers. No prizes for guessing who wins! The corporate bosses get richer while the workers, the peasants, the subsistence farmers and Indigenous nations face misery and death.

Refugee women are welcome here! Who could forget the front page photographs of three beautiful young girls in their party dresses —all drowned after their overloaded boat sank in the Java Sea, as they and their mother took the only possible route to their family in Australia. These are the human faces of the “refugee problem.” Of the 51 million refugees in the world, 80% are women and girls.

Yet if they had arrived, they and their mother would have been detained indefinitely in one of Australia’s overcrowded, remote concentration camps. With little or no access to doctors, their mental and physical health would have been at severe risk. They would have lived the hell described by one refugee: “There in Iraq, they would torture us and kill us. Here, they’re killing us slowly.” Or as another put it: “After escaping from Taliban, I am facing another Taliban. I escaped from Taliban looking for peace, but Australia has destroyed all my hopes.”

Within advanced capitalist countries, people who share the bond of exploitation with the homeless of the globe, are indeed taking up the fight. The international anti-corporate movement is increasingly addressing the need to solve the world refugee crisis.

In Australia, the movement for refugee rights is one of the broadest and most vibrant. Refugees incarcerated in immigration detention centres are also making their voices heard. Iraqi doctor, Aamer Sultan, a detainee at Villawood since May 1999, made headlines when he was denied the right to attend a Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission ceremony to collect an award for his work as an advocate and counsellor for many other detainees. His article on the mental health of asylum seekers was published in the Medical Journal of Australia, much to the chagrin of Ruddock! Detainees at the Maribyrnong Centre sent Christmas cards, designed by the Refugee Action Collective, with personal messages protesting their treatment. And at the remote Woomera centre, refugees conducted a month of riots and burned down buildings, in a desperate but defiant move to be heard.

It is hard to think of an issue more pressing than to liberate these people from their prisons and to show them the compassion and respect denied them by government and opposition alike. The concentration camps are a disgrace. They must be closed now, and feminists must raise the demand, “Free the refugees,” at every opportunity.  However the treatment of refugees is not merely a product of homegrown racism and political opportunism. It is an inescapable consequence of capitalist globalisation, and of the bloody wars sponsored by the imperialist countries to make the world safe for big business. Which is why feminists should also raise the slogan, “No to war!”

In Australia we must join our sisters on the front line of struggle against globalisation. Women are not passive victims, they are determined resistance leaders and fighters. Already in places like Mexico, Latin America, Philippines, South Africa, women are at the forefront of change, from unionising workplaces to debating socialist and feminist theories of how to end oppression.

People do not leave their homes, families, farms and workplaces on a whim. They leave because the social and economic conditions give them no other choice, except to stay and die. How to end the refugee crisis? Get rid of its root cause — capitalism — and its brutal destruction of humanity. That means fighting for a socialist feminist future here as well as in Afghanistan, or Iraq, or Saudi Arabia. The fight for a just world knows no borders.

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