Big business interests are behind Canberra’s persecution of refugees

A powerful characterisation of the Migration Act Amendment Bill. Photo by Debbie Brennan.
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Before Israel’s tanks rolled into Rafah on May 8, this Gaza border city had been the only place Palestinians could go. Trapped and targeted, more than two million people waited for the inevitable ground invasion — part of Israel’s “final solution” to the 76-year-long brutal occupation of Palestine. The rest of the world could feel their desperation.

The Albanese Australian Labor Party (ALP) government is committed to the Zionist cause and willfully deaf to calls from the population to cut ties with Israel. Needing a cover for its complicity, it reluctantly granted temporary visas to a few Palestinians with families in this country. But then it arbitrarily cancelled the visas of some as they were en route — leaving many separated from their families and further traumatised. Bizarrely, one woman received notification that her visa had been rescinded just as she was boarding a plane, while her children were allowed to go.

Responding to journalists, Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil said, “We make no apology for doing everything necessary to maintain our national security.” Australia is notorious for its inhumanity toward refugees.

The difference between this act of cruelty and others is that we saw it happen in real time, and many were outraged.

White Australia Policy 2.0. The Albanese government’s Migration Act Amendment Bill, which is now before Parliament, was characterised this way at a Melbourne rally a few weeks ago. It’s a reference to the deeply racist treatment of non-white immigrants for over 70 years — the original White Australia Policy. This policy defined the Australian settler state from its establishment in 1901, and although the Whitlam ALP government officially repealed it in 1973, it lives on in the political arsenal of the major parties.

The current draft law, dubbed the “deportation bill,” is designed to remove all legal obstacles to expelling unwanted refugees — such as the High Court ruling in November 2023 that indefinite detention is unlawful. The bill had passed easily in the House of Representatives, because racism towards non-European immigrants is a bipartisan policy. But manoeuvring in the Senate meant that it was delayed by a review process.

For decades, there had been no time limit for detaining people seeking asylum. Some refugees have been locked up for more than 10 years. It’s also arbitrary: there is no mechanism for an independent review, and people don’t even know why they’re inside. The only way out is either by the government granting a visa or the refugee “voluntarily” leaving the country to return to danger.

How did it get to this? Firstly, the ALP’s formation and development was inseparable from the anti-immigrant xenophobia of Australian capitalism. In 1905 the federal party defined its objective as “the cultivation of an Australian sentiment based on the maintenance of racial purity and the development in Australia of an enlightened and self-reliant community.” This “objective” was to remain at the centre of the party’s platform for the next six decades.

So when, in 1992, the Keating ALP government made detention mandatory for (mainly Cambodian) refugees arriving by boat, it was returning to its xenophobic roots. Then, in 2013 ALP Prime Minister Rudd announced that no one arriving by boat would ever be allowed into Australia. They would be detained in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Nauru and, even if found to be refugees, would stay there permanently.

The PNG facility closed in late 2021, and Nauru’s last refugee was removed in June 2023. However, Nauru still operates as an “enduring” contingency for boat arrivals, counting 54 inmates at the end of March 2024. Thousands more refugees face a process called “fast tracking.” There is no right to serious review of their case, and those who succeed are then required to apply for “temporary protection” every three or five years, depending on the type of visa. They cannot apply for permanent residency. Nor can they sponsor a family to Australia or travel back home to see family. It’s worse for those still in detention, who are treated worse than convicted offenders.

Caught in a trap. In February 2023, the Albanese government promised permanent residency for 19,000 refugees who arrived by boat before 2013. Excluded from this were approximately 10,000 others who had not been considered “genuine” refugees, according to the restrictive assessment system. Well over a year later, they’re still waiting in fear of being deported. For most, daily life is made harder by ineligibility for Centrelink benefits, Medicare and other material supports. Work is precarious, and so is education. Without permanent residency, refugees and their children are charged extortionate fees as international students.

News of the Migration Act Amendment Bill hit these communities hard. A new, more terrifying obstacle for them is the Immigration Minister’s proposed new special power to direct a refugee to cooperate with their own removal. This would entail submitting yet more documents, attending interviews and possibly even facing representatives of the authoritarian regime from which they escaped. Parents issued a deportation order would be separated from their children. Non-compliance with a deportation order would be a criminal offence, with a mandatory sentence of 12 months to five years’ imprisonment and crushing fines.

Another High Court decision on 10 May 2024 sealed the fate of refugees in this category. The case concerned an Iranian bisexual man, who appealed against his indefinite detention on the basis of the court’s November 2023 ruling. He fears persecution for his bisexuality if he returns to Iran. His claim has never been assessed, due to the nature of the fast track system, and he has been detained for a decade. Because of his fear, he has refused to cooperate with his deportation. The High Court ruled that he has the capacity to cooperate, and his detention is therefore lawful. He now faces a “choice”: continue his detention in Australia or face certain persecution in Iran.

The Human Rights Law Centre says the High Court’s May ruling will impact as many as 200 people in detention, whom the Australian government can’t return, because, like Iran, their countries refuse to take back involuntary deportees.

The ruling also threatens many more refugees. Piumetharshika Cantina’s situation shows that anyone could be caught in the bill’s net. She arrived in Australia with her mother and sister as refugees from Sri Lanka when she was five years old. She’s now 19 and studying for a Bachelor of Nursing at the University of Canberra. Giving evidence to the Senate enquiry, Piumetharshika stated that she could be jailed for refusing to leave Australia.

The Albanese government is using “community safety” for added effect to fabricate a danger even closer to home. The November 2023 High Court decision triggering the deportation bill involved a Rohingya refugee from Myanmar, who had been released from detention and given a bridging visa. A few months later, he was charged and convicted of rape, sentenced to five years in prison, then released on parole and immediately re-detained by immigration authorities in 2018. Years of detention awaiting deportation and appeals later, the High Court ruled indefinite detention to be unlawful and ordered the refugee’s release. One hundred forty eight more detainees were released.

Despite this tiny number, the mainstream media found no shortage of government and opposition spokespeople warning about sex offenders, murderers, drug dealers and so on being let loose onto the community. Refugee advocates and lawyers countered that they were still in detention because of their refugee status, not their crimes. They had served their sentences and should have the right to be released, like any other offender. This is, in fact, the essence of the High Court’s judgement.

This is a powerful argument to support open borders. Photo by Sumitra Vignaendra.

Rooted in racism. Australian capitalism’s white supremacist roots can be traced to the European colonial powers of the 15th century. The emerging capitalists plundered the world for resources that would bring profitable returns. They needed to justify their pillage of foreign lands and their use of slavery. So a new “science” of race was invented.

As capitalism advanced from colonialism (nations competing for colonies) to imperialism (global monopolies carving up the world among themselves), capital itself became an export. It moves freely across borders, anywhere in the world.

But people can’t. Racist xenophobia acts as a gatekeeper for corporate interests to control the intake of labour for their production needs. These interests direct immigration policy. This is behind the demonising and criminalising of refugees arriving by boat.

Resistance grows. The outpouring of public anger over the treatment of the Palestinian refugees was enormous. Weekly Palestinian solidarity rally numbers have swelled. Seventeen ALP Members of Parliament signed a letter to the federal government demanding that the visas be restored. “Never again” must there be a repeat of people’s visas being cancelled, they said. The government re-issued some visas, but without disclosing how many.

In September 2023, the newly formed Refugee Women Action for Visa Equality (Refugee WAVE) launched a Walk for Freedom from Melbourne to Canberra (see “Women refugees inspire solidarity in their fight for justice,” Freedom Socialist Organiser, November 2023). Twenty-two women made the 640-kilometre trek to demand permanent visas for the 10,000 left stranded. This inspired support from communities along the way and also freedom walks of refugee women in other parts of the country. As the Labor government introduced its deportation bill in March, Refugee WAVE called the snap rally in Melbourne to protest.

Unsurprisingly, the Senate committee reviewing the bill recommended that it proceed. Opposition by the Liberal/National party coalition had been all about point scoring, complaining that the proposed law does not go far enough. As the bill proceeds, despite 117 out of 118 submissions arguing that it must not, so will the protests.

Open the borders! The movement is calling out for permanent visas and an end to the oppressive assessment regime. These humanitarian demands are crucial and urgent.

But as First Nations, unionists, struggling communities and believers in justice, the working class and oppressed are compelled to demand more. What’s more, the Palestinian genocide has brought the horror of racist imperialism, and Canberra’s part in it, to our collective attention. Every effort by employers and the state to repress solidarity with Palestine — at ports, workplaces or student encampments — is met by opposition. Business needs immigration control for the same reasons it needs anti-strike laws and crackdowns on organised dissent to control the workforce.

We on the receiving end have every reason to stand with our refugee siblings against the profit system and its apologists. Solidarity is based on a shared enemy and fight. Let’s unify our forces to knock down border walls and allow freedom of human movement. Welcome refugees with full citizenship rights and supports to safely settle in our communities. Breaking down the systemic barriers between oppressed peoples will go a long way towards the ultimate liberation: a world free from capitalist exploitation.

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