By Peter Robson
Opposition leader Tony Abbott announced his vision for a “tougher” refugee policy on June 9. Among the plans are to refuse refugee status for those who have arrived in Australia by boat without documentation.
He also said that an Abbott Coalition government would appeal immigration department decisions to grant refugee status to boat arrivals.
Abbott said: “What is happening now is that 90% of people who arrive illegally via boat are given successful outcomes.”
Abbott is not the only one pushing a policy that demonises refugees. The actions of the federal Labor government have opened the political space to drag the political debates about refugees further to the right.
When Julia Gillard replaced Kevin Rudd as prime minister in 2010 she played to the racist sentiments against refugees. She hastily tried to stitch up a new “Pacific Solution” to the refugee “problem”. She first pushed for East Timor to take Australia’s refugees, which failed. Then a refugee swap deal with Malaysia was stopped by the High Court in September last year.
Missing from the mainstream debate is why there is such a so-called refugee problem to begin with. The answer is that there are many reasons people become refugees in this world.
Many refugees come to Australia fleeing extreme persecution, such as the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan military killed more than 40,000 Tamil civilians in May 2009. The Sri Lankan military continues to harass and imprison Tamils in concentration camps in the name of counter-terrorism. It is no surprise that people flee this horror.
Another large group who come to Australia are from the Hazara minority in Afghanistan. The persecution of Hazara’s has continued under the Western-backed Hamid Karzai government. Attacks on Hazara people have also spread to neighbouring Pakistan. Hazarapeople.com says that hundreds of Hazara’s have been killed in the Pakistani city of Quetta this year.
And then there are the stateless Rohingya minority in Burma who seek asylum. In the past month 90,000 people have been displaced by sectarian and racist violence in Burma.
But while this happens, Abbott and Gillard try to demonise those who flee this violence and dare seek safety in Australia.
It seems to escape Abbott, but the reason that most asylum seekers that arrive in Australia by boat are eventually given refugee status is because they are genuine refugees.
They are genuinely in fear of their lives and would face severe persecution if they returned to their countries of origin. Therefore, despite every bureaucratic hurdle that the government can place in front of them, they are mostly found to be genuine refugees — but only after they spend up to three years in frightening conditions in detention.
Mandatory detention places incredible stress on those subjected to it. Former Australian of the Year and psychiatrist Patrick McGorry described refugee detention centres as “factories for producing mental illness and mental disorder”. The isolation and prison-like conditions mean that refugees are prescribed anti-psychotic and anti-depressant drugs at an alarming rate.
Socialist Alliance opposes the mandatory detention of asylum seekers and supports the UN Convention on Human Rights, which bans signatories from discriminating against refugees due to their method of entry.
We support the closure of all refugee detention centres and call for refugees to have the right to live in the community while their claims are being processed.
Socialist Alliance supports expanding Australia’s humanitarian intake to at least 26,000. Australia accepts only 13,750 humanitarian visas a year. In the 1980s, Australia took 20,000 a year. Australia is a prosperous country and can afford to take more.
Above all, we seek to make refugee issues primarily about human need, not short-term fears and racist sentiment. As long as one refugee languishes in detention, none of us are really free.