In a tragic start to 2014, up to 700 imprisoned asylum seekers on Manus Island went on a hunger strike. The refugees were desperately protesting against the decision to resettle some of them in Papua New Guinea, a place that lacks safety and basic life necessities for new arrivals.
The disastrous situation on Manus Island is only a reflection of the cruel and illegal regime imposed on refugees fleeing war and persecution by the federal government. New laws, passed in December, give the Immigration Minister unprecedented powers and have reintroduced Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs).
TPVs leave genuine refugees in limbo. They do not allow visa holders to bring their family to Australia or to return if they leave the country. People on TPVs must re-prove their refugee status every three years effectively meaning they can never permanently settle in Australia.
With new legislation in place the government will now fast-track the processing of 30,000 asylum claims. They had previously refused to process these people because they had a legal right to permanent protection. The new TPVs remove that right.
The fast-track process means the refugees have no right to funded legal support and no right of review. Only the minister will decide if a case can be reviewed, and new review body the will merely look at a person’s files. The government has also absolved itself of international legal responsibilities to consider whether someone may be tortured or killed if forcibly returned home.
In addition to TPVs the similar Safe Haven Enterprise Visas (SHEV) last only five years. SHEVs require a person to live and work remotely for three years with no right to unemployment benefits. This is essentially indentured labour! While people on SHEVs may apply for a more permanent visa, qualification requirements are so strict few will likely succeed.
With much legislation currently held up in the Senate, these harsh new measures are a rare policy victory for the government. The federal government’s deepening commitment to cruelty and scapegoating of refugees shows how crucial it is that activists redouble their efforts to build the refugee rights movement and attract new layers of support.
Last year saw a number of community pickets in Melbourne and Sydney aimed at stopping refugee deportations and transfers. While the pickets had only limited success, they were a step in the direction of the types of activity required to push the government back. Another positive development came in December when passengers on an Air China flight were able to prevent the deportation of a Chinese refugee by refusing to take their seats before take off.
Side by side with tactics aimed at disrupting the implementation of harsh refugee policies there needs to be an appeal to workers and trade unions to refuse to carry out the divisive work of the federal government. Those big businesses that profit from the mandatory detention regime also need to be targeted.
Bold actions need to be linked to a broader political campaign aimed at winning the support of wider layers of ordinary people. A clear link needs to be made between the government’s cuts to public services and social spending and their scapegoating of refugees. It is not refugees or migrants who are behind attacks on our living standards it is big business and capitalist governments.
In fact billions of dollars could be freed up by abolishing off-shore processing and mandatory detention, money that could be spent providing jobs, homes and services to all. Many more billions could be freed up to invest in public health, education and transport if the vast wealth that is locked up in private profits was released.
Such an approach is at odds with both the major parties. Their anti-refugee policies flow from their pro-big business outlook. The fight for refugee rights must inevitably be linked to the fight for democratic socialism – a system that puts people before profits and addresses the issues that force people to flee their homes in the first place.
By Ben Convey