The Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea declared on April 25 that the Manus Island detention centre was illegal. The court found that it “breaches the constitutional right to liberty” of the people imprisoned inside, and ordered the Australian and PNG governments to immediately take steps to end their detention.
This struck an embarrassing blow to the Australian government’s asylum seeker policy, highlighting the hypocrisy of the government’s endless referrals to people who arrive by boat as “illegal” while it openly flouts international law. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton visibly struggled to put a spin on the court’s decision when he made a statement on Sky News in the wake of the ruling, but he remained insistent that Australia would not accept any of the refugees from Manus.
Since then Dutton has claimed that “…obviously the Supreme Court — as people now understand — had not ruled that Manus needed to close.” This flies in the face of the statement from Fred Sarufa, PNG’s deputy representative to the UN, that the court ruling requires the shutdown of the centre. Dutton has also stressed that it is the PNG government’s responsibility to resettle people found to be genuine refugees, invoking the 2013 Memorandum of Understanding made by Kevin Rudd and PNG Prime Minster Peter O’Neill.
This wrangling has left the 926 people currently held at Manus stuck in limbo. Mass protests broke out at the facility in mid-May with over 800 refugees demanding their freedom. However, releasing them into Papua New Guinea is no real solution. Locals are frequently hostile and prospects for employment and housing are bleak. Of the eight refugees who have been moved into the PNG community, three have returned to Manus owing to fears for their safety. They must be resettled in Australia.
Mandatory detention is typically justified by the cry that “there’s not enough to go around”; that if the boats are not stopped, working Australians will have to compete with refugees for diminishing access to jobs and services. This line, pushed by both the Liberals and Labor, is often accompanied by insistence on the need to cut social spending. It is key to their strategy of shifting blame for declining living standards away from their own policies and onto so-called “economic migrants”. Even the Greens are complicit in supporting this narrative by asserting that there is an economic limit to the number of refugees that Australia can take.
But the truth is that there is more than enough wealth in society to provide everyone, including refugees, with a quality home, job, and basic services like education and healthcare. The detention industry alone costs taxpayers $1.2 billion every year – $400,000 per refugee – far more expensive than processing them onshore while allowing them to live in the community.
More importantly, the tax office revealed last year that 1 in 3 major companies operating in Australia pay no tax! Systematic corporate tax evasion is robbing the Australian economy of tens of billions of dollars. This money could be used to address the crisis of homelessness, upgrade the decaying railway networks, expand healthcare and education, and transition to clean energy among other things, creating many sustainable and socially useful jobs. Taking big companies and natural resources into public control would allow us to accept refugees while raising the standard of living for all!
Refugee activists must take up these arguments to develop a mass movement that can end mandatory detention. Appealing on the basis that our social problems are a result of structural inequality built into the capitalist system, and that the money exists to solve those problems, can win over working people who might otherwise be susceptible to divisive and racist ideas. This approach should be combined with taking militant direct action to force the government to close the camps and bring the refugees here.
The sit-in protests in Melbourne organised by Friends, Families and Feminists Against Detention (FFFAD) are an extremely positive first step towards rebuilding a radical refugee movement unburdened by illusions in any of the major political parties.
Only on the basis of ending the profit-driven wars and policies of capitalism can the global refugee crisis be solved in any meaningful way.
By Jeremy Trott