The Australia Institute conducted a poll of more than 1400 people last month and found that 63% of respondents were opposed to the policy of denying settlement to refugees who arrive in Australia by boat. This is a policy supported by both the major parties.
The findings highlight that a majority of people feel that those found to have a valid claim for protection should be allowed to come to Australia. 28% of those polled were in favour of asylum seekers being immediately brought to Australia and processed onshore.
The majority of those polled also believe that doctors working in offshore detention centres should be free to speak out about the conditions refugees endure, and that Australia should accept New Zealand’s offer to resettle refugees from Manus Island and Nauru.
It is clear that there is growing concern about what is happening in offshore detention camps. People are repelled by stories of horrendous conditions, aggressive guards and a lack of medical care. Often these conditions lead to detainees committing desperate acts of self-harm.
The government’s secrecy and their attempts to cover up the appalling conditions have not worked. It seems that more people are becoming open to the idea that the camps need to be shut down. This developing mood has not yet translated into a boost for the refugee rights movement, but this can be attributed to the politics put forward by those who dominate the campaigns.
Most refugee rights demonstrations have limited themselves to moralism and have failed to take up the economic questions that working class people have. With capitalist politicians of all stripes suggesting that there is not enough to go around, the refugee rights movement needs to explain that plenty of wealth is being created in Australia – the issue is the unequal way that it is being distributed.
In the main the refugee rights movement has also limited itself to passive marches. In response to the ineffectiveness of this strategy some sections of the movement have moved towards taking direct action. On several occasions protesters have attempted to occupy places like the Department of Immigration and disrupt its activities.
So far these actions have had mixed success but this more confrontational approach is to be welcomed. It is an expression that growing numbers of people are realising that writing letters to politicians and gathering in public spaces from time to time isn’t achieving results.
Unless we move to taking on a more combative approach, and link it to arguments that can convince big swathes of working class people, the refugee rights movement will continue to stagnate.
The treatment of vulnerable refugees coming to Australia is certainly cruel and immoral, but if we are going to really force a change in the situation we need to convince people that it is also a waste of money and a tactic used by big business politicians to sow divisions amongst working class people.
Given the barrage of anti-refugee propaganda pushed by the mainstream media it is in many ways incredible that people are beginning to see through the government’s lies. It is also an indication of the lack of trust that people have in the major parties and entire political establishment.
The vast bulk of people agree that that those in need deserve care and protection. The refugee rights movement needs to take advantage of the weak state of the government and start demanding that the billions wasted on mandatory detention and offshore processing is instead spent on decent jobs, affordable housing, and social services such as education, healthcare for all, including refugees.
By Amy Neve