By Kat Galea
“The detention policy has failed as a deterrant and succeeded only as a punishment. How much longer will children and their families be punished for seeking safety from persecution?” This question was asked by the Secretary General of Amnesty International fourteen years ago and sadly the situation today is worse.
It has also been fourteen years since a group of refugees broke out of the Woomera detention centre. Over Easter in 2002 refugee rights protesters converged on the centre and ripped down fences, encouraging several dozen refugees to break out in a desperate attempt for freedom. This period was the height of the refugee rights movement.
In the time since then we have seen successive Liberal and Labor governments echo John Howard’s mantra of deciding “who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.” Thanks to more than a decade of fear mongering and scapegoating the major parties and the mainstream media have succeeded in dividing working class people on this issue.
Last year both in Australia and across the world there were simultaneous protests demanding that governments settle Syrian refugees fleeing war. This resulted in the Australian government allowing 12,000 Syrian refugees to be brought here. It was a modest but important win.
In recent months there has been a further revitalisation of the refugee rights movement with thousands coming out in February to protest against the imminent deportation of 267 asylum seekers including 30 children to Nauru.
The questions that refugee rights activists now face are: how can we build and broaden this movement and what type of strategy and tactics are necessary for the movement to be effective?
Rallies are extremely important but they are not enough in and of themselves. Rallies allow people to come together, to collectively voice their concerns and to show the government that there is significant opposition to their policies. But as was seen during the Iraq war in 2003, governments can ride out even the biggest of rallies if there is no plan to escalate the action.
Governments can have whatever policies they like on paper, but they all have to be carried out by people. Both obstructing the implementation of cruel policies and convincing workers in specific industries to refuse to carry them out are some of the most effective ways to hinder the government’s plans.
For example, the magnificent action taken by refugee supporters and hospital staff in February at the Lady Cilento hospital in Brisbane gave a glimpse of the movement’s potential.
Faced with the dilemma of discharging baby Asha knowing full well that she was to be sent back to Nauru, doctors refused to comply. They insisted that Asha stay at the hospital on the basis of safety concerns. Other workers in the hospital and activists who set up a vigil outside supported this stand.
At one stage, there were enough numbers at the vigil for a picket to be formed, and the activists used their presence to ensure that cars leaving the hospital were checked to ensure Asha had not been smuggled out! Stopping the deportation of other people in a similar situation to Asha is something that can send the government a strong message.
It’s not just the issue of deportations that should concern refugee rights activists. The detention centre and offshore processing regime is big business. A whole number of private companies are making millions of dollars in profits from the misery of those fleeing war and persecution.
Disrupting business as usual for these companies can also have a huge impact on the government’s ability to carry its refugee policies.
Broadspectrum, formerly known as Transfield, operates detention centres. Imagine if the thousands of people already coming along to weekend marches were mobilized to occupy their offices and carried out other actions aimed at preventing them from operating. If Broadspectrum workers and government department staff simultaneously implemented work bans in support of refugee rights it could render the governments plans useless overnight.
Understanding that the government’s policies are connected to big business interests, and the profit-driven nature of capitalism, is key to defeating them. Coupling mass protests with industrial action of workers in key sectors and direct action carried out by refugee rights activists should be the main goal of the movement.
Not only would such a strategy put the major parties under a huge amount of pressure but it would also thrust the issue to the top of the political agenda giving us the opportunity to explain that the billions of dollars wasted on mandatory detention would be better spent creating jobs, building homes and providing services for all ordinary people including refugees.