Why is there sympathy for those fleeing Syria but contempt for refugees on Nauru?
The plight of refugees fleeing deadly conflict in the Middle East has generated huge sympathy across the world. In many countries huge demonstrations of ordinary people have demanded governments act to support and resettle these refugees.
In Australia, tens of thousands of people joined demonstrations and vigils to put pressure on the government to accept 12,000 refugees from Syria. This must be seen as a huge victory considering the many years of refugee-bashing we have witnessed in Australian politics. It would not have been possible without public sentiment in support of refugees and significant pressure from below.
However, the intake of 12,000 refugees from Syria explicitly excludes refugees currently being held in brutal conditions in offshore detention on Manus Island and Nauru. This contradiction lies at the heart of how refugees continue to be used as a political tool by both major parties.
By posing the refugee issue as a border control issue the government has been able to whip up fear about “illegal arrivals” and rehash old tropes of immigrants flooding into the country. This serves to demonise some of the world’s most desperate people and manipulates the local population into believing refugees are a threat.
Australia has a long, shameful history of racist and discriminatory immigration policies that is now being used against refugees. Established as an explicitly white outpost on the edge of Asia, Australia’s fear of being overrun by neighbouring populations has been a useful tool to keep Australians more fearful of our neighbours than the wealthy elite exploiting us.
The establishment of the Australian Border Force in 2015 was as much an act of political theatre as a tool to patrol the borders. The disastrous attempt at a publicity stunt whereby Border Force agents would randomly check people’s immigration status on the streets of Melbourne is an example of this political theatre and racist dog whistling. The implication that racial profiling would be used to weed out illegal immigrants from the general population is made even more farcical when considering that the vast majority of visa overstayers are actually British citizens!
By linking the refugee issue with the issue of border protection the government has turned what is primarily a humanitarian issue into a concern of national sovereignty. Both major parties now claim that keeping out refugees is about keeping Australians safe from terrorism, preventing public services from being overwhelmed and protecting ‘Australian values’. This nationalist approach helps politicians justify draconian border controls and the brutal treatment of refugees.
The increasing nationalism of the political establishment has fuelled the rise of right wing racist groups such as Reclaim Australia. These racist groups play on people’s fears about the lack of jobs, affordable housing and diminishing access to public services. They also reflect peoples feelings of powerlessness and anger at the rising cost of living.
Nationalism cannot resolve the root causes of the economic and social problems faced by working class people. The capitalist system operates to enrich a tiny, wealthy elite by exploiting ordinary people and creating divisions using nationalism and racism.
The idea that Australians are being ‘dispossessed’ by greedy, queue jumping, unworthy refugees is false, but powerful. By creating an enemy out of the victims (refugees), and a hero out of the perpetrators (the bosses and their acolytes in the media and parliament), people direct their fear and anger over diminishing standards of living at the wrong people.
The same nationalism used to whip up fear and hatred of refugees is used to build support for waging the wars overseas that create refugees. It is incredible the extent to which both major parties have been able to erase their own role in and responsibility for creating the conditions most refugees are fleeing.
The actions of Australia on the world stage have been to join invading armies, prop up brutal dictators and oppress regional population for control of lucrative resources. These actions benefit the Australian elite, while creating chaos and poverty for ordinary people.
As socialists, we recognise that we have more common interest with the ordinary people of other countries than with our own ruling class. The alternative to nationalism is class solidarity. Therefore, supporting refugee rights is a vital step in challenging the imperialist, anti-worker policies of both of the major parties. Building a movement of ordinary working class people, refugees and migrants on an anti-racist and international basis is the only way to end war, poverty and racism in Australia and across the world.
By Emma Linacre