Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Refugees: Bowen takes Australia off the map

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Immigration minister Chris Bowen’s perverse back flip on the issue of asylum seekers revives the dark days of the Howard era. The announcement last month that Labor will introduce legislation to excise the Australian mainland from its migration zone, a move even Howard failed to bring into law, further cements the Gillard governments atrocious human rights record.

The move allows for asylum seekers who reach Australia to be removed to offshore processing centres, where they face indefinite detention. In effect, for asylum seekers, Australia does not exist. Is there no low this government won’t stoop to?

In 2006 the Howard government attempted to introduce similar legislation to excise the Australian mainland from its migration zone. At that time Chris Bowen labelled the move a ”stain on our national character”.

Labor opportunistically opposed the move then, having supported previous legislation to excise the Christmas, Cocos and Ashmore Islands. Howard’s legislation eventually failed due to its unpopularity amongst the Liberal backbench. With Abbott again supporting the legislation this time around, a number of Liberal MPs have expressed concern about it. The fact that there is some dissent amongst the Liberals, yet the Labor “Left” faction is supporting the move, further highlights the extent of the rightward shift of the Labor Party.

The logic behind the plan is to remove, in the words of Immigration Minister Chris Bowen, a “perverse incentive” for asylum seekers. That ‘incentive’ is to risk a longer boat journey to the Australian mainland, rather than Christmas Island. At the moment Asylum seekers who arrive at Christmas Island are being held indefinitely on Nauru or Manus Island, while those who make it to the Australian mainland must have their claims processed onshore.

The reality is that it is a tiny fraction of people who attempt to make the long journey to the Australian mainland; less than 1,500 have made it or come close since Labor came to power in 2007.

For all the humanitarian dressing from the government claiming it wants to ‘save lives’ and ‘smash the people smugglers model’, it is participation in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and support for the murderous Rajapakse regime in Sri Lanka that contributes to more and more people risking their lives in the hope of escaping to safety.

Importantly, so-called ‘pull factors’ have little bearing on the decision of people to seek asylum. The horrors of war and poverty, inevitable products of the capitalist profit-first system, are the real drivers – the ‘push factors’ – of people making the difficult decision to flee their home.

On August 13 the Gillard government announced the restarting of offshore processing. The move was a cynical attempt to claim ‘deterrence’ is the solution to asylum seeker deaths at sea. The result has been the effective suspension in the processing of asylum seeker claims. This has left around 5,600 refugees in limbo due to the ‘no advantage test’.

Under the no advantage test asylum seekers who arrive by boat are kept in detention for a period the government determines it would taken them ‘on average’ to arrive otherwise. The problem with this, as pointed out by the UNHCR, is that there are no ‘average’ timeframes on which to base this. Human rights advocates have labelled this detention regime as, in effect, ‘arbitrary detention’: a serious violation of human rights as defined by international law.

There is also the issue of adverse security assessments by ASIO. Around 50 people, found to be ‘genuine’ refugees, but given a negative security assessment by ASIO, now face the prospect of spending the rest of their lives in detention. Those faced with a negative security assessment have no right of appeal, and are not even given the reasons for the decision.

In an attempt to outbid each other, the Liberals are calling for asylum seekers who arrive by boat to be banished to offshore detention for a minimum of 5 years. The Greens on their part, while formally opposing the moves to excise the Australian mainland, still give tactic support to the Labor government through ‘confidence and supply’, supporting budgets that include the estimated $1.7 billion spent on detention centres and other policies that undermine refugee rights.

Nauru has recently introduced a new visa category that will see Australia pay $3,000 for a 3 month visa for each refugee. This is on top of other costs incurred by Australia in relation to the building and maintenance of detention facilities. In its desperate efforts to reach a budget surplus, the government has argued that some of this money should come from the foreign aid budget.

The right wing media has opportunistically fanned the flames of racism throughout this debate. Along with the major parties they have suggested that it is refugees that are the source of social problems and the lack of jobs, housing and services.

The cost of mandatory detention amounts to over ten times the cost of processing refugee claims while they live in the community. More costs mount up when you include the impacts that detention has on people’s physical and mental health. Australia, as one of the wealthiest nations in the world, has the resources to easily provide secure jobs on decent pay, good quality housing and services for all. Refugees should be given access to jobs, housing and services, as should everyone. This is the humane alternative to the policies of offshore processing and mandatory detention.

Ultimately it is capitalism, the profit first system, which is responsible for causing the poverty, war and disaster that produces refugees in the first place. While campaigning for a more humane approach to refugees in the short term, the Socialist Party fights for a system that puts the needs of people first. We need to fight for a democratic socialist society where the available wealth can be used to provide jobs, housing and services for all, including the world’s refugees.

By David Suter


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