December 2011 saw yet more asylum seekers tragically drown as their boat sank on the journey to Australia. The response of both major parties has been to descend into a vile contest of who can out do the other as the toughest on people smugglers.
The Greens refugee spokesperson, Sarah Hanson-Young, simply stated that “accidents happen”. Such a statement distorts the reality of asylum seeker deaths at sea. These tragedies are not accidents, but the direct result of inaccessible, punitive and inhumane refugee policies supported by both Labor and Liberal.
In the media frenzy suggesting that Australia is being ‘flooded’ by refugees, both major parties want to be seen as keeping the number of boat arrivals down. This means making it as difficult as possible for refugee boats to find a route to Australian shores. The direct result of this is desperate people being forced to take the most dangerous routes to Australia, many not surviving the journey.
All the rhetoric around people smuggling and calls for offshore processing are a devastating distraction from the real issue. The fact is are that seeking asylum is not a crime. Those fleeing war and persecution should be afforded the right to make a safe passage to Australia where their claims can be processed while they live in the community.
Knowing that many of those fleeing persecution will continue to take enormous risks in the hope of finding refuge, both Labor and Liberal want to further punish those who are lucky enough to make it to Australian shores.
The Gillard Labor Government continues to claim that offshore processing in Malaysia is the best ‘deterrent’ to the ‘people smuggling model’. They are seeking to change the Migration Act to allow offshore processing to occur, due to the decision of the High Court which ruled the governments so called Malaysia solution unlawful. Once again the human rights of refugees play second fiddle to Labor’s political needs.
The Liberals for their part, while promising to “turn back the boats” (in effect dumping asylum seekers in countries in which they have no recognition of rights), remain adamant that a return to the horrors of processing on Nauru is the best option. Just how cynical the Liberal Party’s attitude toward asylum seekers is has been revealed by Wikileaks, with a senior party strategist calling the issue “fantastic”, saying “the more boats that come the better”.
In both cases the major parties support the same policies of offshore processing and mandatory detention. The current stalemate between Malaysia and Nauru comes down more to political posturing than any substantial difference in policy.
Rather than debating which offshore venue is more of a ‘deterrent’, it is the policies of offshore processing and mandatory detention themselves that should be brought into question.
For offshore processing to be a deterrent, the rights of refugees must be abused in order to effectively ‘deter’ people from coming. This is why the Labor Government wants to send asylum seekers to countries that have not signed the UN convention on refugees.
The level of hypocrisy becomes even clearer when it comes to mandatory detention. Also a policy of ‘deterrence’, the strategy is to keep people locked up for long periods of time with no guarantee of being granted refugee status at the end of it. Some remain ‘in limbo’ for years, and will eventually either be dumped in a country of the Immigration Department’s choosing (not necessarily their country of origin), or remain in detention indefinitely.
Yet when refugees in detention protest against their treatment and the long processing wait, the government claim they have nothing to complain about. From one side of their mouth they speak of policies of ‘deterrence’, and from the other they claim refugees are treated perfectly well!
As has been pointed out by Professor James Hathaway, a leading authority on international refugee law, if refugees could lawfully come to Australia without the need to get on a boat, they would do it. It is the lack of any alternative that pushes people to risk their lives.
Australia’s share of the world’s refugees in 2010 ranked 79th on a GDP per capita basis, just 0.21 per cent of the total. Refugee humanitarian intake as a percentage of total migration is at a 35 year low.
The policies of offshore processing and mandatory detention do nothing to help resolve the problem of displaced people. We need to fight for the rights of asylum seekers while linking the issue of refugees to the need to change society. It is the profit system of capitalism that creates war, poverty and refugees. Alternatively, a socialist society based on human need could easily accommodate all the worlds’ refugees, while putting an end to the ‘push factors’ that create refugees in the first place.
By David Suter