Last month the now infamous image of a 3 year old refugee boy washed up on a Turkish beach forced the world’s attention onto the Syrian refugee crisis.
All around the world there was a mass outpouring of solidarity and support for those fleeing the war in Syria. In Australia, tens of thousands of people attended vigils in major cities calling for the government to take in Syrian refugees.
It was these mass mobilisations that led to the announcement that Australia would resettle 12,000 Syrian refugees.
Unfortunately, the desperate refugees detained in offshore centres on Manus Island and Nauru will not be included in this resettlement, even though a number of them also fled the war in Syria.
At the height of the media saturation of Syrian refugees in Europe, a poll revealed 57% of Australians thought Australia should increase its intake of Syrian refugees. Meanwhile, 54% of Australians also said they agreed with turning back refugee boats and the offshore detention of refugees.
This shows a seemingly contradictory sympathy for Syrian refugees, while at the same time as accepting Australia’s brutal regional refugee detention program. How can this be explained?
The political establishment in Australia has worked hard over many years to undermine public support and sympathy for refugees. For all of the speeches and headlines on the issue, very few detail the horrors refugees are fleeing.
In recent years there has been a concerted effort to limit access to detention centres and the recent Border Force Act makes it illegal for those who work in the industry to speak out publicly.
All of this has served to dehumanise refugees, while great emphasis is put on people smugglers and so-called ‘border protection’.
The immense attention and resources – including billions of dollars – spent on policing Australia’s coastline has less to do with keeping people safe as it does to do with people keeping us paranoid.
The increasing ‘law and order’ response to the humanitarian issue of refugees is an attempt to link those who seek asylum arriving by boat with the broader narrative about war and terrorism.
The constant suspicion surrounding the character, motivations and legitimacy of refugees who arrive in Australian waters by boat have no basis in fact. The vast majority are found to be genuine refugees, even under strict rules. There is no evidence of any security risk posed by these refugees. There is no difference between those who arrive by boat and those who arrive by plane or other means.
While not based in any reality, the demonisation of refugees who arrive by boat serves an important political purpose. By pretending that Australia is being swamped by suspicious people claiming to be refugees, consecutive governments have constructed a convenient scapegoat for problems their policies have created.
People are increasingly feeling the strain of housing stress, insecure work, unaffordable education, inadequate transport infrastructure and inaccessible healthcare. These problems have been caused by decades of underfunding and privatisations of public infrastructure and social services. Instead of admitting their own role in causing these problems, politicians prefer to blame the lack of accessibility of these necessities on ‘unworthy’ people draining the system.
Sometimes the blame is put on the unemployed, sometimes on single mothers, sometimes on young people. Over the last decade these problems have been increasingly blamed on refugees.
Some do this subtly by claiming there is simply not enough room for more refugees, while others like George Christensen MP whip up anger by claiming refugees will “either take a job an Australian can do or they go on the dole”.
The absurdity of the situation is highlighted by the fact that Australia’s elaborate refugee detention regime costs taxpayers far more than it would ever cost to resettle every refugee who arrived by boat.
The local refugee crisis has nothing to do with economic strain or overcrowding. It is a humanitarian crisis that is being used as a political tool to the benefit of big business. The detention centres themselves have become lucrative businesses worth billions of dollars in government contracts for some of the world’s largest corporations.
When the government recognised the depth of the mass sympathy for Syrian refugees last month, it worried that this could spill over to sympathy for those locked hopelessly in offshore detention.
Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott quickly reversed his initial decision to do nothing, by announcing Australia would take in 12,000 ‘good’ refugees from Syria, while leaving the 1,500 ‘bad’ refugees in offshore detention. There was even blatantly Islamophobic calls from some MP’s to only take in only Christian refugees. This further highlights how refugees are being used as fodder in broader political debates.
It is crucial that we build a movement that campaigns for access to jobs, housing, education, transport and healthcare for all, including refugees. Our labour movement will never make serious gains for working people as long as it stays silent on the demonisation and scapegoating of refugees.
By Tim Tran