At the recent United Nations summit on refugees, Malcolm Turnbull announced that Australia will accept some Central American refugees, mainly people who have fled from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
Far from any sort of new-found sympathy for refugees, this move by Turnbull is an attempt to divert attention away from the governments appalling asylum seeker record.
There have been no details in relation to the amount of Central American refugees to be taken, but it is clear that Australia’s total yearly intake will remain the same. This will mean that if these people are accepted they will be in exchange for others, including those stuck in limbo in Australia’s offshore detention centres.
Turnbull’s hypocrisy is breathtaking. While feigning concern about the world’s refugee crisis, his government is involved in wars in the Middle East and it supports repressive regimes like the one in Sri Lanka. War and repression are major reasons that people are forced to flee their homes in the first place.
Australia has only taken 0.1% of the world’s refugees over the past 10 years. This is miniscule compared to the top 10 countries who are hosting 50% of global refugees. Of those top ten countries, all are under-developed countries in places like the Middle East and Africa.
Turnbull hopes that by talking about Central American refugees the focus will be taken off Australia’s inhumane refugee detention regime. Currently about 2000 refugees languish in Australia’s offshore concentration camps on Nauru and Manus Island. The horrific conditions in these camps have been condemned by the UN itself.
Widespread abuse of refugees in detention has been detailed in the recently leaked files from Nauru. This has forced some companies who have been profiteering from the detention industry to pull out. In a blow to the government, the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court also recently ruled that the Manus Island detention centre is illegal.
These revelations have exposed the bankruptcy of both the major parties so-called “solutions” to the refugee crisis. Since mandatory detention was introduced in 1992 by the Keating Labor government, both the Liberals and Labor have agreed to punish vulnerable people in order to deter others from coming.
Refugees have been used as a political tool by the major parties to distract people from their cuts and austerity measures and to promote the myth that there is not enough to go around. This provides them with a scapegoat to blame for the problems that the capitalist system itself has created.
Although there have been some encouraging polls showing diminishing public support for offshore detention, there is still much work to do. It is necessary to win over wider layers of ordinary people so that pressure can be exerted on the major parties to shut the offshore detention centres down.
It is vital that the refugee rights campaign talks about the economic and political motivations behind the government’s policies. The starting point should be that settling refugees in the community while their claims are processed is not only more humane, but much cheaper.
Some estimates suggest that community settlement would cost only 10% of what the offshore detention regime costs, which is more than $1.2 billion every year. The money saved could be used to create jobs, build houses and provide public services for everyone, rather than handing it over to profiteers.
Highlighting the economics of the government’s policy also makes it easier to link up with other campaigns, such as those against cuts to public services. This would help to broaden support for the movement.
Mass rallies and actions to stop the deportation of refugees can put pressure on the government. The time to step up the campaign is now, while the government is weak, holding on to power by just by one seat. At the same time targeting those corporations who reap profits from refugee misery can weaken the basis for a detention industry and point towards the need for an alternative to the capitalist system.
By Tim Tran