Racism, Refugees And The Australian Government: Here We Go Again

On August 13th, the “expert panel” commissioned by the Federal Government to investigate ways to stop the deaths of asylum seekers on Australian seas released their final report. The panel put forward twenty-two recommendations that are focused on deterrence, including the reintroduction of regional processing centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea. It was also recommended that the Government continue to pursue the “Malaysia solution”. Under this policy asylum seekers who arrive via boat would be imprisoned in detention camps in Malaysia, which is not a signatory of the UN Refugee Convention.

The resultant policy marks a return to Howard’s racist refugee policies of the early 2000s and the complete capitulation of the Labor Party. All recommendations were passed with only two members of the lower house opposing the legislation – the Greens’ Adam Bandt and Independent Andrew Wilkie. Labor, a nominally “left wing” party, has endorsed a return to the most draconian refugee policy in Australia’s history and one which they had promised to abolish. This is literally the Pacific Solution 2.0.

The panel was supportive not only of off-shore processing centres and the Malaysia policy, but also suggested that in future the Government should consider turning back the boats that do make it to Australian shores. In essence, this entails telling people who arrive at our doorstep asking for help to go back to where they came from. The majority of asylum seekers flee from situations in which their lives and safety are threatened to the extent that boarding a leaky boat and making the perilous sea journey to Australia is considered an option. The Australian Government should be ashamed of backing a policy that institutes such a total lack of compassion.

Turning back the boats is not only a complete capitulation to Tony Abbott but is entirely illegal. In June this year Senator Bob Carr, when speaking about the turning back the boats policy presented by the Liberal Party, stated “the policy would be illegal under international law” and “would be illegal under interpretation by the Australian High Court.” Talk about hypocrisy.

To make matters worse, the report recommends that those asylum seekers who arrive via boat should not be allowed to sponsor family members to join them in Australia. Such a recommendation is likely to cause an increase in the number of women and children risking their lives to make the journey to Australia by boat. The Government’s policy has been marketed on the basis of deterrence, which, according to Government rhetoric, will lead to fewer deaths at sea.

Asylum seekers already face torturous standards in mandatory detention. Under the new policy these are due to worsen. In 2012 so far, a man in Broadmeadows Detention Centre has sown his lips together, numerous people have attempted suicide, many have engaged in hunger strikes and a new form of insanity, Protracted Asylum Seeker Syndrome, has been defined by a group of University of Melbourne researchers to describe the mental state of some of the imprisoned asylum seekers.  All of this has happened in Australian Detention Camps. Under the Government’s new policy, asylum seekers and refugees will be detained in offshore centres that are qualitatively worse than those in Australia. A detention centre is simply a euphemism for a prison.

If Australia is serious about protecting the wellbeing of asylum seekers we should be embracing onshore community processing in a safe and supportive environment. At present there are some asylum seekers who are able to live in the community whilst their applications are being processed – so we know that this system can work. Furthermore, prior to the introduction of mandatory detention in 1992, this is how all asylum seekers were processed.

Only three of the report’s twenty-two recommendations can be seen as even vaguely positive. The panel did suggest an increased humanitarian intake (up to 20,000 from 13,000) and increased funding for research on asylum seekers. However, this Government has a record of showing no concern for refugees and there is no guarantee that these recommendations will be carried out. This is the same Government that promised not to imprison children in detention centres if they were elected, yet at the time of writing is responsible for detaining 600 children. This is also the same Prime Minister who in a recent press conference stated that asylum seekers could be housed in tents on Nauru or Manus Island whilst the detention centres are made inhabitable.

There are many people in Australia who are in favour of a more progressive approach to asylum seekers and ashamed by the actions of our politicians. The response to this policy must not be one of demoralisation or melancholy, but one of anger, disgust and inspiration. If a substantial grassroots campaign existed across the nation, prepared to stand up against the anti-refugee rhetoric of our government, the policy outcome of the latest political deadlock might have been different.

The introduction of this policy necessitates action by refugee activists if we as a nation are to be serious about protecting those who are the most vulnerable. We need to stop engaging in hollow political rhetoric and start engaging in a compassionate manner with the people whose lives are put in jeopardy by our actions.

Building a campaign means talking to friends and getting involved on campus. If you feel strongly about these issues then show your support for refugees at the upcoming protest on September 22nd at Maribyrnong Detention Centre. 

The Monash Refugee Action Collective meets every Wednesday in Wholefoods at 2pm. To find out more, contact MSA Environment & Social Justice Office Bearer Laura Riccardi on 0401315387 or at

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