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SLIDESHOW Countering the racist lies & building solidarity with refugees

[These are presentation notes to accompany the Powerpoint Presentation which was delivered by Paul Benedek to a refugee forum  organised by the Socialist Alliance in Brisbane on October 27th, 2009  ]


Focus of this is on countering the dangerous, racist lies – from politicians, from media – that create climate of fear, of scapegoating. Just what is behind this “fortress Australia” policy?
As Alex – Tamil spokesperson for the boat currently in Indonesia, where a recent hunger strike was held – told GLW: “When people are fleeing war and genocide, how can a country think protecting themselves is more important than helping these people? The world is for all of humankind, we are just like you except we do not have a country.”
“We are refugees and we want to get away from genocide”, Alex said. “There are women and children on board here. And we are not animals, we are people, but we are being treated inhumanely.”
Countering the racist lies & building solidarity with refugees
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The “Indonesia Solution”
New refugee colonialism – Australia using political pressure, and money, to “outsource” detention of (primarily Tamil) refugees to Indonesia. Tens of millions to Indo to halt and detain people fleeing genocide.
This is a slightly altered version of Howard Govt’s “Pacific Solution” – where poor countries like Nauru were bullied and bribed into being a dumping ground for refugees.
The idea of both these policies – Howard’s Pacific Solution and Rudd’s Indonesia Solution – is this: minimize Australia’s responsibility to these desperate people. Prevent them from reaching Australian territory and thus having access to the basic laws of Australia. The Howard govt even went so far as to excise parts of Australia – to say in effect “no you haven’t reached Australia, you still have no rights”. This policy came in the wake of the Tampa, where scapegoating refugees was used to win an election. Rudd is now following the same line…

These old Pacific and the new Indonesian solutions are not merely about 2 similarly placed countries jockeying about who takes refugees. It is essentially the rich, first world – which is massively better resourced to resettle refugees – putting up a fortress, and instead forcing refugees to poor countries. A sort of new “refugee imperialism”. Even have TV shows to underline the message “border security”!
Indonesia is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention, meaning no guarantee of accepting refugees and giving them rights (indeed, few countries between the Middle East and Australia have signed the Refugee Convention).
Indonesia of course very poorly equipped to resettle people who have experienced war, genocide, trauma, psychological distress, injuries, torture and more. Lets be clear on this – even when listed with the UNHCR as a refugee, in Indonesia not permitted to seek employment, send children to school, or apply for residency
Now reports of detention centres in Indonesia where Tamil refugees are being beaten. So we went through long campaign end brutality of mandatory detention, to close horror camps like Woomera and Baxter…..yet these new “outsourced” camps are worse!
Recent report on Indonesia's detention centres: "... babies and children reside in maximum security
third-world jails"; asylum seekers "treated like animals. There are beatings fairly frequently at the hands of Indonesian military and Immigration officials. If anyone escapes the rest who are left behind will be beaten as a warning." In places like Mataram, Lombok, there are rats running around….extremely cramped conditions….People can't lie down at the same time so they can't sleep at the same time. In a prison in Pontianak ... around 50 men and unaccompanied boys are locked up in a big cell just smaller than a tennis court, a concrete cell behind bars. It's very hot and steamy and when the men do their business it flows into a ditch behind the building and just sits there and the stench is unbelievable.
Not just Indonesia – also Malaysia. Socialist Party of Malaysia statement against ‘collusion with Sri Lankan govt’ (note MSP will be at SA Conf)
Hundreds of Sri Lankan asylum seekers held at the Immigration Detention Centre at Kuala Lumpar Airport + another Detention Centre. Many women and children, including a woman in her 8mth of pregnancy
Reports that the Sri Lankan embassy were forcing a group of Sri Lankan refugees to sign agreements for repatriation – when refused to sign the agreements, the embassy personnel beat and kicked them to force them to sign the agreement.
UNHCR and HRC of Malaysia denied access to the refugees. Yet SL govt officials can.
Despite some having UNHCR status, cant work. Of course, must work, so do so illegally, opening up to abuse. What if boss doesn’t pay them? Opens them to extortion.
The global refugee situation and Australia’s role
But to get a full understanding of whats happening in Australia and the region and with the Tamil refugees, it’s important we put it in the context of the global refugee situation.
There are around 42mill refugees and internally displaced people officially – however that no doubt understates the figure. It still doesn’t include the growing number of climate change refugees, which are not yet officially included in the UN definition of refugees. The amount of refugees globally is on the rise - wars, conflict, poverty and the effects of climate change are causing this. According to Amnesty, 1 person in 115 on the globe is a refugee
So what is Australia’s role in this global tragedy? Surely we are always told we are such a “generous” country?! Well, Australia's refugee intake is tiny in relation to this global situation. –Australia houses 1 refugee for every 1600 people. Compare to Tanzania, a poor country – 1 in 76. In Switzerland, 1 in 160.
Australia takes around 13,000 refugees per year total – at the start of the 1980s it was 20,000. The 1500 or so boat arrivals this year is just over 10% of the total refugees we will take. It is just over 1% of immigration (134,000). . Fewer than 1600 asylum seekers have come to Australia by boat this year. Labelling this a “surge” is a sham. Australia is in a position to take many more refugees than it now does.
Aren’t they “illegals”? 
Rudd, the opposition and the media have casually used the false term “illegal immigrants” to describe the refugees.
To demonstrate their “illegality”, the navy is used to “repel” these people, as if they are an invading army….rather than desperate men, women and children seeking safety from war and genocide.
However, we must be clear – there is no such thing as an “illegal” asylum seeker. Both the UN refugee convention, and Australian law, make it perfectly clear that it is legal for people seeking asylum to do so in another country – whether they have papers or not, whether they arrive by boat or not – it is perfectly legal to seek asylum, and they have a right to be heard.
Indeed, when their cases are heard – after sometimes months or years being locked away cruelly after already experiencing the horror of displacement – around 85% are found to fulfil refugee criteria.
[By the way, this does not mean that the other small amount are ‘rorting’ the system, just that they may not fulfil the strict criteris….for example, people fleeing Tuvulu as their island goes under would not, under current law, receive refugee status.]
 Boatpeople are ‘queue jumpers’, stealing the places of ‘genuine’ refugees waiting patiently in camps for their turn at orderly processing by the UNHCR
There is no such queue. In many places, there is no UNHCR office and no Australian embassy – including Iraq and Afghanistan
Now, I looked up Sri Lanka, yes there is a UNHCR! And indeed several offices - Colombo,
Vavuniya, Jaffna, Trincomalee, Kilinochchi, Mannar and Batticaloa. However, please note that you can only apply to the Colombo office for refugee status. The UNHCR Field Offices cannot entertain any applications for refugee status. Great. So all a Tamil has to do is get free from the camps and go to the heart of Sri Lanka and then they may have a chance…..?!
Of course, actually going to a UNHCR office and/or expressing a desire to leave may literally put your life at risk or expose you to danger. It is in a countries interest to prevent a refugee reaching the UNHCR, since such an application for asylum is an indication of persecution or war in that country.
Even if you do gain UNHCR status, it can mean little. Australia has not taken one UNHCR refugee from Indonesia in the last 3 yrs! 24 of those who recently died when their ship sank off the coast of Indonesia had already been granted refugee status by the UNHCR in Jakarta.
Finally, the concept of a queue, in a humanitarian view, is ridiculous. Imagine the Victorian bushfires, being told – “well sorry, the limit is 10 per week….you’ll have to wait your turn….yet the 170 deaths in these bushfires is indeed small compared to the daily toll in Sri Lanka.
Myth: Refugees cost “us” greatly
Millions is being poured into “border control” - including for the military. Now tens of millions is being given to Indonesia to run what could be described as torture camps to “outsource” the Australian governments dirty work. Mandatory detention cost $104 per day – up until recently, disgustingly, refugees were billed for this amount – one Iranian refugee who suffered depression after 4yrs in detention, was billed for $268,000!
The government is even sending furnished shipping containers from the Baxter detention centre — suspected of dangerously high formaldehyde content — to Christmas Island to house asylum seekers there.
A humane policy, that welcomed refugees and helped them settle here and build a better life, would be far less costly. Of course refugees can’t “contribute” when they are stuck in detention centres whether on Xmas Island or Indonesia, hunger striking for their rights. Instead of money being spent on razor wire, extreme security, military ships patrolling…money should be going to resettlement services, to help refugees join in the community, find work, housing, education, much needed healthcare and more.
For example – a parole system, with refugees living in the community, would cost $5.39 per day – compared to $104 per day for mandatory detention
Myth: Cracking down on ‘people smugglers’ will stop asylum seekers reaching Australia
While there are no doubt people smugglers who attempt to make the most money possible and often put asylum seekers lives at risk, the fundamental, unmistakable fact remains that ‘people smugglers’ fulfill a service that is absolutely necessary for those that use them.
As the barriers go up in on the rich-world fortresses, as the numbers of refugees to be taken by countries that have the resources to take them are inhumanely low, and as refugee services are unable to reach those suffering war or genocide – then asylum seekers are forced to turn to people smugglers to get to a country where they may gain sanctuary.
A simple question to the most racist, the most hardline, the Wilson Tuckeys or Philip Ruddock’s….if you and your loved ones were in a Tamil concentration camp; had seen other family killed; knew the monsoon season and horrific illness and death were coming…..if you had a chance to get out by a people smuggler, would you take it?
Kevin Rudd calls them “'scum of the earth' who should 'rot in jail and rot in hell'. But should Oskar Schindler was a “people smuggler”; a poor fisherman who tries to ferry a bunch of his community and himself to safety is a “people smuggler”. I have heard a brave Afghan Chaman Shah here in Brisbane say openly “without a people smuggler I would be dead”.
There is a humane way to undermine people smuggling….and that is, for well resourced governments like Australia to massively boost its refugee intake, and to facilitate refugees coming here. If those facing war and persecution knew that Australia – and other first-world countries – would let them in and help them get to countries like Australia, they wouldn’t have to risk their lives seeking refuge.
The navy ships that try to keep refugees out, that monitor leaky boats, that even – in the horrific case of the SIEV-X – appear to stand by while desperate refugee boats sink and hundreds drown….these navy ships instead could be used to bring people safely to Australia and settle them quickly into the community.
MYTH: Won’t a humane policy ‘open the floodgates’ and we will be ‘swamped’ by refugees?
Firstly, its worth noting that pre 1992 mandatory detention didn’t exist. There were no floods then, no swamping – just an ebb and flow of asylum seekers depending on the global situation, with applicants in hostels, who then went into the community once they had their refugee status.
This is the otherside of the argument that harsh policies will stop refugees coming. The reality is, regardless of the policies, refugees will flee when they need to. Yet – much as it crushes the inflated nationalism of Australians - refugees don’t want to be here! Given a choice, the vast majority would rather be in the places they and their families grew up in, where the language is familiar, where they are connected to the culture – as long as their lives were not at risk. The Tamils would rather be in Tamil Eelam – if there wasn’t genocide occurring. The Iraqis want to be in Iraq, the Afghanis in Afghanistan, where it not being bombed and occupied. A good eg is East Timor – despite being one of the poorest countries on earth, the vast majority of East Timorese who had sought refuge actually returned to this poor country when it finally won independence.
So, sorry, but there isn’t hordes ready to swarm Australia – they actually prefer a bit of culture to this redneck enclave!
Want to get rid of refugees? Then stop creating them!
The irony of the Australian govt formulating such anti-refugee policy, is that Australia has played an active role in creating refugees.
Australia eagerly was part of the coalition of the killing in the invasions and occupations of both iraq and Afghanistan – both creating tens or hundreds of thousands of refugees (along with killing over 1mill people in the case of Iraq).
In the case of Sri Lanka, Australia has been a close ally of Sri Lankas brutal govt, never whispering a word of caution as Sri Lanka engages in genocidal policies. [Joint military training?]
Another area where Australia is helping create refugees is the daily growing crisis of climate refugees, displaced from low-lying countries that are going under water, having their crop land poisoned by salt water, and facing ever worsening climate disasters such as tsunamis, earthquakes and floods – which can’t be directly attributed to climate change, but are certainly happening more frequently and with greater impact due to climate change. In the face of this, Australia remains the greatest per capita emitter of CO2 in the world.
Role of racism under capitalism
So if refugees account for only 10% of Australias migrant intake; and refugees by boat more like 1%; and Australia takes such a small proportion of refugees….then why is this manufactured into such a huge political crisis, with daily frontpage coverage, with major parties competing to be “tough”, even with elections fought on the issue of a few hundred people seeking safety????
That last example – the Tampa – gives us the answer, and its none too secret. Anti-refugee hysteria is useful for the system, a useful political tool, to find a scapegoat for societies problems. Think back to the Tampa – 2001, there was considerable anger at the Howard govt for selling Telstra, for attacks on unions, and esp for the GST -> these issues prob would have seen Howard lose the election…..but along came Tampa. Howard, with a willing media, and a “me-too” ALP “opposition”, skillfully turned the election away from those real issue that effected millions of the population, and on to a scapegoat….the Tampa refugees. “We decide who comes to this country and the ciurcumstances in which they come” Howard infamously bellowed in adverts draped in the flag, not too different to Pauline Hanson’s overt racism of the preceeding years.
So portraying refugees as “illegals” and stirring up racism toward migrants in general creates a convenient scapegoat for the government's failures. The government habitually appeals to racist and nationalist attitudes to draw support for, or distract from, unpopular actions.
Media’s role in racism 
The corporate media has been a driving force behind the racist fear mongering
Use of false, racist language that promotes fear - “boatpeople”; “illegals”; “flood”;
The media played up every slur Liberal and Labour came up with. Then Liberal MP Wilson Tuckey told media the asylum boats were “a terrorist threat”.
The media has failed, and continues to fail, to bring accurate reporting on the horrors facing the Tamil people. If the community in Australia had knowledge over the oppression the Tamils faced for decades, the slaughter that has taken place, if ppl saw that reality – then we would see much more sympathy
Important we recognize the systemic racism – that the fault lies not with bigoted individuals, as offensive as they can be – but the media and politicians that fan this racism are the ones that should be held to account
Another reason for the racism – to break solidarity between the poor and oppressed.
Perhaps Labor is even more despicable than the previous government, given the hypocrisy. At least Howard was rather boldly bigoted – yet Rudd and his govt parade as supporters of human rights and “civilised values”….yet when a few hundred poor, desperate, persecuted refugees approach Australian, any humanity is “thrown overboard”.
Refugees are cast as a dark force threatening Australia. But a two-party political system that willfully breaks international law; engages in wars and supports genocidal governments; abuses people fleeing war and persecution; and whips up racism for political gain – this is the real danger.
In a just world, it’s the cynical politicians and their helpers, from Wilson Tuckey to Kevin Rudd – that would be the ones locked up, rather than desperate asylum seekers.

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