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Issue #1738      July 6, 2016

Seeking asylum is legal

In the shadow of a wave of fear, ignorance and insecurity gripping many parts of the world, millions of refugees and displaced persons fan out across the globe, governments are struggling to understand and cope with the issue.

A “Let Them Stay” rally earlier this year in Sydney. (Photo: Anna Pha)

In Europe right-wing governments have closed borders and erected physical fences as Syrian and African refugees threaten to overwhelm their ability to deal effectively with the issue.

In the US, the presidential elections have thrown up a right-wing candidate in Donald Trump who not only wants to stop future immigration but also deport people not considered American enough.

In England, a plebiscite on whether the United Kingdom should leave the European Union the question of restricting immigration to England became an issue, portrayed by some as causing many of the UK’s social and economic problems.

In Australia, the two major political parties have all but stopped access for refugees arriving by boat who seek asylum by placing them in detention centres offshore on Manus and Nauru islands.

How did Australia, a signatory to the United Nations Convention on Refugees, get to this position where our national government now actively discourages and prevents people seeking asylum in Australia?

To attempt to answer these questions and propose a way forward and as part of Refugee Week, the WA Branch of the Communist Party of Australia held Politics in the Pub on June 23, “Seeking Asylum is Legal”, chaired by Dr Christopher Crouch.

Dr Crouch introduced the speakers at the forum which was attended by over 40 people.

Tim and Mark both members of Unionists 4 Refugees (U4R), spoke of fighting for the rights of refugees as a union issue akin to the struggle of workers; a struggle against inequality, hopelessness and oppression.

Since the anti-Apartheid struggle of the 1970s and 1980s the union movement has united to defeat other discriminatory and oppressive policies of authoritarian regimes around the world.

They continued by highlighting the need for the Australian people to push back against widening gap between the government’s policy of mandatory detention of refugees and our obligations under the UN Convention on Refugees.

The government’s measures, aimed at providing disincentives for people seeking asylum in Australia, violate the UN Convention on refugees and diminish the Australian people. The majority of Australian people support our obligation to provide refuge for those who have to flee their countries.

A community activist Karl (not his real name), with connections to Manus Island and Nauru said that the multinational corporations Wilson and Transfield who operate the detention centres for the Australian government, have little previous experience in caring for refugees.

This was probably an intentional ploy by the federal Liberal government as part of its policy to dehumanise refugees and ensure their policy of being, “Tough but Fair” is maintained.

Karl said that all refugees are advised from the outset that they will never enter Australia, leaving them in a climate of hopelessness and despair leading many to self-harm/attempt suicide.

Since the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court declared mandatory detention there illegal, the government has attempted to make Manus Island look less like a detention centre. Asylum seekers are allowed to go to the nearby town during the day but are still required to return to the detention centre at night.

Ali, a young former refugee and asylum seeker and member of the persecuted Hazara people from Pakistan presented a moving account of his journey. It began at age 15 with only a young cousin to accompany him on a treacherous journey through Asia and finally on a boat to Australia.

His account told of the many months of waiting and uncertainty at the hands of the “people smugglers”, the lack of food and appalling conditions while waiting in cramped accommodation for a boat to take them to Australia.

Another ordeal started again once in mandatory detention. Firstly, the loss of identity, instead a number which they had to remember whenever they were addressed by authorities in detention. There was the often inhumane treatment by the guards and the witnessing of weekly incidences of self-harm of other detainees as the uncertainty, powerlessness and trauma mounted.

Then the final catharsis, when granted asylum and allowed to leave the detention system to once again become a human being in an Australian community. Ali was especially thankful for the refugee advocates who braved the system to give the refugees a voice. Some of those advocates attended the forum on the night and gave additional testimonies of the appalling conditions in the detention centres.

This state of affairs the panel concluded came about in 2001, when the executive arm of the state in Australia gave itself the power to detain people indefinitely for committing no crime. It is not a crime to seek asylum – not withstanding the rhetoric of successive Labor and Coalition governments.

In this instance Executive power had usurped judicial power.

In the lead-up to the July 2 double dissolution election, a solution to mandatory detention was not imminent. The government of Coalition Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull seeks to maintain mandatory detention and offshore detention as a deterrent to so-called people smugglers.

So as not to appear weaker than his more right-wing opponent, Labor leader Bill Shorten pursues the same policy as the Coalition.

Whoever wins the election, there will be no short-term solution to the despair and trauma facing refugees – not withstanding that globally we are seeing more refugees from conflicts, water and food shortages and increasingly climate change refugees. The latter are not yet legally recognised as refugees.

On Saturday June 25, a public rally on refugees was held in Fremantle attended by over 400 people, including members of the CPA.

The CPA demands an end to mandatory detention and offshore processing and for all processing of refugee claims to be made onshore and for refugees to be released as soon as possible into the community pending the outcomes of their claims.

Next article – Might of united trade union movement

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