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Aziz Choudry © 2001

 

 
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"In history’s page let every stage Advance Australia Fair
In joyful strains then let us sing Advance Australia Fair."

-- Australian National Anthem

"Manifest destiny may lack its old grandeur of theft and blood – "lock the door" is what it means now, with racism a trump card to be played again and again, shamelessly, by both major political parties. "Immigration," like "street crime" and "welfare fraud", is a political euphemism that refers to people of color. Politicians and media people talk about "illegal aliens" to dehumanize and demonise undocumented immigrants, who are for the most part people of color."

Lesley Marmon Silko, The Border Patrol State.

Silko wrote this about the USA. Her thoughts apply equally to Australia.

A few weeks back I was on Gadigal land. Unceded Aboriginal land. Sydney, Australia. If it had been a couple of hundred years ago and the stickers had been put up by Aboriginal people, I might have agreed with their message knowing what was to come after white settlement began. As it was, I ripped down the few that I saw stuck on a wall which read "NSFA: National Salvation Front of Australia. Refugees = disease, drugs, rape, murder and mayhem". My Australian comrades responded with disgust, shame and assurances that this was the work of a tiny, insignificant group. But the message differs little from sentiments expressed by John Howard’s conservative coalition government in the lead up to the 10 November 10 federal election.

On an earlier visit, in 1986, I had argued with a National Action member in a Melbourne street over his racist literature about stopping the "Asianisation" of Australia which this small white nationalist party thinks should be a "European nation in the Southern Land".

How better to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of Australia’ s White Australia Policy – the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act - then the way that the Howard government is behaving towards refugees? Despite the fact that Australia’s official whites-only immigration policy was supposedly adjusted alongside its growing dependence on exports to Japan and other Asian markets decades ago, and thanks to the genocide of Indigenous Peoples, 92% of Australia’s population is white. New immigrants still come predominantly from Europe, the former Soviet Union, South Africa and North America. Advance Australia "Fair" indeed.

Contrary to its claims, the Howard government is not under siege from asylum-seekers, but by recent Labour victories in state and territorial elections in Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia, and Northern Territory.

In the run-up to the last federal election the Howard government relied heavily on stirring up disquiet at Aboriginal land claims and amending Native Title legislation to appease powerful farming and mining interests and win the elections. Former Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer promised – and delivered "bucketloads of extinguishment" of native title.

Aboriginal political leader Mick Dodson recently slammed the Howard government for playing the race card and its "draconian" attitude towards asylum-seekers. "That’s not leadership. That’s plain, raw, unadulterated political opportunism and populism."

Should Howard’s attempt to shore up support with asylum-seeker bashing at home and contributing militarily to the war effort abroad fail him on election night it is hard to see the Labour opposition taking a substantively different stance. From the genesis of the White Australia Policy, to its blocking the right of the federal court to review refugee review tribunal decisions to its support for the recent anti-refugee laws, its track record is little better. Now after over 350 people – mainly Iraqis – have drowned off the Indonesian coast, most likely headed towards Australia, the major political parties are still trying to outdo each other in the toughness of their policies towards asylum-seekers.

English journalist Nick Cohen writes: "The asylum-seeker panic is the racism of the respectable populist elitist, the dirty passion of the politically correct."

The Australian government claims that it is the world’s second most generous country when it comes to taking in refugees does not stand up to scrutiny. Australia’s intake falls well below countries like Pakistan and Slovenia. Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock, has clearly sanctioned harsh and inhumane treatment of asylum-seekers, including mandatory detention – in some cases for years - as a way of deterring others from heading to Australia. Now new laws allow Australia’s armed forces the right to forcibly turn around boats from Australian waters.

In September 2000, while "multicultural" Australia was being showcased at the Sydney Olympics we learnt that three Somali asylum seekers wrote to Australian immigration officers asking to be sent home to Somalia. They said they would prefer possible death and torture in Somalia to the harsh conditions in Australian detention centers in the desert. That August police had watercannoned and teargassed detainees rioting in protest at conditions at the detention centre at the former missile base at Woomera, South Australia. Philip Ruddock has said that detaining asylum-seekers in remote parts of the outback is the only way to make sure they do not disappear while their applications are being assessed. All six of Australia’s refugee detention centres are managed by Australasian Correctional Management, a subsidiary of US prison company Wackenhut.

Over the past month, Australia has moved quickly to use the new laws, its soldiers boarding and forcing an Indonesian-registered vessel carrying asylum-seekers back into international waters within days of the passage of the legislation. Soldiers forcibly removed Iraqi refugees from a boat who were refusing to go ashore at Nauru. Figures released in mid-October show that Australia’s policy of intercepting and diverting boat people to their ultimate destination has so far cost A $103 million. This does not include the cost of sending six frigates and several airforce planes to boost patrols for illegal immigrants. Refugee-bashing is the order of the day. When official claims were made that a boatload of refugees calculatedly threw children overboard in an attempt to blackmail Australian authorities, Ruddock said that he did not want "people like that in Australia". He then dismissed people who sought detail and context of the incident as trying to make boat people into "heroes".

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer even phoned UN Chief Administrator in East Timor, Sergio Vieria de Mello during East Timor’s elections asking if a refugee camp there could accommodate the mainly Afghani asylum-seekers on board the Norwegian freighter Tampa. Now Downer’s ministry has approached Fiji as a possible destination for unwanted asylum-seekers. Hassan Khan of the Fiji Council of Social Services told Australia’s ABC radio: "When you compare Fiji to Australia, Australia has vast resources in this area. Australia talks about multiculturalism, Australia promotes human rights everywhere, so why chase another group of refugees...you’re using the army and things, people and military to chase people away. That does not look well for a country like Australia". Kiribati and Palau have also been in discussions with Australia to build processing centers.

Tiny, bankrupt Nauru (see my earlier ZNet Commentary "Prising Open The Pacific") now has the greatest number of displaced people measured against population size in the world, with over 700 refugees housed in two Australian-funded and built temporary camps, guarded by Australian security personnel.

Hilda Lini of the Fiji-based Pacific Concerns Resource Centre has criticized the Australian moves to turn Pacific Islands into refugee processing centers. She says that the Pacific has long been a dumping ground for everything that industrialized countries reject – toxic waste, nuclear weapons tests - and now people. Lini points out that many Pacific countries like Fiji have serious internal conflicts and tensions - yet Australia is still trying to push them to accept the refugees so it can wash its hands of them.

The Howard government is using Pacific Island economies’ crises to its advantage, offering aid deals for accepting refugees. Since the Tampa crisis, over 200 mainly Iraqi asylum seekers have been transferred to Papua New Guinea from Christmas Island, one of the Australian territories now legally excised from Australia for the purposes of denying asylum-seekers landed there the right to apply for refugee status in Australia. Australia has offered Papua New Guinea at least A$1 million in exchange for use of a former remote island navy base as a site to process the asylum-seekers. Papua New Guinea’s former PM Sir Michael Somare accused the Howard government of using the Pacific as a "dumping ground for their problems".

While Australia seals its borders with its army and navy, the European Union tries to maintain and tighten "Fortress Europe" and some in Canada and the USA want to create Fortress North America, it’s worth reflecting about borders. Pushtun friends have spoken with amusement at any notion that the Durand Line between Afghanistan and Pakistan (then part of British India) in 1893 which divides their territory should actually be respected. The Canada-US border runs through Mohawk territory and that of many other Indigenous Peoples. Lesley Marmon Silko, a Laguna woman, says that the US government has "continually attempted to sever contact between the tribal people north of the border and those to the south." And the list goes on. How many of today’s conflicts which are generating an exodus of desperate people relate to the arbitrary drawing of lines on maps by colonial powers for the purposes of easier administration and economic exploitation, who have walked away with impunity and denied all responsibility for the ensuing violence and suffering?

Structural adjustment programmes and trade and investment liberalization have led to cuts in public expenditure, the erosion of education, social and welfare provisions and a raft of other austerity measures throughout the Third World. The lives and economies of the South still underwrite the standards of living for the affluent in the North. This has led to escalating poverty, environmental degradation and a growing polarization between and within countries, which in turn has led to increased migration.

The Sans-papiers movement ("illegal" immigrants without official papers) in Belgium has a slogan: "no free movement of capital without free movement of people." We should go much further than that. While there is free movement of capital, people will inevitably be forced to leave their homelands and go elsewhere. If the governments of the North are so concerned to keep people in their homelands, why do they not curb the movement of global capital and encourage the development of local economies instead ? The distinction between political and "economic" refugees is bogus. In the UK, Sivanandan argues that asylum-seekers should be allowed to work there "not because a free labour market is an imperative of globalism, but because it is globalism that deprived them of their livelihoods in the first place."

We must go beyond discussing the exploitation of migrant workers and the way in which capitalist countries use underpaid "legal" and "illegal" immigrants to put downward pressure on working conditions and wages and to undermine trade unionism. We must build alliances against the political and economic imperialism which denies people their economic, political and social rights and transforms them into refugees.

While supporting a war that is creating many more refugees, governments are itching to tighten up immigration laws, to evade their international responsibilities to accept asylum seekers, fostering false but convenient public perceptions that existing legislation is "lax" and that it is time to pull out (non-existent) welcome mats for refugees. We must fight to expose their mythmaking and lies. We must work to broaden public debate about the reasons why people risk their lives and undergo unimaginable hardships to migrate. In Canada, USA, Australia, and Aotearoa/New Zealand – and elsewhere - we must meaningfully connect with Indigenous Peoples about their concerns about immigration into their territories – something which colonial settler governments have never done. And we must root out the war hysteria and populist racism that has been given a sick veneer of respectability since September 11. Some are saying that perhaps it is time to be building new Underground Railroads, and a new sanctuary movement to protect refugees from deportation. We need to consider these strategies seriously. In the 21st century, no human being should be called "illegal".

   
   
   

 

 
   
         

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