Opinion: The Crime of Mandatory Detention and the Struggle for Refugee Rights

The UNSW Anti-Racism Club welcomes the High Court’s decision to overturn the government’s racist Malaysian deal at the end of August. The 330 refugees awaiting deportation on Christmas Island had a brief moment of relief when the High Court passed down its decision. This decision is a tribute to the lawyers who took up the case, but more importantly to the people who have come out in protest, time and again, against Australia’s detention archipelago. The refugees, who have taken a stand inside detention, whether it was protesting, going on hunger strike or rioting, have brought attention to their desperate situation.

The UNSW Anti-Racism club will now be devoting our efforts to fighting until we get rid of mandatory detention root and branch. Bowen has come out and indicated that he will pursue even more reactionary policies than the Malaysian Solution. Bowen has supported the policy of mandatory detention time and again, which is the policy that is at the heart of Australia’s failed refugee system. He also refuses to rule out reintroducing Howard’s evil “Temporary Protection Visas.”

We must not forget that it was a Labor government under Keating which first brought in mandatory detention in 1992, and it received bi-partisan support from the Liberals. The Labor Left in the Keating Cabinet, Immigration Minister Nick Bolkus warned people arriving by boat, “Our message to you is that you won’t have a chance.” Over the past 19 years both the ALP and the Liberals have tried to out-racist each other when it comes to the issue of refugees. They place them in detention centres, many of which are hundreds or thousands of kilometres away from any town or city so that the government can alienate these people from the majority of the population. The government has the ability to whip up racism and essentially dehumanise these people in order to justify keeping them locked up inside these concentration camps. This is why they put them so far away, As the saying goes ‘out of sight, out of mind.’

Refugees are some of the most vulnerable people on the planet. The vast majority of refugees coming to Australia are coming from Afghanistan, Iran and Ski Lanka. In Afghanistan there is a horrible war happening which has blown their society up into a million pieces. Not only are the people of Afghanistan occupied by foreign forces (which Australia is still taking part in, – even though the majority of Australians want the troops to be brought home). They are also brutally murdered by the Taliban. Most people who come from Iran are political people with opposing political to the regime are likely to be either murdered or tortured by the state. The refugees coming from Sri Lanka are generally Tamil, since 2009 the Sri Lankan army has carried out a systematic genocide on the Tamil people. The Australian government backs the Sri Lankan government. These situations directly create refugees.

In June 2010 there were 3760 refugees in detention and since then the figure has grown continually. In June this year there are 5,880 in detention (April 2011 there were 7,000 in detention). There are still 991 children in detention including 513 in ‘community detention,’ despite all of the government’s promises to remove the children. The average period in detention is now an appalling 316 days which is up from 214 days only 6 months ago. From June 2010 to June 2011 there was a 240 per cent increase in medical issues in detention, from incidents of self harm to the effects of hunger strikes. I believe the situation has returned to the dark days of the Howard era.

The UNSW Anti-Racist Club welcomed the August Nielsen poll. In a rebuff to the policies of both Labor and the Coalition, only 28 per cent of poll respondents said people arriving by boat should be sent to another country to be processed, while 53 per cent favoured assessing them in Australia. Fifteen per cent said they should be sent back to sea. 32 per cent opposed mandatory detention. These results prove that politicians of all stripes are the ones who whip up and create racist ideas, not ordinary people. The ALP is a huge organisation in society with a lot of power, but instead of undermining racism they whip it up. These polices serve the interests of the rich and powerful in Australia and there is nothing automatic in their acceptance. It is wonderfully heartening, with both Labor and Liberal braying on about where in the world they would like to deport refugees to, that only 28 per cent support this.

Dave Clark

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