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issue 60, October 2001

Australian refugee controversy

AS THE Afghan refugee crisis unfolded, Australia's premier John Howard showed the same callousness to the boat people as he has done in the past to the wharfies (when he attempted to break the dockworkers' union), to the rights of Aboriginal people, and to workers generally who face a lack of jobs, public housing shortages and growing hospital queues.

With parties linked to the federal coalition government having suffered heavy defeats in three state elections this year (in Western Australia, Queensland and, in August, the Northern Territory), Howard wants to divert attention in the run-up to this year's general election away from the real enemy: privatisation, capitalist greed, right-wing cost-cutting governments, and capitalist globalisation.

This month at the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Brisbane, Howard will no doubt wax lyrical about globalisation, free trade and capital movement, and how it should be embraced. When it comes to the movement of people, however, Howard shuts the doors and plays the nationalist, racist card. Immigration minister Philip Ruddock let the cat out of the bag during his recent visit to Jakarta when he said Australia would eventually accept people who had 'significant linkages' to Australia. This would give Australia the most closed borders in the Western world, if that is not already the case.

The opposition Australian Labour Party (ALP), led by Kim Beazley, is supporting the government 99.9%. Historically the ALP supported the 'White Australia' immigration policy (abandoned in 1966), to divide workers in the region and keep capitalism safe. It was the ALP government in 1992 under Bob Hawke that began the policy of mandatory detention of asylum seekers in camps.


The hate campaign against the refugees and boat people is disgusting. The Afghani refugees, for example, were fleeing a Taliban regime that even Murdoch's Australian newspaper admitted was 'caused by Western policy... all through the 1980s, Washington gave massive support to the mujaheddin, from which the Taliban sprang, in their anti-Soviet resistance'.

The mainly Sunni Muslim Taliban have oppressed their political opponents, women, Shi'ite Muslims, Christians, Hazaras, Tajiks and Uzbeks. Over five million people have fled the country - a tiny number of whom make it to Australia. There are no 'queues' to jump outside a Western consulate in Afghanistan! You flee or die.

Howard's attempt to excise Christmas Island and Ashmore Reef from the mainland in terms of asylum law is unparalleled in world history. (Why don't they follow this logic through and exempt all industrial estates in Australia from health and safety laws?!) Yet this law change to suit Howard, and the clear case of sea piracy committed by the government when they sent the navy onto the Tampa (the Norwegian freighter carrying the refugees in international waters), exposes capitalist law as something that, at the end of the day, is there to serve the needs of the ruling class. The law is flouted when 'necessary' by the government and then used to its full power against militant unions, anti-capitalists and other protest movements.

The vast amounts of money spent by the government on this racist exercise shows the aims are political not economic. Some workers think this is about protecting 'jobs and scarce resources'. In reality, Howard cares nothing for workers' jobs, wages and conditions. He spent $50,000 per Tampa refugee in the first eight days of the crisis keeping them offshore. This is more than three years' unemployment benefit! It costs $105 a day to keep someone in a detention centre; $3 million a day is being spent on the military involvement in the crisis. The ruling class, however, is split on this issue. The more far-sighted sections oppose Howard, fearing a big anti-racist backlash in the next period, especially from young people. They also worry about the crisis undermining the position of Australian capitalism in East Asia.


The foreign correspondent of the Australian newspaper, Greg Sheridan, railed against 'the government (which) has managed to mobilise and inflame public opinion against Muslims and refugees from the Middle East and Afghanistan. What a triumph of leadership. What a way to try to win an election'. The Financial Review spoke of Howard's 'weasel words about Australia's warmth' while his government 'is prepared to use human beings as pawns in its domestic electoral struggle'. Howard's policy, they continued, 'cannot disguise the damage to Australia's global reputation and to vital regional foreign policy interests, particularly Australia's still raw and sensitive relations with Indonesia'.

In any event Howard's policy will not stop the flow of refugees. People smuggling - now a $10 billion a year global industry - rests on the misery created by imperialism and globalisation: 400,000 Albanians fleeing to Italy, 5.5 million 'illegal' Central Americans in the USA, millions of north Africans in Spain, 600,000 'illegal' workers in Malaysia, and so on. Indonesia has been cool on Canberra's desperate requests for help in stopping refugees before they leave their Indonesian 'stepping stone'. An Indonesian police chief recently denounced the policy agreed in 1997 with Australia of detaining refugees in Indonesia as 'a great burden for us (that) tends to benefit Australia'. In any event in the next period hundreds of thousands of internal refugees from Aceh, West Papua and elsewhere will attempt to come to Australia. Indonesia will be part of John Howard's problem, not a solution.


Because of the policy of the Labour Party, and the head-in-the-sand attitude of most union leaders to this crisis, many workers - even industrially militant workers - have been confused. Socialists have to explain the issues involved from a class perspective. While socialists support the freedom of movement of all peoples, this on its own would not cut it with many workers because it does not answer their fears. Australia is not 'full up'. The problem is unfair distribution of wealth, not scarcity of resources. What is needed is a programme that links the issue to the question of jobs and how a future for all can be achieved.

We must fight for a guaranteed job for all workers, including refugees. This must be linked to a militant strategy against job cuts, nationalisation of ailing companies like Ansett, and a socialist plan for the economy. Unity in struggle, not blaming fellow workers and victims, must be our approach.

We must support the boat people as refugees from regimes that have been backed by our enemies here in Australia - Howard and the ruling class. They are our allies in the fight for a decent future for us and our children, not a threat.

Stephen Jolly

An edited version of an article in Voice, the paper of the Socialist Party, the Australian section of the CWI

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