A shameful chapter in Australian history is being revisited as the government clamps down on refugees, writes James Supple
Australia’s Labour government is set to bring back the notorious anti-refugee policies of the previous John Howard government.
Asylum seekers trying to make their way to Australia by boat will again be sent to detention camps on remote Pacific islands in Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
After 2001, refugees were left there for up to five years. In isolation, imprisoned 3,000 kilometres from the Australian mainland, mental health problems among asylum seekers exploded.
Former UN Human Rights Commission secretary John Pace reported in 2001, “Conditions are harsh, with the heat and the humidity in the upper thirties, and health conditions are basic.”
The media talks of a “surge” in boat arrivals. But the 8,000 arrivals this year are just 4 percent of the country’s migration intake.
The return of the notorious “Pacific Solution” is the appalling outcome of Labour’s efforts to compete with the conservatives over who can best “stop the boats”. In some ways its plans for asylum seekers are worse than those of the conservatives.
Refugees will be left in limbo in the Pacific for years. The government has vowed they will wait as long as those in refugee camps in countries such as Malaysia and Jordan, where people can wait decades for resettlement.
It still hopes to get agreement to deport refugee boat arrivals to Malaysia. Asylum seekers there risk imprisonment and torture, and don’t have the right to work or access to schools.
Labour has tried to use a series of drownings to put a humanitarian gloss on its policy against the boats. But the deaths of 90 asylum seekers in June were caused by the Australian search and rescue service’s disregard for refugee lives.
It did nothing to help their boat for 36 hours after learning it was in trouble. The government has put “border security” above lives.
Two years ago Labour scored its lowest vote in a general election since 1931. It clung onto minority government, but its support has since plunged further.
Labour’s response to its crisis is to veer right. Senior figures have denounced the Green Party to their left and hardened their stand against same-sex marriage and refugees.
Meanwhile Australia’s mining boom continues, powered by exports to China. The unemployment level is just 5.2 per cent, far below that of the US and much of Europe. Labour never tires of pointing this out.
Yet Labour’s desperation to please big business has made it incapable of delivering for its working class supporters. Instead of taxing the mining companies’ multi-billion dollar profits to boost public services, Labour sat down with the mining bosses to negotiate a modest tax.
Ministers would rather attack mining workers for “improvements in wages and conditions which are unsustainable over time”.
As the mining boom shows signs of slowing, thousands are now losing their jobs. Unpopular Labour state governments have recently been toppled by the conservatives, who have begun axing jobs and services.
Now the national Labour government’s restoration of the Pacific Solution has brought an angry reaction from within its own ranks and the wider refugee campaign.
With an election due next year, its refugee-bashing is paving the way for the election of a conservative government committed to even more savage austerity and racist policies.
James Supple is based in Sydney and is a member of Australian socialist organisation Solidarity