The Liberals’ trashing of refugee rights requires an uncompromising response. Every attempt to make concessions – to be “more reasonable”, to water down our demands – strengthens the position of those who want to keep refugees out.
As an example, born-again refugee advocate Malcolm Fraser’s response to former PM Rudd’s PNG solution was to suggest that the government should have tried to share the “burden” of resettling asylum seekers with the US and Canada. Anti-refugee journalist Bernard Keane responded, “[A]s Fraser admits, the numbers of asylum seekers are greater than Australia can manage.”
QC and refugee advocate Julian Burnside recently offered another “reasonable” solution: “If politicians are obsessed with the idea that asylum seekers must be kept in detention then that could be legally satisfied by declaring the island of Tasmania a place of detention … allow the asylum seekers to live in the community in Tasmania. They would still legally be in detention.”
There are a lot of problems with this clever idea. Most notably, it concedes that refugees should have fewer rights than people already living here.
I’ve got nothing against Tasmania, but why should refugees be confined there? Perhaps anticipating this objection, Burnside went on to say his Tasmania idea was an extension of a “less ironic” proposal to require refugees to live in designated rural or regional areas, where they could boost struggling local economies by spending Centrelink benefits.
Tasmanian Council of Social Services chief executive Tony Reidy put the economic argument more bluntly: “We need instant action to keep Tasmania’s builders, shopkeepers and other small businesses gainfully employed.” So refugees’ right to freedom should be dependent on whether someone can make money from them?
Yet it is already clear that a desire to save money has nothing to do with why governments are locking up refugees and trying to keep them out of the country. They are prepared to spend billions of dollars, at an average annual cost of over $160,000 per person. With economic uncertainty and rising unemployment, scapegoats are worth their weight in gold.
Ceding ground doesn’t help establish some middle ground – it just helps shift everything further to the right. Year after year, with only a few exceptions, refugee policy has gotten progressively worse. As it has, new precedents that previously would have been rejected become normalised.
We need to pull things back in the other direction. As the chant popularised during the reign of the last Liberal government goes: “Open the borders, close the camps, free the refugees.”