Labor sets the agenda on refugee torture

5 April 2024
Maria Dabbas

The Albanese government is attempting to introduce legislation that would allow for the prosecution of refugees who try to prevent their own deportation. The proposed laws would also allow the government to stop processing the visa applications of citizens from countries that do not accept refugees involuntarily deported from Australia.

Under the proposed Migration Amendment (Removal and Other Measures) Bill, asylum seekers would face mandatory jail time of anywhere from one to five years and/or a fine of $93,000 for not complying with government directives to deport them back to their home countries. The draft bill acknowledges that there may be some “reasonable excuses” for non-compliance, but states that genuine fear of persecution is not one of them.

In a press conference last week, Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil said that the amendment would apply only to asylum seekers who have “exhausted every legal option” to stay in Australia.

But Labor’s own national platform admits that the current screening processes used to assess asylum seekers’ claims are not “fair, thorough and robust”. People facing persecution have already been denied refugee status and deported, or placed on temporary visas that will be the target of any new legislation.

The Refugee Council of Australia has expressed concern that Labor’s bill will likely lead to the deportation of refugees “who have strong claims, but have not had a fair hearing or review”. What’s more, there is every chance that the legislation, if passed, will apply to people who have had their refugee status successfully recognised by the Australian government.

According to the explanatory memorandum accompanying the draft bill, “it may be necessary to revisit the protection finding” of refugees when “the circumstances of the person or the country in relation to which a protection finding has been made have changed”. It’s as if being a refugee, from this perspective, is tantamount to a holiday, and deportation threatens all those who overstay their welcome.

Even more alarming is the proposed introduction of ministerial powers to designate “removal concern countries”. This bureaucratic euphemism means outright bans on protection applications from any citizens of countries that will not accept involuntarily deported refugees. If implemented, the measure would effectively make the capacity for involuntary deportation the yardstick of Australian refugee policy.

Although the bill passed the lower house, opposition from the Greens and the Liberals blocked its progress in the Senate, resulting in a six-week inquiry due to conclude in May. This is a setback for Albanese’s government, which had hoped to ram through the legislation before the High Court meets on 17 April to make further rulings on the legality of indefinite detention.

Since the High Court ruled against indefinite detention last November, anti-refugee racism has yet again returned to the centre of Australian politics. Under the leadership of Peter Dutton, the Liberals have unleashed a rabid political campaign casting refugees freed from detention as criminals and sexual predators. In response, the Labor Party has pioneered draconian restrictions on the formerly detained refugees.

With another High Court case on refugee detention looming, the Labor Party is now designing more repressive legislation to pre-empt and mitigate further right-wing, racist political attacks from the Liberals. Greens federal Senator David Shoebridge claims that the Labor government is “trying to outflank the Coalition to the right, in a cruel contest they can never win”. But in the cruel contest of refugee torture, the Labor Party is not just a half-hearted participant; it is a conscious co-creator.

Long-term refugee activists and refugees have learnt this first-hand. For Aran Mylvaganam, a member of the Tamil Refugee Council, Labor’s new legislation is sickening, but not surprising.

“Labor is always like this”, he told Red Flag. “They try to make themselves look good, but they end up behaving exactly like the Liberals—if not worse.”

That the Labor Party maintains the support of significant community organisations adds insult to injury. “If the Liberals were to introduce something like this, more people would already be on the streets fighting”, Mylvaganam said. “But instead, there are many organisations providing cover to the Labor Party or maintaining silence about them.”

The proposed legislation should shatter any illusion that the Labor Party is a friend of refugees. With anti-refugee racism likely to strengthen as the High Court challenge to indefinite detention continues, it’s time to reinvigorate grassroots activism for refugee rights and against the decades-long bipartisan torture regime.

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