Ten years too long: the Labor Party’s appalling record on refugees
Ten years too long: the Labor Party’s appalling record on refugees)

In June, while the stupidity of a handful of billionaires led to their deaths aboard OceanGate’s Titan submersible, the world’s governments and media devoted an incredible amount of resources to find them. Meanwhile, hundreds of refugees drowned in the Mediterranean as the Greek coastguard looked on—adding to the 20,000 recorded deaths in the crossing since 2014. 

The suffering and deaths of refugees have become normalised around the world, a process in which Australia plays a significant role. Ten years ago, on 19 July 2013, Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd announced that no asylum seeker arriving in Australia by boat would ever be allowed to settle here permanently. Despite Australia being one of the world’s richest countries, thousands of refugees were dumped in poorer third countries, particularly Papua New Guinea. The “PNG solution” was an escalation of a war on refugees that has been waged for decades, with the support of both major parties.

Rudd’s predecessor, Julia Gillard, had reopened the notorious offshore detention centres on Nauru and PNG’s Manus Island. The PNG solution made these concentration camps the destination for all refugees arriving by boat. The Liberal government of Tony Abbott, elected the same year, seized on Labor’s initiatives and expanded them into “Operation Sovereign Borders”, which used the Navy to turn back boats carrying refugees into Australian waters.

The offshore camps became a hell on earth where asylum seekers had years of their lives stolen, suffering extreme neglect and abuse without any hope of release. In 2016, the Guardian published leaked documents, dubbed “the Nauru files”, detailing more than 2,000 cases of “assaults, sexual abuse, self-harm attempts, child abuse” in Australia’s detention system. It was “a picture of routine dysfunction and cruelty”. Facilities were squalid. Some children spent most of their childhood locked away—teenagers grew into adults without ever seeing the outside world. Many detainees were driven to suicide. Others died after being denied life-saving medical care.

There was frequent violence from guards and locals, including at least one murder. Reza Berati, an Iranian Kurd, was beaten to death by guards in 2014 during protests by detainees. Another refugee survived having his throat cut. Scott Morrison, who was immigration minister at the time, tried to deflect responsibility from the Australian government, while at the same time celebrating the border regime’s success. Every refugee death in detention was a result of the barbaric conditions consciously established by successive Australian governments.

The Manus Island camp closed in 2017 after PNG’s Supreme Court deemed it illegal, but the refugees were still denied entry to Australia. Hundreds of detainees stood firm and resisted the Australian government’s attempts to be rid of them. The government responded by cutting off electricity, water and other services to the camp, attempting to starve the refugees out and get them to move to even worse accommodation—all while Peter Dutton lied in the media, accusing the refugees of having vandalised their original lodgings. They were eventually forcibly removed by the PNG police and military, but the outrageous actions of both governments, as well as the bold resistance of the refugees, drew thousands into the streets in Australia to stand in solidarity with the victims of the siege.

Today, more than 14,000 asylum seekers are stuck in Indonesia, unable to reach Australia despite being officially recognised as refugees by the United Nations. Many remain imprisoned in detention facilities across Australia, and the government continues to deport refugees to countries where they face persecution. Refugees who do manage to make it here, such as those released from hotel confinement in Melbourne and Brisbane between 2021 and 2022, have been left in limbo on temporary bridging visas. These visas provide few rights and are reviewed every six months, leaving refugees in constant uncertainty.

Australia has been an international trailblazer for barbarity when it comes to dealing with asylum seekers.

In the United States, Donald Trump enacted brutal immigration policies, many of which have continued under Joe Biden. In 2017, Trump laughed with former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull in a leaked phone call: “You’re worse than I am!”

The British government is currently attempting to implement a scheme, modelled on Australia’s offshore detention, that would deport refugees attempting to enter the UK to Rwanda, or lock them up on floating prison ships. UK prime minister Rishi Sunak has appeared next to the slogan “stop the boats”, first used by Tony Abbott in the 2013 election.

The European far-right—from the UK Independence Party’s Nigel Farage to the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party of Germany—cite “the Australian solution” as a model that their own countries should aspire to.

Some refugee supporters have tried to minimise Labor’s role in destroying the lives of refugees, arguing that the Liberal Party has been the main architect of terrible immigration policies, and that if we support Labor against the pressure of the Liberals and the Murdoch press, they’ll eventually do the right thing. Yet this attitude ignores the role Labor has played in constructing Australia’s border regime and stoking the fire of anti-refugee politics.

The offshore camps on Manus Island and Nauru were originally opened by Liberal prime minister John Howard, but the ground was laid by preceding ALP governments. Bob Hawke’s government opened the first onshore detention facility in 1991, and Paul Keating introduced mandatory detention soon after. They sought to broadcast a “clear signal ... that migration to Australia may not be achieved by simply arriving in this country and expecting to be allowed into the community”, as it was put by Keating’s immigration minister Gerry Hand in 1992.

After defeating the Liberal Party in the 2007 election, Labor closed the offshore camps for a few years. But the fundamental goal of “border protection” remained, and with the PNG solution, Labor under Rudd went further than the Liberals had ever gone.

While in opposition from 2013 to 2022, Labor spoke out during moments of brutality, like the murder of Reza Berati or the Manus siege, to score political points against the Liberals. But Labor MPs always turned out to vote with the government for mandatory offshore detention and, from 2015, for boat turnbacks. In 2019, Labor senator Kristina Keneally criticised the Liberals from the right when she gave a fearmongering speech about “plane people”, saying that the government had “lost control of the borders at our airports”. 

Now in power, the ALP has issued permanent visas to refugees who arrived before 2013. But it has denied protection to the 12,000 refugees who arrived after Rudd’s announcement. In February, home affairs minister Claire O’Neil maintained her party’s ongoing commitment to Operation Sovereign Borders, and the Albanese government passed legislation extending the use of Nauru for offshore detention with the backing of the Liberals, One Nation and the United Australia Party.

Labor can squabble with the Liberals over the exact details of Australia’s repressive approach to asylum seekers, but the two parties are equally committed to the oppressive, dehumanising and sometimes deadly immigration system.

Any political party seeking to run Australian capitalism must defend certain principles fundamental to the capitalist state. One of those is nationalism—the idea that all Australians, regardless of social class, have something fundamental in common that separates us from the rest of the world. This idea helps to obscure the fact that the rich and powerful are the ones making our lives worse—by deflecting the blame onto foreigners. Migrants and refugees are taking your job and making it impossible for you to buy a house, so they say. This makes refugees, who have had to flee the states to which they “belong”, one of the most oppressed groups in our society. They are easy targets for politicians looking to whip up racist hatred to help them win elections, build their own power and preserve the legitimacy of their system.

Yet the oppression of refugees can also provoke inspiring resistance. In 2002, refugee supporters travelled into the desert to protest outside the Woomera detention centre in South Australia, helping several refugees escape in a mass breakout. Those trapped on Manus and Nauru frequently protested their situation, inspiring thousands to march in solidarity on the streets of Australia’s major cities. When some of these refugees were transferred on medical grounds to hotel prisons in Melbourne and Brisbane, protests inside and outside the hotels took place on a daily and weekly basis.

A mass campaign supported the family of Tamil refugees Priya and Nades, who were kidnapped from their homes by Australian Border Force in 2018. Priya’s heroic refusal to let the government deport them to Sri Lanka, as well as the work of activists from their hometown of Biloela, Queensland, and from the Tamil Refugee Council, won massive public support for the family. After years of demonisation and abuse from the likes of Peter Dutton, they were granted permanent visas last year.

Both Liberal and Labor governments have made concessions over the years—releasing some refugees while maintaining the system overall. The campaign to free Priya, Nades and their children shows that it is possible to build mass solidarity with refugees, despite decades of hatred from politicians and the media.

Thanks to the Rudd Labor government, thousands of refugees have been waiting ten long years to be granted their basic rights. Albanese’s government is refusing to do so. But we need to keep fighting for these people, as well as the many others who wish to seek safety in Australia, regardless of which party is in office.

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