Refugee policy ought to be driven by human solidarity, generosity and profound respect for those who have escaped persecution and attempted to save their own and their family’s lives.

In Australia, instead of being welcomed, they are met with still more oppression.

Abbott beats his chest about the need for the military to “protect” the borders. Those in power want us to believe that this fortress Australia is all about keeping us safe. They also tell us that they need to punish and deter refugees from coming, that it’s the only way to stop the needless deaths at sea.

But if the government really wanted to save lives, it could do a few simple things.

The first would be to stop ignoring distress signals coming from refugee boats. One survivor of a vessel that sank off the coast of Java in September told Farifax media, “We wait two hours; we wait 24 hours, and we kept calling them, ‛we don’t have food, we don’t have water for three days, we have children, just rescue us’. And nobody come. Sixty person dead now because of Australian government.”

Don’t believe him? Then read former Australian diplomat Tony Kevin’s books A Certain Maritime Incident and Reluctant Rescuers. They not only show the systematic refusal of the Australian Maritime Authority to follow the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, but also piece together chilling evidence of the Australian Federal Police’s “disruption” activities in Indonesia, which include tampering with vessels to make them unseaworthy.

Better yet, the government could stop making it next to impossible for refugees to seek asylum through alternative means. Refugees turn to people smugglers and risk everything on the boat journey because safer pathways – namely air travel – are closed to them.

Since the 1980s, governments across the world have introduced carriers’ liability laws that fine airlines for every passenger who travels without valid documentation and appropriate entry visas. The circumstances that drive refugees to flee their homeland often preclude obtaining valid passports. It is for this reason that the UN Refugee Convention stipulates that no asylum seeker should be penalised for how they enter a country to apply for asylum.

When it comes to Australian travel visas, ethnic Hazara from Afghanistan or Pakistan, oppressed minorities from Iran and so on need not apply. They’re considered too “high risk” – i.e. they might engage Australia’s humanitarian obligations.

Heavy restrictions on the freedom of movement for people around the world don’t apply to everyone. For $5 million, the Department of Immigration will cut a special deal and fast track permanent residency applications.

There are different rules for the world’s working class and poor. Governments want migration. Population growth is considered essential for a growing economy. Sixty percent of Australia’s population growth is currently driven by migration, but the rich want it to happen on their terms. They want to pick and choose who can come, which skills sets can be exploited, while conceding as few rights as possible for those workers – think 457 visas.

National borders are useful for the wealthy in other ways. In order to construct an image of the nation in which bosses and workers supposedly share interests, foreign workers or refugees are portrayed as competitors or threats rather than our natural allies in the fight for a better world

Not only does disunity make it harder for us to defend our living conditions from the bosses’ attacks. The torturous treatment of refugees sets a disturbing new standard in society of how human beings can be treated. In the era of law and order campaigns, rolling back civil liberties and shrinking welfare, standing with refugees is not only a moral question – we all have a stake in it.

What’s the alternative?

The government spends more than $8 billion annually on its cruel refugee policies. Private contractors from security firm Serco to the Salvos rake in millions to oversee this grand abuse. This money could be spent on funding our education system and building new public housing or massively upgrading our public transport systems.

It could also go to providing a decent, dignified life for asylum seekers at a fraction of the cost.

Australia is the only country in the world with a policy of mandatory and indefinite detention for all “unauthorised arrivals”. It wasn’t always this way. Between 1948 and 1992, Australia resettled 452,000 refugees. All were processed in the community. It wasn’t until the Keating Labor government that the descent into barbarism started.

During the conservative Fraser Liberal government of the mid-1970s, tens of thousands of Vietnamese asylum seekers were brought to Australia. They weren’t detained but housed in transitional hostels.

Fraser wasn’t the great humanitarian he poses as today. His government labelled boat arrivals as “queue-jumpers” and enlisted regional governments to stop the boats from coming. Indeed, most Vietnamese who resettled in Australia were selected from refugee camps in Thailand and Malaysia.

Nonetheless, the thousands who did arrive in Australia by boat were for the most part housed in migrant hostels. Here they could access free English classes, financial support and trauma counselling. Nurses were on site and doctors visited regularly.

At the Maribrynong Migrant Hostel in Melbourne, there was a childcare centre, grassy areas and a sand pit for children. Many of the outside walls were decorated with murals – windmills and tulips by Dutch migrants and an Asian scene painted by Vietnamese migrants to make the surroundings more hospitable. Most importantly, they had freedom of movement and the right to work.

Racism and exploitative working conditions in the factories made life difficult. And there was conflict over the right to cook their own food. But the memories of this generation of Vietnamese refugees of their first years in this country will be markedly different from the darkness and pain that surround today’s refugees. Many will be too broken by their experiences in Australian detention centres ever to recover.

Unlike Abbott’s “buy back the boats” idiocy, alternatives to detention are not some harebrained scheme. But they will be won only with a mighty fight against the powerful. As the late British activist Hetty Bower put it: “We may not win – but if we don’t protest, we will lose.”

We all lose when they can get away with brutalising refugees.