Australia has a border protection problem. It is not that the border is too porous: fewer than 16,000 people have travelled here by boat this year. That’s a tiny fraction of the estimated 15 million refugees struggling to survive around the globe.

The problem is the pervasive idea that it needs “protecting” at all. This isn’t just an Australian problem. Governments all around the world are placing greater restrictions on human movement, therefore on human rights. We’re told that restrictions are needed for security. Yet a cursory glance shows that those with the greatest freedoms pose the greatest threat to the majority of the population.

Banking and mining company executives with a record of environmental destruction and gross exploitation, heads and former heads of government who are guilty of war crimes – parasites who live off the back of human suffering – have welcome mats laid out for them because they have the resources to buy their way into almost any country. Our world is their oyster.

One example of how the system works is Australia’s subclass 188 visa – open to anyone with at least $5 million. There are just over 1 million people in the world – 1.4 percent of the total population – with that amount of money. Their fortunes are built through exploitation.

Similar provisions exist in almost every country, allowing the ruling class free movement. And not just of ruling class individuals. Companies that have an interest only in exploiting natural resources or cheap labour get free rein.

For workers and the poor, however, the borders are generally shut. We have fewer freedoms than multinational companies. This isn’t done for the safety of the mass of the population; it is about controlling labour flows in the interests of the rich. When governments can control the movement of human beings and choose who is deserving of rights, it is easier for the wealthy to exploit workers everywhere.

So workers and the poor in all countries have an interest in fighting for refugee rights. We need fewer restrictions, not more. When workers and the poor come seeking a better life and when people want sanctuary from oppression, we say “Let them in.”

The ‘race to the bottom’ is driven from the top

Racism is a tool for dividing workers and the poor. It is being used to great effect by a so-called workers’ party.

Labor polling indicates that there is a section of swing voters who want asylum seekers kicked in the teeth, and who are more likely to vote for the party that kicks harder. That, apparently, is reason enough for the parliamentarians to put on the steel-caps.

Everything we hear about this constituency suggests that the anti-refugee vote is self-generating – as though people in particular areas have a natural fear or hatred of people in boats. That is rubbish. Anti-refugee sentiment in sections of the population is the product of years of anti-refugee racism that has come from politicians, the media and others at the top of society.

In part, anti-refugee rhetoric has been used to justify the increasing militarisation of borders and greater surveillance of the population as a whole. In an age when market forces penetrate every sphere of existence, when there are increasing levels of anxiety and general feelings of powerlessness, the audience for those promising security from “alien forces” has no doubt increased.

 The ALP, rather than fight for the rights of asylum seekers, has time and again attempted to make the big parties’ refugee policies almost indistinguishable, so that the electorate is forced to differentiate between them on other issues.

Previously – such as with the introduction of mandatory detention by the Keating government and Gillard’s attempted “Malaysian solution” – Labor has even led the charge in demonising the vulnerable.

Yet by sinking to ever more disgraceful levels, the party never neutralised “refugees” as a political issue. Instead it helped to legitimise and generate ever greater levels of racism, which in turn helped to keep the issue alive.

Apart from a two-year period immediately after Rudd’s election in 2007, border security and boat arrivals have been prominent in the “who do you trust” rhetoric of the Coalition. The ALP’s PNG deal is an attempt to outflank the conservatives again.

Labor parliamentarians intend to preserve their own political lives by extinguishing the rights of others. Indeed, they look ready to send them to hell if it will neutralise the Coalition.

Whether or not they are successful is beside the point. That it is even being attempted proves that the short term electoral interests of the party are considered by ministers more important than human rights.