In recent weeks we have seen an increase in the number of Sri Lankan Tamils seeking asylum in Australia. Most of these people have been travelling by boat via Indonesia and Malaysia. This has put the refugee issue back on the main stage for the first time since the 2004 Federal election.
When the Rudd Labor Government came to power in November 2007, many people expected a more humane approach towards people fleeing persecution but it seems once again Rudd is proving to be little different to his predecessor Howard.
The Labor Party – like the Coalition – is happy to play to the worst racial prejudices of some layers of the population and thereby deflect attention away from the economic crisis. The contradiction between Rudd encouraging an Australian population of 35 million, yet saying ‘No’ to a relative handful of refugees has been lost on the mainstream media.
In early November a boat carrying Tamil asylum seekers sank near the Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean. Tragically 12 people are missing feared drowned. At the same time Rudd is refusing to allow several other groups of Tamil asylum seekers from Sri Lanka permission to land on Australian soil. He recently stated: “I make absolutely no apology whatsoever for taking a hard line on illegal immigration to Australia.”
In an attempt to prove his hard line credentials, Rudd has pressured Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to accept 78 Sri Lankans for processing in Indonesia. These people were aboard a boat picked up by Australian authorities in an Indonesian search and rescue area on their way to Australia. At the moment all 78 remain on the Australian customs ship Oceanic Viking off Tanjung Pinang and are refusing to leave.
Just prior to this incident, the Indonesian navy intercepted another boat carrying 255 Sri Lankans also heading for Australia. This vessel is now moored in Merak, West Java and its passengers are also refusing to disembark. Rudd is currently demanding that the Tamils be dealt with by Indonesia despite the fact that Indonesia has refused to sign international refugee conventions.
These people have explained that the reason they are refusing to leave their boats is because they fear being locked up in Indonesia. Detention centres in Indonesia are hell
holes that are dirty and overcrowded. It has been reported that in previous cases even people who have been deemed refugees by the UN have been detained in Indonesia for years on end. These people want nothing more than to come to Australia in the hope that they will be afforded some basic human rights.
The rise in the number of people seeking asylum in Australia coincides with a growth of people fleeing conflicts in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. It is estimated that almost three-quarters of Australia’s refugees come from these two countries.
In Sri Lanka the situation facing the Tamil minority is dire. Since the government declared the end of the war in May 2009 over 300,000 people have been forcefully detained in concentration-style camps and denied the right to return to their homes.
Among those incarcerated, without proper access to food, shelter and medicine, are more than 30,000 children. While the government was prepared to pour an estimated $5 million per day into its war effort, little is spent to protect those in the camps against the oncoming monsoon floods which threaten a humanitarian catastrophe.
While the Rajapakse regime in Sri Lanka continues the brutal oppression of the Tamil people, the Rudd Government in Australia offers him unconditional support. The 2009-10 Australian budget estimate for aid to Sri Lanka is $35 million. It is highly unlikely that any of this will get to the Tamils in need.
Rudd has not only supported Rajapakse in his war against the Tamils but he has also contributed to the war effort in Afghanistan. At the moment about 1550 Australian troops are serving in Afghanistan. These troops are only fuelling the Taliban insurgency which is leading to more and more people having to flee their homes. Not only is Rudd refusing to act in a humane way towards the victims of these conflicts but he is contributing to the root causes of the refugee problem.
Recent surveys have suggested that high numbers of Australians are concerned about the economy and about asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat. While socialists understand that people want to maintain their standard of living, we also have to be clear that it is not asylum seekers that are undermining our living conditions.
It has not been refugees that have been sacking people, cutting hours or reducing services. It has not been asylum seekers who have been refusing pay rises, putting up interest rates and increasing prices. It has been the bosses and the profiteers who have decided that it will be ordinary people who will pay the price for the economic downturn.
In Australia it is working people that are bearing the brunt of the capitalist crisis. Similarly in Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and around the world it is ordinary people who are suffering because of a system that creates war and poverty by putting profits before all else.
The facts are that boat people make up less than 0.01% of all new arrivals to Australia. The numbers of people coming to Australia by boat are tiny compared with the 14,000 “unlawful non-citizens” who, authorities say, came to Australia in 2007-08 after arriving by air and overstaying their visas.
This is why Rudd’s refugee policy is racist. Fundamentally Labor’s immigration policies are the same as Howard’s. Both Labor, and Coalition governments in the past, have tried to divert attention away from their anti-working class agendas and have used the tiny numbers of boat people as a political football. While Howard was quite open about discriminating against people, Rudd claims to be “tough” but “humane”. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The Socialist Party stands in solidarity with the Tamil refugees who are refusing to leave the boats in Indonesia. We salute your brave stand and call on workers and trade unions in Australia and Indonesia to support your struggle. We also support the stance taken by some Australian trade unions, supporting the refugees and calling on Rudd to take a more humane approach. We in the Socialist Party go further, however.
We demand that the Rudd Government allow the Tamil asylum seekers to immediately come to Australia and be processed as genuine refugees. They should not be detained but should be supported by the government. The current detention policy must be completely abolished. This includes off-shore processing and the closure of all detention centres including Christmas Island.
While we will do all we can to support refugees and campaign against discriminatory immigration laws, we also have to be clear that ultimately it is the capitalist system that creates war, poverty and refugees. The system allows capital to move freely across borders while ordinary people are forced to stay where they can be best exploited.
A socialist system that was based on public ownership, planning and democratic control would produce things on the basis of human need and not private profit. This would allow us to provide jobs, homes and food for all – including refugees. Poverty and want could be eliminated and war and environmental destruction would become a thing of the past.
We urge Australian workers to not only stand in solidarity with the Tamil asylum seekers but to join us in the fight against capitalism and war.